Recent years have shown a steady increase in punk rock’s leading men slinging an acoustic guitar around their shoulder and making the exodus (if only temporary) into a fledgling solo folk career. This trend has seen an incredible display of songwriting muscle from Chuck Ragan (Hot Water Music), Tim Barry (Avail), and Frank Turner (Million Dead), as well as projects like Drag the River, a band which has boasted talent from the likes of ALL, the Nobodys, Armchair Martian, and many other Colorado bands. With the already long, and ever-growing list of notable releases that fall into the milieu of punk-goes-folk, I threw this album on with the hopes of having one more artist to add to the list. Unfortunately, Jeff Rowe‘s Barstool Conversations falls short of that milestone, and even shorter of something significantly memorable in a world where the fad is quickly becoming a flavor of the week cash grab catered to guys with neck beards.
Rowe, who previously served as a member of the Massachusetts band BoxingWater, exhibits a musical background built on a steady diet of Woody Guthrie hymns and repeated playings of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Musically, he exerts a noble effort, but there is something in the man’s voice that irks me, and I can only surmise that this is from his often flat and overall emotionless style of singing. Rowe has written sing-along anthems of heartbreak, growing up, and other topics drawn from the rulebook of Downtrodden Folk Hero 101, but when listening to the songs, I have trouble capturing the feeling of his pain, misfortune, or general listlessness. Also worth mentioning is the incalculable superiority that the full-band songs hold over those that are solely acoustic, showcasing his apparent inability (or at the very least, immaturity) at carrying his own weight within a song structured around a single instrument.
At a length of 12 tracks, Barstool Conversations manages to simultaneously drag on in its sheer banality and barely offer a glimpse of what Rowe may actually be capable of, back-up band or no. The album is a patchwork of filler, peppered with only a few tracks that realistically would have been better served as a 7” single. The tracks “Kate” and “Dead Authors” remain the album’s only saviors, backed with “Service of Hardship,” an upbeat jig centered around work, with a purely secular allusion to the Devil, two all too familiar topics of folk heroes past. Rowe has been a songwriter for long enough to know what separates coffee house quality singer-songwriter drivel (and subsequent inappropriate Dashboard Confessional comparisons) from an honest-to-goodness fascinating folk record with stories that are not only relatable, but are actually interesting to read as a first-person account.
I would be remiss to completely discredit Rowe’s foray into the world of folk, but I hope that his next attempt rings more true to a voice he can call his own instead of mimicking predecessors, melding his craft into something exponentially more interesting. After all, if you scribed your life to this point and recorded it to music, would anyone want to hear it? Barstool Conversations became available in the US on August 24th, and will be made available worldwide on September 18th.
I give Jeff Rowe 2 “Guthries” out of 5.
by Greg Stitt