From the opening chords of the first track - 'Where I Bury My Words' - you know this is going to be something special. A lonesome pedal steel backs Chris Volpe's lonesome voice as he sings the line "Every day is a new day is what they say" with a distinct air of resignation. The melancholy mood is unmistakable, giving the song in a desolate tone of someone barely keeping his head above water on a par with that found on Ryan Adams' classic 'Heartbreaker' album.
What is instantly evident is that Nashville-based Volpe is not only an exceptional songwriter but also that he has assembled a top rate backing band to accompany his turns on guitar, banjo and harmonica. Donnie Herron has played pedal steel and fiddle with Bob Dylan, Kenny Malone has drummed with Johnny Cash & Cat Stevens, Jeff Coffin was blown sax and clarinet with the Dave Matthews Band while bassist Bryn Davies has backed Patti Griffin. If you're going to be shipwrecked, this is the sort of crew you want on board.
Having such a great band gives Volpe the luxury of being able to switch musical styles at ease. Although you'd be right to place it in the Americana rack, the songs also touch upon elements jazz-folk-country and pop.
The folkier tracks work best for me but then again I've always been a sucker for pedal steel and the sax touches stray too close to AOR territory for my taste.
'Dusty Bibles' is one of the album's key tracks. This is a tongue in cheek morality tale about what happens when you turn your back on the good book. As proof, he gives a series of ungodly sinners with names ranging from Saddam Hussein to Keith Moon. The dark humour pitches it in the folk-noir territory that reminded me a little of Jim White. It's quite a fun tune at first but at a little over 7 minutes long, the joke is a little too drawn out.
A more successful long track is 'Afraid Of The Dark', where Volpe reflects on the environmental mess of our planet with a depth of vision and articulacy to match the weighty subject matter. The fact that he is able to pull off such a complex song with such assurance makes it remarkable that this is Volpe's debut release and incredible that his talent hasn't been snapped up by a major label.
On other songs, Volpe wears his influences on his sleeve so it's not hard to spot nods to Bob Dylan (Highway 61) and Leonard Cohen (Stranger Song) on 'Steamroller Rain' and 'Ice Upon The Ocean' respectively.
Another clue to the roots of his sound lies in the sure footed cover of Townes Van Zandt's classic 'Colorado Girl'. I can think of no higher praise than to say that this is on a par with the recent version of the same tune by the mighty Steve Earle.
Volpe's website lists a clutch of various musical organisations who have recognised his songwriting skills. With the right breaks and decent airplay he should make an equal impression on ordinary joe listeners.
This is one of those albums that you'd do well to buy two copies of - one to enjoy for yourself, the other to spread the word.