Gurf Morlix sings in a tone somehow both affectless and mournful, as if a shadow of death had already crept in and half-zombified his emotions. Part of the pleasure in his new album, his first of original songs in three years, derives from the contrast between scenery and focus: the suffusive sadness of the melodies, the stark and rootsy Americana sounds, and the mordant lyrics, set against the insistent hint of a residual innocence in Morlix’s broad, flat vocal delivery.
What he describes as “the muddy” – the fecund reading room of a library of roots-music idioms – encompasses flavors not just of folk, country, and blues, but even jazz in the occasional non-rootsy chord change or melodic scale, like the diminished chord in “Gasoline” or the unexpected shift to a minor mode in the chorus of the powerful opening track, a prison lament called “My Life’s Been Taken.” There’s a Latin flavor to the sly “Lookin’ For You”: “You know I like it dark and hot/Torn and twisted, tied in a knot/You’ve got the slant, you’ve got the skew/You know how I want it, there’s nothing I can do.” In that passage, especially the last rhyme, Morlix shows how handy he is with giving the rougher Anglo-Saxon side of English vocabulary a spirit that’s somehow both raw and sophisticated.
Minor keys, anxious B3 organ drones, and clotted drumbeats dress stripped-down arrangements rooted in Morlix’s expert guitar work. In the unrelentingly gloomy title track he mixes flower-child verbiage with a play on words, all over a heavy beat. He infuses even the pretty folk melody “Small Window” with tension, reflecting the literal prison of “My Life’s Been Taken” in imagery of loneliness: “There’s some things I shouldn’t have done/Some battles I should have won…It’s a small window I’m looking through/It ain’t much of a view…If I could get that thing open/I just might squeeze through.” The song with the happiest musical flavor, “Bang Bang Bang,” is an indictment of American gun culture. Only “These Are My Blues” overstays its welcome.
The one thing that bugs me about this album is something I find in a lot of today’s roots music: the slavish precision of the beat, all the more obvious in slow, moody songs with subtle or no percussion. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I can hear the silenced click-track with my mind’s ear, and I miss the sloppiness of the old days when a musician or band sped up or dragged a little with the emotion of the music. Perfectly steady beats carried through an entire acoustic song dehumanize it just a bit.
That’s not meant as a dig at Mr. Morlix; it’s a complaint I have about a lot of new music, and it just happened to come to the top of my mind while listening to this admirable new CD. His is a strong and wily musical voice, one like no other.