Not so much Heartland Rock as Heartland Pop.
This is a strange album. A set of songs with decidedly blue collar, all hail the Working Man lyrics, set to a sort of Springsteen Lite backing. It seems Joe Normal describes his music as ‘Glamericana’, having come out of L.A’s 90s Glam-Rock resurgence, and it’s certainly an accurate description to a degree, but it’s an uneasy pairing that seems unlikely to gain a lot of traction in roots music circles. You can see it going down well in urban West Coast settings, especially somewhere like L.A, but Mr Normal is unlikely to be appearing at a lot of Appalachian festivals.
There are good songs here if a little cliched in their titles – ‘Small Town Factory’, ‘New England Girl’, ‘Bayway Refinery’. You’re left in little doubt that these are going to be blue collar anthems before you’ve heard the first note but, when the songs do start, they’re all surprisingly polite. Looking at the cover art for the album and, given the artists name, you expect something along the lines of an American Joe Strummer and what you get is a sort of American Ray Davies. Now, Ray Davies is a fine artist and a great writer, but you associate him more with genteel pastiche rather than man the barricades and tear down the fabric of society songs. So, it’s a little odd to hear lines like “I had a brother who got shot in the head/ By a criminal cop who got away with it!/ And I lost a sister who got beaten to death, By an angry lover with a baseball bat!” (from ‘Living In The Borough’) delivered in a sing-song voice that clearly enunciates every word over an upbeat, pop backing. The delivery of the final line, “I’m just your average Joe, living in the borough” makes you suspect the borough in question boasts a Mercedes in every driveway and perfectly manicured lawns.
Joe Normal isn’t a bad singer. The voice is a bit light but it’s tuneful and the delivery is good, but you can’t get away from the odd juxtaposition of the quite hard hitting lyrics with this polite voice and jaunty melodies. Though originally from New Jersey, it seems that our eponymous hero spent some time in London before settling in L.A. You can hear the London and L.A influences in his music but, while the songs he writes may resonate with the images of the American North East, that’s where any association with the region of his birth stops. The grittiness of a Springsteen or a Malin is decidedly conspicuous by its absence.
Normal does write well. His lyrics are well thought out and well constructed and he brings a memorable turn of phrase to many of his songs, his words painting very clear pictures – “Near our small town factory resides,/ A little cemetery filled with forgotten lives, Of every soldier and worker that this town gave,/ In an earlier time, sent to an early grave.” (‘Small Town Factory’) But while the lyrics work well the songs lack bite and you can’t help but think that this artist would benefit from collaboration with someone who could craft more fitting melodies to the steel in his lyrics. Perhaps the best track on this album is the jangly ‘Summer Jobs’, a paean to younger days and the teenage angst of having to work but wanting to be somewhere else, along the lines of ‘Summertime Blues’. On this occasion the song does come together and it’s a strong track, driven by Byrdsian guitar, judicious use of organ, and some tidy drumming. This song offers a glimpse into the potential Joe Normal has as a songwriter but it is a moment of clarity in an album that seems to be strangely at odds with itself for much of the time. The press release that accompanies the album proudly proclaims, “Written, performed, and produced entirely himself, Public Works highlights a lyricist and musical artist with a singular vision.” Singular vision can be a two-edged sword. Sometimes it means an artist is too inflexible to consider the need for collaboration and there’s a suspicion that some of that is at play on “Public Works”. Even when this artist moves away from his working class themes the songs aren’t entirely successful and there’s a slightly saccharine naivety to songs like ‘Is It My Imagination’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘New England Girl’. Again, it seems to come down to a disconnect between the lyrics and melody that is poorly judged. Normal really needs a collaborator who can help him better hone some excellent song ideas into more complete finished items. Joe Normal’s songwriting sensitivities are clearly in his native North East of America, but his music draws too heavily on his L.A. glam and 60s’ UK pop influences for the result to be a successful one. He either needs some tougher tunes or some lighter lyrics.