Smile Politely

Joe Pug: Apparently not reading enough Steinbeck

Joe Pug, who performs at the Canopy Club tonight, has one of those bios that music writers dream about. He dropped out of his senior year at the University of North Carolina to follow his muse. After landing in Chicago, he spread his music by sending out a demo CD to anyone who asked. According to his website, he has now sent out over 15,000 CDs to fans around the world. And to top it all off, each demo contains a personalized note from Pug himself.

As nice of a story as that is, it’s not really relevant to the quality of the music. I know music is easier to come by now, but who wouldn’t take a free CD? After releasing a well-regarded EP (Nation of Heat), Pug is finally asking his fans to pay full-price with his debut album Messenger.

So does he deliver an album worthy of the hype? Well, Messenger offers few surprises to those familiar with Pug’s work (or familiar with the dour singer/songwriter genre), but that’s hardly the point. It’s heavy on the folk, slight-rock balladeer style that is easy to attempt, but difficult to perfect. And mostly, Pug has done an excellent job on the music. He manages to wring a lot of emotion out of his guitar and harmonica. And the backing musicians lend the songs a depth that expands on Pug’s established sound without diminishing the intimacy. As an example, the banjo and backing vocals on “The Door Was Always Open” provide the song an added kick that only enhances the original melody.

But we’re not talking about Battles here; this isn’t music where the words are an afterthought. Mostly, they’re kind of the point. And mostly they miss. On “How Good are You” Pug sings the cringe worthy, “I was born into a circus, but I ran off to join a home.” On the song “Disguised as Someone Else”, Pug sees fit to compare an ex-lover’s cold shoulder to the penal system. “Even hardened criminals, they get a second chance/ I wish that I could work for you with someone else’s hands.” And on “Not So Sure,” there’s the completely unnecessary, “I bought expensive cigarettes/ I read John Steinbeck’s books/ I undressed somebody’s daughter, then complained about her looks.” While these may have offered fun wordplay when Pug was writing, they don’t often convey much of anything within the songs. Only the title track and anti-war balled “Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)” feel like full narratives.

As this is Pug’s first album, I’m willing to give him a break. His singing often makes the words seem heartfelt, if not fully formed. And with the rave reviews of his live shows, there’s probably no need to spend too much time worrying tonight about small details like what he’s actually saying.

Joe Pug performs tonight at the Canopy Club with Hathaways and Chicago Farmer (7 p.m., $10 advance)

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