It's always a little weird to review the work of friends. I've known League City-based singer/songwriter Bob Wall for quite a few years now, starting back in the early days of this Website, when he sent me a copy of his band Bone Simple's CD, Tastes Like Chicken, out of the blue. Since then, I've seen Bone Simple play a few times, Bob's had me and my former bandmates over to his home studio to record stuff, I've reviewed both Chicken and the album after it (Skinny Atlas) in these very pages, and Bob's even threatened to play a cover of a song I wrote (which is flattering, of course, but the song makes me cringe these days). Given all that history, I always feel kind of odd thinking critically about the music the guy makes. But hey, that's what I'm here for, so...well, here goes.
This time out, Bob's doing something a little different. Kind of. He's still playing with Bone Simple on a fairly regular basis, but these days he's also doing the solo guy-and-a-guitar thing at various venues here in town, hosting open mics and playing with local folkies...all of which is a bit of a far step from his quirky bar-band rock days with the band. That said, Outline itself really isn't all that far removed from Bone Simple's albums, particularly on party-down tracks like "Juke Joint Band" (which practically sounds like it is a Bone Simple song, since it's sung from the perspective of an actual band), the jaunty, sunny, almost funky "Become a Trustee" (which, yes, is apparently about wanting to go to prison; got me on that one...), and the ragged Talking Heads-meet-The Beatles-ness of "Cherry Street." To top it all off, Lee Hamilton, who plays drums for Bone Simple, also lends a hand here -- in short, despite the different milieu, it still feels pretty familiar.
The weird part, though, is that it's not the Bone Simple-ish stuff here that I really like, but the gruffer, more acoustic tracks. When Bob plaintively asks what it's like where a far-away love lives on "Separate Lives," it brings a sweet poignancy to the rough-around-the-edges country rock of the song and makes songs like "Juke Joint Band" just seem silly by comparison. Same goes for the quieter, more contemplative "Better Days," which veers near to Alejandro Escovedo territory, and the Tom Waits-ish "Close Your Eyes," which features a stunningly delicate, beautiful chorus -- the softer, more folk-/country-influenced music is something I've never really seen or heard Bob do before, and he does it surprisingly well. His cigarette-scarred voice brings to mind troubadours like Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Dee Graham, and Tom Waits without seeming like a cheap copy, and that's saying something.
Unfortunately, as soon as the high points of Outline hit, they're gone, and while the following tracks aren't bad, they make me wish I could hear more of Bob's sensitive, melancholy side and save the funny crowd-pleasers for the Dan Electro's crowd. Maybe next time? (JH)
(Pee Pup Records -- Box 1008, League City, TX. 77574-1008; Bob Wall -- http://www.bobwall.org/)