Curly, Not Opaque

At Giza, as the century counts down, robots probe a hidden door discovered in the shafts of the Great Pyramid as penny-loafer theorists like Robert Bauval match shaft trajectories with aerial photographs to peddle the notion that the pharaohs sought rebirth in the crotch of Orion. Expect an article soon in The Channeling News, if there is such a thing, about scientifically trained anti-reincarnationists in the American South working on methods to prolong death. It's that kind of Age.

Bauvel figures to link up with Graham Hancock on the heels of his thrilling quest for the Ethiopian grail and that planet-spinner with a clunky Von Daniken title that makes even abductees cringe and a Stevie Wonder sound track. William Irwin Thompson would undoubtedly blame Bauvel's myopic bondage to the afterlife fixations of Egyptology on an inability to shift from noia to metanoia but, in the music industry, it's a whole different story. An artist or a group reincarnates each time a new album is released and a second CD from Jonathan Gregg, who plays at Tinker Street Cafe on Friday, was puzzling.

Reviews for Gregg's first album, Blue On Blonde, referred to a "countrified" sound and one prowls the tracks of Unconditional like a robot in a shaft looking for traces of the country doorway. Better ask him.

"I don't think it's a radical change in direction," said the NYC-born and raised Gregg, who fronts a no-frills two-guitar quartet. "I think in other people's perspective a little country goes a long way and if you do any of it, immediately it's a signpost people can latch onto and say 'oh, yeah, that's right, it's really country.' So, even though I don't think the first album had much country stuff in it, it started with a brisk sort of country-type tune, so the first salvo sounded a bit country. It's mostly straight pop-rock but, if people have to describe whether we sound more like John Hiatt or Marshall Crenshaw or Pearl Jam, inevitably they'll go for the pop-country kind of thing...And we've paid for that in a sense- In the first CMJ review we were on the country page..."

There are enough bands who play with their arms in a pair of panty hose in an attempt to be different or are looking for a color to dye their mohawks that hasn't been used yet. Vest over plain tee-shirt, clean-cropped Gregg leans forward on the cover of Unconditional with a stoney and stoic Cassevettes stare but speaks a rapid clip stream of consciousness so tightly packed you can't slip a playing card between his thoughts.

"We've played in Nashville and they know we're not country and I know we're not country, but in New York City, in the current musical climate, if you do something that's a little bit like it-then, in for a penny; in for a pound," Gregg continued. "I think categorization basically has come down to money. Demographically-based radio stations finally figured out formulas of who you appeal to, what you can deliver to attract the people placing ads who want certain crowds. They're very formatted and there's very little experimentation going on. It's all broken up in very specific categories. Rock's taken a shift toward a harder kind of edge and we don't have that sound. We're not Smashing Pumpkins and, at the same time, we're not an overtly country band- we're not a 'hat act', as my national ASCAP guy drawled to me, non-helpfully, a couple of years ago. We're not...

"Nashville still thinks Dwight Yokum and Steve Earle are radical and they're pretty straight compared to us. We're probably more like Steve Earle than Dwight because he actually tried to be more rock but it didn't work out too well, unfortunately, because some of his stuff is great."

Gregg went on about signs that rigidly devised formats may be slackening enough to give an Americana chance to "song-oriented bands or Freedy Johnston, or Matthew Sweet, or me...because the truth is, when we get in front of people to play- especially outside of New York City- it goes down really well. People get it. They understand what we're doing."

Some of Gregg's reviews, while applauding his songwriting and guitar playing (which shines in brief bursts on the CD), make him sound like an overly deliberate lyricist with "compulsive intellect." One critic had him "tossing off lines that other writers would build songs around, and lacing his lyrics with puns and wordplays that may take a few listens to catch."

But direct and clever in his songs, as in his conversation, Gregg is not at all opaque. His active subconscious, (a good thing for artists to have), seems to dance amid thoughts to corral their essence, whether it's meandering around in a tune until the right line emerges or in a paragraph until an acceptably accurate meaning is discovered. Thinking out loud when asked if his own experiences reflected in his songs, Gregg mused " a degree but not usually completely literal experiences. There are made-up scenarios with varying degrees of me in them. All have a thread of some kind of emotional connection to things I'm thinking about but it's more like placing myself in a 'distancing mode;' observing things in general and in myself as well, with a bit of outward perspective- just to tap on things that have a common fiber between my experiences and other people's by casting them in a story kind of thing or a sort of allegorical context then try to hit the emotional line without spelling it out directly, but in kind of story vignettes that allude to something without saying it in so many words..."

You could distinctly sense Gregg exploring his own thoughts as he spoke them and his lyrics also convey that feeling of exploration. "There she stood/Just like I'd forgotten her/Good means good/but it didn't that day/I can't tell if I've ever felt rottener/I got lost and no one showed me the way." From the cruel fate of Devon, the unlucky stripper to the tricky angles in an affair with a married woman, Gregg "finds" lines with a curl in them and bends them to the music.

"Songwriting is weird like that because, often, I'll just be sort of playing along and whole phrases will come out and it's almost as if the song explains itself to me. Sometimes it's an arduous, word-by-word crafting process of wedging in the syllables or getting the rhyme or whatever it is but other times whole phrases will just sort of happen and I'll go 'that's interesting...oh, of course! This means that!' It's as if the song knows better and says 'really, trust me- this is how it goes'," Gregg laughed. "When they pop out in little phrases like that you really feel you're finding them instead of making them up- that they were already there, sort of, but I always try, whatever wordplays are involved, to keep a central thing going so they all harken back to what the song is about. There's depths of meaning for people who want to take the time to enjoy them but there's still a song idea to feed back to and (the wordplays) aren't gratuitous... I like to think, anyway."

Friday night marks the first appearance in Woodstock of Jonathan Gregg's sometimes-slightly-country rock quartet, so, while you're still waiting for the release of Randy Newman's Faust, you might want to jaunt over to the Cafe and see if these guys set up in the same alignments as the pyramids in Giza.

-Irv Yarg