Great voice, some good playing but the lyrics might be an acquired taste.
Joe Nolan has been a songwriter for over a decade, making his first two albums in Nashville with producer Colin Linden. He’s also recorded an EP with Hawksley Workman and John Gullmarstam in Sweden and in 2018 he independently released the album, ‘Cry Baby’, followed in 2020 by, ‘Drifters’. There seems to be a titular theme here, with the current offering, ‘Scrapper’?
During these years Nolan became a prize winner, including the Cobalt award for his songwriting at The Maple Blues Awards 2018/2020. He was also nominated at the Breakout West Awards 2020. His music is described as influenced by folk and blues, compared to Leif Vollebekk and Chuck Prophet, John Prine and Jeff Tweedy, Buddy Miller and Guy Clark – so plenty of influences to consider there.
Whilst the songs are described as covering, ‘themes of loneliness on the road, the struggles of not having a rooted home and the misunderstandings that divide friends and lovers’, what seems most apparent is that they are pretty much about relationships between men and women. That seems to be a weakness of the disc inasmuch as there is little subject variety with not a whole lot new to say about men and women – but then why would there be? The lyrics struggle at times with unconvincing metaphors and allusions that aren’t always easy to fathom.
This is something of a pity and prevents a better rating because musically and vocally it’s a great offering. The album is essentially a one-man show with Nolan playing all but drums and bass as well as writing all songs and playing a hand in the engineering of the final product. If you don’t focus too much on the lyrics and what it is they might be saying then this is a great listen, even incorporating some deftly placed synthesisers with positive effect. Interestingly, genre-wise, the press release describes, ‘Scrapper’, as, ‘Alt Indie / Singer Songwriter’, – not that it would in any way preclude inclusion from these pages.
Opening track ‘Solid Gold’, has a lovely intro that immediately showcases a quality voice which by the second, ‘Whole New Love’, takes on a more throaty quality. Notwithstanding the influences cited above, is there a bit of Lou Reed circa the album, ‘New York’, in, ‘All Love is Lit’, or ‘Row Your Boat’. Is there a hint of Willie Nile on, ‘Cherry Valance’, even down to that Big Apple pronunciation of, ‘promenade’. It may be that the ears deceive but either of those artists would be very positive comparisons.
The best track on the album is probably, ‘Sweet Lil’ Blues’, which along with such as, ‘Here’s to Hoping’ and, ’See You Soon’, demonstrate the quality of the music and the vocals. Tracks such as, ‘New to the Neighbourhood’ – ‘I’ve seen so many romances fall / Just like a penny into a piggy bank jar’ or ‘See You Soon’ – ‘A friend of mine asked unto me, do you think that you were born this way / I just answered back unto him / Have you heard the last words of Ballad in plain D?’ – demonstrate the less effective aspects of the collection.
Those last words of Mr Dylan are in fact, ‘Are birds free from the chains of the skyway’?
The notes tell us that by, ‘ getting back to his roots Nolan took a personal journey through his own family history. Stories from the past came out, accompanied by family photos, some of which have made it onto the album and single covers. They feature his grandfather, a resilient mentor, prominently’. There seems no doubt then that this is a personal offering and that is to be admired. Indeed AUK colleague Paul Kerr saw Nolan perform in 2019 and had some very positive comments to make about the man, his performance and his songwriting ability. With more diverse subject matter and perhaps more focus to the lyrics it could be very good indeed. There are many great singers and musicians but achieving that same standard with words often seems the hardest part.