Jamie Block is such an artist. The New York-based singer-songwriter rose to indie prominence in the mid 90’s with his album, Lead Me Not Into Penn Station, which lead to some solid opening gigs, performing on the same stage as artists like The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Bob Mould, and They Might Be Giants. Soon, Glen Ballard came calling and signed Block to his Capitol imprint, Java Records, and released Timing is Everything, a record that scored solid critical acclaim and landed several tracks on assorted film soundtracks.Yet, whether it was music that came before its appointed time or perhaps Block had simply run out and Capitol Records dropped the artist and he headed to Wall Street. However, when WFUV deejay Claudia Marshall began to play Block’s music once again and put out the plea for Block to return to recording, the artist simply couldn’t say no, releasing The Last Single Guy in 2006.
Now, Block’s back yet again with his latest collection of tracks, Whitecaps on the Hudson, and it’s a doozy.And Block didn't come alone. With the help of producer and engineer, Dean Sharenow, Block benefits from a sound stable of accomplished musicians backing his quirky and compelling compositions. Featuring the talents of musicians like
Erik Della Penna (Natalie Merchant, Joan Baez) on guitars, Mick Rossi (Paul Simon, Phillip Glass) on keyboards, and Byron Isaacs (Olabelle) and Jeff Hill (Rufus Wainwright) sharing the bass duties, Block recorded the album in two Brooklyn sessions in order to capture the magic live.And what magic it is.
Block presents himself in essentially two ways. The first incarnation is that of the Americana-flavored singer-songwriter found on tracks like "Black Eyed Susan," "Henry," "Can't Sleep," and "I'll Keep It With Mine." It's on these songs that the artist adopts a typically more acoustic approach, with lots of organic tones and a vocal delivery that hints at influences as diverse as Willie Nelson and Neil Diamond while still lending its own originality as well. These tracks are all warm in tone and tend to provide subtle canvases for Block's solid lyrics, as is the case with album closer, “Far Away.” If the artist were content to rest here and filled out the rest of the album with similar tracks, listeners would still have little to complain about.However, Block's no one-trick pony and his second persona is perhaps the more interesting, if less accessible, side of his music. This side resonates with healthy influences of Tom Waits while maintaining a decidedly "Block"-centric flair and offers up musically-tinged spoken word deliveries that both baffle and delight, all in the same moment. From the rootsy rock and hooting horn section, complete with its playful pop culture references of "B.A. Man" to the percussion and piano-heavy "Somebody Beat the Wiz," Block drops lyrics that puzzle while bringing a smile to one's face at the same time.
The title track comes close to bridging the gap, with the artist's spoken word coming elegantly close to being sung, buoyed by persistent shaker sounds and a slightly demented guitar lead that weaves its way through the track here as the song builds more and more, the lyric recalling the heroics of the Revolutionary War. More free-form guitar meets piano notes of the same on Block's "Sam Patch," a track told with a sneer in his voice while "1993" jumps from moody to lighthearted with spoken and sung lyrics throughout as “My Head” is a short, if cerebral, walk through the artist’s creativity.And while Block's style cannot be for all, there's something compelling here, something that lends itself to a second listen and perhaps even a third. Whether you get it or not, you can't deny Block's artistry and Whitecaps on the Hudson delivers a smorgasbord of word and sound that you truly won't hear anywhere else. If you're an adventurous listener, give this one a shot. It's well worth your time.