tip of the bomb

Music Reviews Quarterly

Joe Nolan - Plain Jane

In the beginning was Bob, and he begat hundreds of offspring, but only a few actually were true to the genetic code. The first was a boy, Steve Forbert, whose debut release Alive on Arrival, circa 1978, captured Daddy Bob's wild acoustic energy and brambled poetry. The second, also a boy, is Joe Nolan, whose debut Plain Jane is as close to Alive on Arrival as anything, including all of Steve Forbert's work, has been since then. Never have I said that any artist deserves to be compared directly to Bob Dylan because while many have imitated, few have been able to connect directly to the source. Forbert did, and then lost the connection. The same could well happen to Joe Nolan, but for the moment he is hooked up to and pumping the true spirit of Dylan's first realization of his own style of music. It was in that flush of discovery that Dylan wrote the material that appeared in part on his first greatest hits volume and then completely on his greatest hits volume two. Joe Nolan goes to "Maggie's Farm"-era Dylan, not to copy but to recapture the feeling, and he pulls it off very well on Plain Jane. Plain Jane is full of strummed acoustic guitars, harmonica played energetically, and the occasional accordion or organ to fill out the fun energy properly. Other pieces - banjo, mandolin, flute, percussion, tin whistle - come in at times, but they take attention to hear because the basic push of the acoustic energy and Nolan's vocal work captures the interest. Joe Nolan's voice is a great one, not because it is ultra-polished but because it has a pleasant tone and carries with it a full sense of the fun of working a good song. Likewise the playing is certainly good (New Grass Revival's Pat Flynn plays on and co-produces this release), but the feeling is the primary concern. Nolan provides a fair variety of songs from slower, thoughtful numbers to humorous, fast paced ones. His lyrics celebrate Dylan's penchant for quick rhyming sequences that bounce joyfully off each other, not so much for poetic insight as the sheer fun of the sound. Sometimes just toying with words yields a potential insight, and Nolan seems content to let that happen if it should. To his credit, his songs do have sharp stories and content, but as with the instrumental work, story content sharpness is a secondary consideration if a better sounding rhyme comes along. Joe Nolan appears to be a young guy with a fair amount of music behind him already. Whatever has happened, he seems to have no fear of entering the sacrosanct turf associated with Bob Dylan and setting up his own lemonade stand. Over eleven songs on his debut, he only makes one misstep, and that's on "Shipwreck Song," a song that feels too much like Gordon Lightfoot to belong on a recording that matches up well with far better material. Joe Nolan has a lot of talent, and Plain Jane makes that obvious. Hopefully not many writers will draw this same kind of direct connection between Nolan's work and Dylan's. When Steve Forbert released Alive on Arrival, the critics hammered home the Dylan comparisons, and Steve could never quite recover from the burden those comparisons put on him. Joe Nolan needs to keep his sense of humor and perspective intact to realize that all he has to do is keep making his music his way. If the next one sounds nothing like Dylan, that will be fine, just as long as it is true to who he is at that time. And should that happen, he - and we - will still have that once-in-a-blue-moon recording that feels so good it could sustain us even if we were stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again. So grab this Plain Jane and take it for a turn around the dance floor, because for all of its plainness, it's a genuine beauty.

back to press