Joining an increasingly extensive and rich body of new roots music is this first release by The Great Unknowns, a quartet of seasoned musicians fronted by singer Becky Warren. Warren, who co-writes the songs with guitarist Michael Palmer, has a voice reminiscent of Lucinda Williams’s, but her tones are easier on the ears, and though the Unknowns’ songwriting isn’t as sharp as Lucinda’s (but whose is?), it’s good enough to earn this CD a place on my Americana shelf. With layered, guitar-heavy but understated arrangements and clean production, it’s a sweet listen nearly all the way through.
Warren sings these original but quintessentially American tales of lost love and wandering souls in a drily expressive drawl, like an alto Patty Griffin, or a less affected Adam Duritz. You can hear both a pervading sadness and a persevering spirit in her unhurried delivery. The band has a knack for concise, penetrating lyrics: “Since you’ve been gone/My heart is a fist.” “Don’t try to blame it on no one else/You broke my heart all by yourself.” And, from “Something To Do,” a Patty Griffin-like plaint which ought to turn up on the Americana charts: “I’m just something to pass the time when you feel blue/Just something to do.” “Round Hill,” another highlight, has a chorus that climbs into your ear and settles in for the long haul.
Of the slower songs, I liked “Don’t Come Home,” sweetly sad with its 6-8 sway, and “Deliver Me Home,” whose angular melody and unexpected minor chords give a nod to The Band. “We’ll Be Okay,” though, doesn’t rise above its lyrical cliches (did we really need another song that goes “We’ll spread our wings and fly away”?). And I wouldn’t have opened the CD with the shambling “Las Vegas.” But overall, the sharp wisdom of the lyrics, the grown-up, straight-ahead power of the music and Warren’s sweet-and-sour vocals make this debut a keeper.