Revamp, Recycle and Reimagine.
Joe Pug is one of those names you might have heard but never really paid much attention to; on the strength of this album, that would be to your detriment.
Fifteen years ago Pug released his debut album, little more than an EP really, “Nation of Heat”, an album that has notched up over 20 million Spotify streams. Now he’s back with a “Revisited” version of the album, in which he abandons the simple acoustic approach originally used, for some new arrangements that see him re-record the seven songs the way he had “always wished they could have been”. A bold statement like that can have an impact on a listener, who might think that the original ‘less is more’ approach is the way to go with roots music and that americana is better when it’s stripped down, lean and muscular. If so it will come as something of a surprise to discover that the way Joe Pug always wanted these songs to sound is probably the way they should’ve sounded from the start!
When Pug first appeared, he got the usual ‘new Dylan’ tag from some that always seems to be an albatross hung around the neck of young, American songwriters. There were also comparisons made to John Prine and that’s probably a more accurate comparison for the songs that Pug writes, given their down-to-earth nature and open approach.
If, like this reviewer, you didn’t hear the original “Nation of Heat” at the time of its release, you might want to check out some of the original tracks on YouTube or one of the streaming services, because it is an excellent album of its kind. The strength lies in the songs and Pug delivers them well but, while they’re clearly good songs well sung, they have a uniformity to them that is, perhaps, inevitable when it’s a one-man and a guitar recording. With this new, revisited version of these songs Pug has, cleverly, resisted any temptation to overdo the new arrangements – they’re still quite sparse, as befits his style of songwriting, but they take on a shimmering quality that really elevates the songs, something that’s evident with the opening track, and lead single from the album, ‘Hymn 101/Revisited’. The new arrangement actually makes Pug’s voice stand out more from the backing and gives more resonance to his words; this is odd because you’d expect a simple acoustic guitar backing, as on his original release, to give his voice more space to shine but that’s not what has happened here. Perhaps it’s partly because his voice has improved in the intervening years – there’s more tone and inflection to it now – but the arrangement and the clever layering of the simple bass, keyboards, and percussion backing really has made a significant difference. Pug has said that it wasn’t just a case of wanting to put a band behind the songs, he wanted to give them more punch and make them more relevant in today’s world and, on listening to this album, few would deny that he has achieved exactly what he set out to do.
It’s no mean feat to re-record a whole set of songs, which already have an identity of their own and are well known and liked by the artist’s fans, and come up with a totally different sounding album that maintains the integrity of the songs but completely re-imagines them. At risk of hanging that old albatross back around his neck, this is somewhat akin to Dylan’s switch to electric guitar, and you have to wonder if Pug will experience “Judas” moments, from his own fans, as a result! In fact, some of these tracks are slightly reminiscent of Dylan’s work with The Band in that they have that same earthiness and honesty about them. The more you listen to this album the more impressed you become by Pug’s vision for this album. To go to your record company and say that you want to completely revisit your debut recordings, and to convince them to back this move rather than wait for a new set of songs, shows a special conviction to the project. A track like ‘I Do My Father’s Drugs/Revisited’ is almost unrecognisable on first listening when compared to the original. Listen a second time, it’s clearly the same song but the bravery in moving away from its recognised tempo and overall feel has to be applauded. Similarly, with ‘Nobody’s Man/Revisited’ he almost overwhelms you with the force of the opening few bars but then strips the song right back until it feels sparser than the original acoustic recording. It’s all very clever and creative and Pug makes it sound easy – the fact that few artists would tackle a reimagining of some of their most popular material in this way indicates just how difficult it really is.
Not surprisingly, Pug has produced the album himself and has put together an excellent cast of musicians to support him. There’s some particularly good Hammond B3 playing from Phil Krohnengold, Justin Craig contributes well on electric guitar and drummer Mark Stepro deserves special mention for handling the tempo changes and revised dynamics of Pug’s new arrangements.
The one thing that seems a little odd is the fuss made, possibly by the record company, about the guests on the album. The press release leads on the list of contributors with Brandon Flowers, a name that can be quite divisive among music fans, in fact, he only contributes backing vocals to the opening track and, even then, is fairly low in the mix and not really that major a contributor. Of more value is My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel who, in addition to some guitar work elsewhere, contributes some fine pedal steel interludes on ‘Call it What You Will/Revisited’. Courtney Hartman also deserves recognition for her backing vocals on a number of tracks and whose voice works particularly well alongside Pug’s.
This is a good album and a testament to this artist’s ability to realise another vision for his debut recording and to finally present these songs the way he felt they should be heard. If you already know the original “Nation of Heat” recording you owe it to yourself to hear these revisited versions and appreciate Joe Pug’s artistry in presenting another side of his established music. If you don’t know the original versions, it’s likely you’ll be captivated by discovering an artist with the ability and courage to revisit the songs that established him and unleash them again, ready to be heard in another way.
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