Thursday, February 4, 2010

Grace Under Water

It's a beautiful and desperate world...

I got an email a while back asking me to listen to a new album by Paul Dougherty. So I did what I always do when I get emails like that -- I sprung into action. And did nothing for a few months... until I was cleaning out my inbox yesterday.

I didn't really have high hopes -- but Dougherty's bio was interesting enough to make me give the music a listen. For the record, Paul Dougherty was born in Houston (where his dad sang soul music and played the Hammond organ) and grew up in Nashville (where his father became a session singer). Dougherty played in alternative and Americana bands, and now lives in Munich (where the album was recorded at his home studio).

That's all I really know.

But here's what I think:

Paul Dougherty wants you to think he's lost his faith.

His gorgeous Grace Under Water album is filled with songs about loss. There are opportunities missed, loves lost and lamented, morals tarnished, and faith tarnished. He sings about not wanting to let go, about wanting to believe (but not being able to), and about angels rising above while his own halo falls into the mud. The songs are unconcerned with boy-meets-girl, focusing instead on the bleak future of humanity.

But there's one catch -- Dougherty's voice drips with passion and optimism, even when his lyrics are tripping over themselves to paint a negative picture. He might want you to think things are grim, but Dougherty himself is overflowing with hope.

The album covers a bunch of different styles, ranging from almost-indie-pop to stark New Age to roots rock, but most of the songs fall under what used to be known as Americana or nu-country. Several songs here are directly addressed to his children (including the gorgeous opener "Zoe" and the gentle encouragement of "First Steps" -- which, come to think of it, might actually be aimed at listeners or even the singer himself). Other highlights include "The Craving" (which shows that teenage desire never really goes away, it just morphs into something more adult and harder to define), "The Line" (a song that sounds like it must have been written on a lonely late-night drive), and "Rusted Jesus" (a prayer to believe in something after rock 'n' roll has let you down).

Dougherty's voice is clear and sharp, but has just enough edge to remind you that this is a guy who's lived and suffered. He's come through the other side and wants to tell you the journey is hard, but ultimately worth the effort. (Because even if grace, look too many mortgages, is under water, things can always get better -- especially if we have great music to listen to.)

40 years ago, an album like this might have gotten a lot of radio play and Dougherty might have had a shot at singer-songwriter stardom (or at least the cult status of a Nick Drake). Dougherty likely would've been signed to a major label and (at the very least) played in clubs all over the U.S. to a passionate and growing fanbase.

But it's a different world, so Dougherty recorded and released the album himself (and if he's playing anywhere, it's likely to be in Germany).

Readers of this blog will recognize that I don't do a lot of reviews here -- this blog mostly focuses on music I know well and love (and the stories associated with that music). But Grace Under Water is a haunting and beautiful record that deserves your attention.

You can stream the entire album here and download it for free from his website. Better yet, if you like the album buy it from CD Baby (and therefore kick a few bucks over to the guy who wrote, sang, recorded, and released the album).


Anonymous said...

Cool tunes. He says on his website he's influenced by the Beach Boys. I don't hear it, but maybe that's just me.

Anonymous said...

This album contains some of the most creative and mentally stimulating music I've heard in eons. Bravo, Mr. Dougherty.

Anonymous said...

Echos of James Taylor but before he got clean and after a wretched summer tour with Dylan and Lennon.