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Paul Burch: Old Country Made New Again?

Posted by February 18th, 2004 No Comments »

Paul Burch – Fool for Love
By Eric “Skip” Tognetti

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now – I’m the wrong guy to be writing this review. My appreciation for classic country music has only been developed in the past few years, and until then my knowledge was pretty much limited to the artists we can all recognize by first name: Johnny, Hank, Patsy, Merle, Buck.

That said, I think I’ve developed a sense for good music and great albums. Nashville crooner Paul Burch’s fifth album, Fool for Love, is both. Really, really both.

This is classic country at its finest. The kind of album Nashville has forgotten how to put out. While the big boys in Tennessee are looking for the next Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, or – forgive me for making you read the name Toby Keith – gems like Paul Burch get buried in Nashville until the angels at Chicago-based Bloodshot Records pluck him out, dust him off, and let him shine.

Don’t get me wrong, with the subtle use of non-traditional elements like saxophone, Wurlitzer, and what the one-sheet assures me is indeed a barking dog, this album is certainly a contemporary take on the genre. And the stacks of guitars through much of the album, which magically add depth and texture rather than just noise, further prove this fact. This isn’t just an imitation of classic country, it’s an extension of it.

Stylistically, the album floats from song to song between classic ballads, foot-stompin’ honky tonk, swing numbers, and more.

There are even bits of the Beatles (“Bad Girl She Used to Be”), Bob Dylan, and – I’m not kidding – The Who (“Sparks Fly Out”). Similarly, Burch exhibits velvety chameleon vocals, always subtly adapting to best suit a given song. While at one moment you’re sure he’s a dead ringer for Hank Williams, the next he sounds like a shadow of Roy Orbison, and then suddenly there’s a little bit of a young Johnny Cash or a twangy Chris Isaak. The beauty of it is that none of it is affected and all of it is effective.

And then there are the lyrics. Those are all his own. Sure the classic elements are there: aching hearts, hard drinking, bitter romance, love lost and love found. The formula is easy, but Burch never quite lets himself stick to the formula. He understands that bit of surprise that makes something interesting out of something that could so easily be mundane, and his willingness to forfeit rhyme and use unexpected meter is evident throughout. He does this most successfully on “Moments of Weakness,” where he sings, “It’ll pass in time/but for now I’m primed/to forget you forever/or love you one more time/It’s only moments of weakness/this living in between/the lines/that I can walk/and the walls that can climb.” He can also be clever, as on “Like Railroad Steel” (“I’ve got a heart like a railroad steel/keeping perfect time/forged to bend and bow/so it won’t break the same place twice”) and “Lovesick Blues Boy” (“Like the big muddy flows through St. Paul from Louisiana/a lovesick heart is hard to understand/You can’t read me by my stars or in the lines in my hand/and if the cards I turned are true/the gypsy’s lovesick too”).

Here’s my problem with Fool for Love: it makes me sad. Sad because this is the kind of album country labels should be scrambling to make. It’s true classic country music filtered through the non-country sounds of the past fifty years.

Fortunately, Bloodshot gives me hope and Paul Burch reminds me why I finally fell for country in the first place. (9/10)

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