The extremely talented but still very young David Jacobs-Strain writes, plays and sings in traditional forms, but (because, I suspect, of not having yet lived the life of which he sings) he sounds like he’s trying too hard. The result is a great-sounding CD that fails to convince.
The problem is evident right away in the opening “Kokomo Blues” where a rootsy toe-tapping beat is smothered by oversinging. Instead of conveying the meaning of lyric and melody, the artist seems to want instead to massage you with the depth or manliness of his voice. This is as evident on his original songs as on the traditionals and blues covers. The two-chord title track has about as simple a form as can be, but its elemental energy is marred by overstated, affectedly breathy delivery.
The great Sleepy John Estes’s “Girl I Love” provides a good showcase for Jacobs-Strain’s virtuosic slide guitar work, and he starts it out in an understated way, sounding rather like John Hammond in a calm moment. But as the verses go on, the tendency to push takes over, and the voice ends up overwhelming the song.
In spite of its Americana arrangement, the original “Sleepless Dream” reminds me more of Hootie and the Blowfish than of today’s rootsier stars like Wilco. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the songwriting doesn’t match “Hootie’s” best. It’s followed by “Take My Chances” which is really a showcase for fast playing, built around a mere shell of a song. And the primitively simple Delta blues cover “Soul of a Man” is overdramatized with portentous-sounding vocals and effects.
The excellent band (Joe Craven’s fiddle stands out) demonstrates versatility in a variety of rootsy styles and on many – and in some cases rather exotic – instruments. Jacobs-Strain himself is a fine guitarist with skills beyond his years. But only occasionally on this CD does a more mature sensibility come through. The instrumental “Yelapa Breakdown” is a saucy Latino-Americana hybrid where, for once, a bit of musical humor breaks through, and it’s more than welcome. “Shoot the Devil” is a dark original that maintains its tension precisely because the voice and the instruments are restrained and leave something to the imagination. “Earthquake” benefits from a degree of restraint too, but the simple, atmospheric ballad “Illinois” is, again, overwhelmed by “Hootie”-like vocal pomp.
It makes me think of J. J. Cale, who goes to the opposite extreme so effectively, keeping his vocals mixed so low that you have to “lean into” the song to hear what he’s singing. Hammond, a more precise standard against which to measure Jacobs-Strain’s style of music, often sings the hell out of songs too, but always with a wink, always sounding like he’s having fun.
No matter what the style or how expert the musicianship, music that lacks the voice or tone of experience is music that’s being more played at than played. This very talented young artist has a good bit of maturing yet to do.