The recent news of Elliott Smith's death was startling and very sad. Sad enough for Smith's own sake, of course, but also as another example of what threatens to be seen as a romantic tradition of suicide (deliberate or passive) among some of songwriting's most quietly beautiful voices. Sitting around thinking of Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley the last couple of weeks, I was pleased to hear some new voices from songwriters who are sensitive and subtle without sounding self destructive.
I'll put Jolie Holland on the list even though her Catalpa (released next Tuesday on Anti) features a song called "I Want to Die." That song, like many here, is in a lament in another woman's voice; Holland resembles Gillian Welch in her knack for inhabiting others' blues. Accompanied by such low-tech instruments as banjo and ukulele, she sings sad waltzes and an ancient folk tune or two in a voice that's somehow frail and sassy simultaneously, even quavering with optimism on the gorgeous "The Littlest Birds."
Not as optimistic but also gorgeous, the lush intimacy of Dolorean is reminiscent of Nick Drake even if singer Al James' voice has nothing in common with his. James couldn't have picked a better name for his band, which suggests a very sad luxury automobile; these songs travel much more slowly than the defunct sport car, the better to see details along the way and cast them as gentle poetry. Dolorean's first album, Not Exotic, is just out on Yep Roc.
Sun Kil Moon has an even more exotic name, but the voice behind the moniker is familiar. Mark Kozelek, leader of the Red House Painters and solo artist in his own right, started the new band, which as before is an amplification (and sometimes an electrification) of his well known sensibility. Ghosts of the Great Highway (Jetset) is a beautiful album with wide horizons; "Salvador Sanchez" puts a yearning electric guitar under Kozelek's pining voice, taking it places you generally can't go unplugged.
Graham Lindsey is perfectly happy with his acoustic six-string and dobro, so long as he can have a harmonica to keep them company. Fledgling troubadours probably flinch when compared to Bob Dylan, but Lindsey's vocal mannerisms make the comparison inevitable - from the first bars of his Famous Anonymous Wilderness (Catamount), he's walking in those big shoes, and not uncomfortably. Songs like "Emma Rumble" and "Everybody Sings A Lonesome Song" add rumblings of Richard Buckner's rustic desperation; the latter is a kind of manifesto decrying a world in which one form of shared music-making has been replaced with an inferior one - but Lindsey isn't exactly living in the past; he's just in a more appealing time zone than the one most new music inhabits.
Unlike the folks above, Josh Ritter isn't a brand-new name; his first record got enough attention to earn him an opening spot on a recent Dylan tour. But his new Hello Starling (Signature Sounds) was my first encounter with him, and I'm happy I came across it. "Kathleen" is one of those classic anthems of longing like Tom Waits' "Downtown Train," and Ritter slides nicely from there to what happens when unrequited love gets more immediate: "You Don't Make It Easy Babe" is a frighteningly friendly advertisement for restraining orders. Ritter's writing can sound like The Waterboys' Mike Scott ("Man Burning") or Leonard Cohen ("Wings"), but the voice is his own, and it's an astonishingly assured one. •