By Jon Sobel, BLOGCRITICS.ORG Published 10:00 pm, Friday, January 30, 2015
Eatin’ at Me, Gurf Morlix’s new album of all original songs, is a beautifully produced work of dusty Americana. It opens with a gritty minor-key punch to the gut, the presumably autobiographical mini-epic “Dirty Old Buffalo,” which paints a historical panorama of Buffalo NY with reminiscences about a musician’s life there around the 1970s. Morlix was in fact “Born in Lackawanna” outside Buffalo, as a song by that name – one with a heavily personal flavor – declares later on the album.
Morlix, whom I’ve written about before, is a top-flight musician, songwriter, and producer. He backed up Lucinda Williams for many years, and has worked with Warren Zevon, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and an assortment of other roots-music honorables. He memorialized an early collaborator, songwriter Blaze Foley, by recording an album of Foley’s songs not long ago. But I like him better on his own songs, and this is the best Gurf Morlix album I’ve heard yet. “Find your passion, dare it to kill you/Grab the wheel, drive till you die,” he intones in the confessional-sounding “Grab the Wheel” – good metaphors for a head-on yet somehow slant-minded approach to life and art.
With its short, hollow lyrical lines and grim, sliding guitar chords, the insistent story song “Elephant’s Graveyard” could be a ballad off one of Bob Dylan’s 21st century albums. And like Dylan, Morlix uses his voice like a small child with a paintbrush, not concerned for subtleties. He deploys his gravelly baritone in staccato bursts and records it with minimal reverb and other effects. The resulting up-front vocal quality often verges on a sneer, a good analogue for the sly negativity of most of the lyrics. Yet his delivery always carries a gritty sensitivity as well.
None of that makes the album a downer. The sustained tension and tightly controlled release built into the songs and arrangements keeps the energy level high, even when the tempos are slow, as they often are. In the bluesy “The Dog I Am” the songwriter takes the canine viewpoint with a vengeance: “Now I ain’t your average pup/I like you just fine but I know which way is up/And one of these days I’m gonna scram/Like the dog I am.”
And he follows up that slice of redolent mud with the album’s most lyrical piece, “50 Years,” in which a man approaching old age recalls his youth as a girl-shy aspiring musician hanging out with his friends. “I used to love the sound that time made rushing by my ears/Now it’s gone by in the blink of an eye, and it’s been 50 years.” Anyone wading through his or her second half-century is likely to be able to identify with that, and anyone of any age can appreciate the song’s honeyed melancholy.
“My pride is in a puddle on the floor/I’m roughly escorted to the door,” sings the narrator of “Last Call.” But in these incisive songs Morlix’s narrators are always finding a way back in, whether through melody, metaphor, reminiscence, or just the howl of a sweet, raunchy guitar.