"I can see it in the whites of your eyes if you're in it to survive."
Such is the affirmation offered by Joe Pug during the title tune of his fine new Windfall album. Sure, the song might seem like a survivalist anthem to some, especially given the more jagged folk turns of his two previous albums (and, to a lesser extent, the pair of EP discs preceding them that complete his discography). But breathe all of Windfall in and you're hit by two things: an overall hopeful narrative character and a matured, more complete musical backdrop that a few Lexington hands had a role in.
A Maryland native now working out of Austin, Texas, Pug has been a tireless touring artist over the past six years, both on his own and as an opening act for songsmiths like Steve Earle. Onstage, as well as on record, he came across as an earnest Americana folkie fighting to contain the heartland rocker within. Perhaps that's why so many songs on his last album, 2012's The Great Despiser, seemed to follow folk intuition, especially in their more reflective moments, but suggested a Dylan-esque (or even Earle-esque) combustibility.
That doesn't mean things boil over on Windfall. In fact, all 10 songs reveal a far warmer cast than The Great Despiser. But the new record is far more musically realized thanks to the dexterity shown on the basic tracks by his touring band (especially guitarist Greg Tuohey and bassist Matt Schuessler) as well as a crew of Lexington pros brought in by producer Duane Lundy, who recorded Windfall locally at his Shangri-La Productions studio. The local guest list includes pedal steel guitarist Tom Hnatow and percussionist Emily Hagihara along with expatriate vocalist and song stylist Mark Charles Heidinger (better known to indie audiences as Vandeveer) and Louisville violinist and songstress Cheyenne Mize.
The two-band approach never sounds busy. In fact, it presents an elegiac, electric vitality to The Measure and the far more plaintive Pair of Shadows. Another guest, Wilco's Pat Sansone, adds a touch of mellotron to If Still It Can't Be Found's elegant but bittersweet orchestration ("If still it can't be found, it's probably for the best").
But the unhurried solemnity of Pug's songs quietly drives Windfall. The lyrics to the record's highlight tune, Great Hosannas, are recited with almost deadpan urgency as echoing percussion, piano and beautifully arid harmonica sweep about Pug's singing like a twister. It's a four-minute stroll through an ambient folk purgatory reflective of Joe Henry's late '90s records.
Patch this fascinating, artful quilt of songs and sounds together and you have the full arrival of a Texas talent solidifying his identity with some loving, local help.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic