Album Review: Joe Pug ‘Windfall’

Joe Pug Windfall
(Lightning Rod Records – March 10, 2015)
(Singer Songwriter, Rock, Folk)

For those who don’t know the story of Joe Pug, it doesn’t take a long listen to any of his lyrically driven folk releases to get a strong sense of who the man is and what he’s searching for in life. Pug is a consummate storyteller, willing to confess his own secrets and flaws, weaving simple poetry into complex narrative, while also examining the simple daily struggles of survival from both a well-read and well-lived place. Without both of these aspects, these songs would come across as predictable, or worse yet, preachy and self-righteous. But Pug has always managed to walk the line with a slight smirk, and a soul-searching gaze, never shy to make contact with his audience members. That philosophy of direct contact also extends into how Pug has marketed and released his music. Back in 2009, Pug released his first EP, Nation of Heat, and began literally giving away 2-song sampler CDs on his website.  He burned the copies himself and paid postage for over 20,000 CD-Rs upon request. In a matter of months, without touring and without a record label, Joe Pug had become a major player in the Indie-Folk scene.

Now, five years and four releases later comes Windfall, a reflective centerpiece of Joe Pug’s career. Having transplanted himself from Maryland, to North Carolina, to Chicago, and now to Austin, Joe Pug’s sound has drifted in scope and influence based on geography. It now seems Austin is right where he belongs. Windfall is a tightly restrained album with deep layers and roots. The sounds of western pedal steel and tasteful Telecasters go with Joe Pug’s voice and lyricism like someone else’s well-worn pair of jeans rediscovered as a perfect fit at the thrift store.  Pug has adopted “country-western” for this album, but it feels as though it’s always been there in his music.

The album waxes and wanes with the same sense of challenge and change as previous records, but with more hope than he’s ever expressed before. He sounds downright encouraging with lines like: don’t back down yet, it’ll get brighter/ stand your ground like a veteran fighter/ grip that wheel just a little bit tighter now, in “Veteran Fighter” or in “The Measure”, the night is rich/ as we stop to look around/ yes I believe it is/ as we pause to hear the sound/ all we’ve lost is nothing to what we’ve found. This is a different Joe Pug from the days of doing “his father’s drugs” or being “one of many”. While he’s experienced the generational repetitions of denial and habit as well as the general decay of the American Dream, he’s also discovered that through all of that there’s something to be said for keeping your chin up. Hope lives within, and despite all the trouble and hardship, if you lose it, you lose the ability to value your own life.

After taking 2014 off from touring in order to compose Windfall and focus on his own life and his partner, it seems 2015 will be a year of facing the same old demons of life on the road. And as unsustainable a lifestyle as it is, Joe Pug’s outlook is obvious. He’s going to survive and be better for the test.

In the title track, “Windfallen”, he provides a window into this mindset:

If you’re in it for the windfall don’t be surprised
when your will to fight wavers and eventually dies.
But if you’re in it for the long haul, if you’re in it to survive,
there’s not a trench you can’t be found.
There’s not a drought could drag you down.
I could see it in the whites of your eyes.

And if you’ve ever been to a Joe Pug show, you know for sure he’s looking.

-Jeb

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