Photo: Nick Karp

Al Scorch: Circle Round the Signs

Chicago-based and smarter than most, Al Scorch gives us a record that feels genuine, touching and wise.
Al Scorch
Circle Round the Signs

Al Scorch writes some damn beautiful and smart songs. He plays the banjo but ain’t no hillbilly caricature. When he sings he sometimes sounds like one of those guys who’d show up at protests and rallies to cheer on the weary and the workers. At the same time, you know he lives in a time once graced by Jason Molina. Scorch has some of that purity about him, sounding like a soul too fragile for the weight of this world. He conveys a lifetime of pain and injustice within five minutes’ time during “Poverty Draft”, a moving lament that suggests the poor are always with us. Until, of course, they’re sent off to die in a foreign land.

It’s not the kind of song you’d expect at this moment in time. It feels like one that’s always been with us, written by the earth and whispered into one singer’s ear, then handed down for generations to come. Those are difficult though not impossible to come by. John Prine laid a few out on his debut album, including “Sam Stone”, the story of a Vietnam vet who came back to the world a junkie. Like Prine, Scorch has a poet’s tongue and his gift for transforming the simple to the profound.

He’s good enough at it that his take on Woody Guthrie’s “Slipknot” feels entirely like his own. It’s an excellent metaphor for our times. The burdens of debt, racism, ridicule and the rest have slid ‘round our necks for good and we’re told the story in language that seems like a tale delivered by a benevolent uncle. Perhaps that’s what lends an extra ounce of what some would call authenticity to this affair. Scorch has done his homework. He seems like the kind of guy who knows that Bill Monroe was forward thinking despite coming from and singing about the country. He also seems to know that singing about heartbreak and hangovers in thick layers of irony won’t last forever, so instead he opts for sincerity.

“Lost at Sea” celebrates the news that a friend thought dead has survived. “Pennsylvania Turnpike” finds us in the company of a man with an urge for going. “Lonesome Low” says more in the two words that comprise its hook than some songs say in 40 verses. It’s not just a feeling, of course, it’s also a place and one you can get to whether you’re looking for it or not. What some are quick to categorize as a punk influence comes out in the breakneck bluegrass of “Want One” and an appreciation for jazz and blues makes itself apparent via “Insomnia” before bursting into bright-burning flames of speed and aggression then finds its way back again.

It’s hard to predict an artist’s future and genuine enthusiasm can sometimes be too boisterous and evolve into hype. But Scorch’s genuine voice and ability to deliver clear-eyed observations and songs that appeal to the hophead and the hillbilly is worth noting. No matter who or what he’s actually singing about we can’t help but feel that it’s about us. Those kinds of singers and their songs endure. Scorch is one of those.

RATING 7 / 10