New collection from one of America’s most distinctive voices.
Steve Forbert is one of the great unsung troubadours of American music from the past forty years or so. His first album ‘Alive on Arrival’ was released through Nemperor Records back in 1978, but it was the follow up, ‘Jackrabbit Slim’ (1979) which was the breakthrough, with lead single ‘Romeo’s Tune’ climbing high in the Billboard Hot 100, and still turning up on oldies shows today. Sadly, that was the peak of Forbert’s commercial success, and although two subsequent albums were released on Nemperor, a contractual dispute meant no more music was released until 1988. However, that is not the end of the story by any stretch of the imagination. Forbert established a loyal following for his music which remains today, and he has produced an extensive body of work over the years, with new albums appearing at regular intervals. The latest of these is ‘Moving Through America’, released on Blue Rose Music.
There are several songs here which will qualify immediately as Forbert classics. Opening number ‘Buffalo Nickel’ is a solo acoustic consideration of white American history, with the writer ruminating on the iconography of the legendary two headed coin, minted in the early part of the 20th century – “I’m looking at a buffalo nickel, it seems so ironic to me / we had to go and slaughter every buffalo herd, and we couldn’t leave an Indian be”. It’s a perfectly formed piece, balancing the extraordinary achievements of the modern American nation, but also the failings. The song is all done in under two minutes, and wrapped in a wholly enticing musical package.
Next up comes ‘Fried Oysters’, which is at the other end of the Forbert oeuvre – this time the small scale, ultra-personal relationship details, with the gentlest country rock backing. It’s really a delightful thing, and another of Forbert’s seemingly endless supply of effortless sounding, easy-going tunes. It’s hard to listen to without a smile creeping across your face.
Some songs are more instantly engaging than others, but all the songs here bear fruits from repeated listening. The title track first appeared on his last album of original material, ‘The Magic Tree’; but clearly he felt there was more to be done, so it reappears here, in a more developed band setting. Meanwhile, ‘What’s A Dog Think’ closes out the record, with its elastic, almost circus like music; its half observational comedy, half plaintive cry for emotional attention, with a whole lot more depth than a cursory listen would suggest.
Special mention also needs to be made for ‘Palo Alto’, a song about a ship commissioned (but not used) for World War I, and what becomes of it after the conflict is finished. The song is actually quite a literal history lesson, and one suspects seeing the lyrics written down would appear like a listing in a local history pamphlet; and yet in Forbert’s hands, and with a beautifully understated chorus melody, it becomes something much more – almost a paean to the American Dream itself, and the fact that while not every pursuit of it comes to a satisfactory fruition, there is poignancy and even worth in the so-called failures.
Forbert possesses one of the most distinctive and recognisable voices in American music, and after having come through cancer treatment just a few years ago, it is really pleasing to find that it remains the subtle and fine instrument it always has been, with a yearning, keening, questioning and vulnerable quality quite unlike any other. It is beautifully matched to his songwriting style, which frequently has a quizzical bent to it. Forbert has never sought to be a prophet or soapbox orator; rather, he is the often bemused bystander, one eyebrow raised, marvelling at the wonders and also the oddities of the world and its inhabitants.
So, this record adds to the story. It is a grown up record, but not a difficult one to listen to. Forbert’s singing and writing voice remain consistent with his existing work, but also able to engage with the times we’re in, and the age he is. It may be unlikely to win new fans, but it will please the followers. Saying that, if his name is new to you, this is equally as good a place to start as any of the twenty or so records that precede it; and his is a well which is worth dipping into, as there are many subtle, nuanced and joyous moments to be had in his music.