Some folks are going to make plenty of the fact that this up and coming singer/songwriter gave up lyrical control on eight of these songs to two well-known novelists (they're well-known because they're good, by the way), and perhaps be dumb enough to question his motivation. Critics be damned. All is fair in rock and pop. But the fact is, these are such collaborative efforts that it hardly matters whether Jim Roll, Denis Johnson, or Rick Moody wrote the words. All of these songs come from Roll's own voice; he sees the stories here through a slightly warped pair of ironic eyes that happen to find beauty in narratives about two gangsters trying to be human, a guy riding an orphan train to his destiny, or in-flight magazines. But that's only part of the story anyway; the other is that this is Roll's brand of angular, off-kilter rock, where noisy, squalling guitars, killer hooks, and the occasional country-rock ballad come pouring through the speakers to spear the listener in the heart. So Roll wrote five tracks himself, including the stellar "Eddie Rode the Orphan Train," an impressionistic account of a friend's grandfather's story, and the winding country drama "Kicking at the Traces," which is bound to have the freelancers at No Depression salivating, though it's so much more than a genre tune. Johnson and Moody divvied up the rest of the words and, through Roll's gamey arrangements and simple, burning rock, folk, and country (all of them translated garage style), they get the opportunity to be that thing they've so often hinted at in their novels and poems: rockers on an album. (For reference points, check Moody's "Blue Guitar," which could have been recorded by the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers, and the choogling, razor pop anthem "In Flight Magazines.") As for Johnson, a guy who writes like he's a lost rocker looking for his next gig in a town he hasn't found yet, there's "You," from a poem in his Incognito Lounge, one of the saddest and most vulnerable tunes to come down the rusty pipe since Neil Young's "Comes a Time," and the hauntingly beautiful "Desperado in the Parking Lot," a poem he used in his novel Already Dead: A California Gothic, which Roll somehow captures more perfectly in his trademark brand of banjo-driven, loose-wristed country roll music than Kerouac did in the opening scene of Visions of Cody.
The reason Inhabiting the Ball stands head and shoulders above Roll's other two records isn't just because of his collaboration with these two cats; his own songs are the best here. A case in point is the final track, "To Be Alarmed," an easy, slippery rocker offering a vulnerable yet cocksure paean to love's assurance and intent that looks to the end of the horizon for a resolution, regardless of the outcome of his hope, and finds it considerably closer -- not two feet from the front of his shoes. Finally, there are the textures that frame Inhabiting the Ball, sinking it into its own piece of oily, wet earth to sprout a weed, a shoot, or a B-3 (courtesy of a production team that includes Brian Deck, Roll, and Jon Williams). The tunes here are wrapped in an American timelessness that takes the grain of the voice and wraps it in shimmering strings, broken melodies, distorted drums, shifting, slightly off-minor structures, and treaded-out (as in truck tires, folks) rhythms that add ghostly lines, summer blacktop finishes, and rusted Coke machines to the rainbow bodies of musical language itself -- melody, rhythm, harmony, lyric. Echoes and tinny guitars, rackety banjos, and switchblade electric six-strings scrape along the roiling, bogged-out drum sound (trash can lids, rubber tubing, discarded fencing, broken trap kits, etc.), and paint the scenes for these stories to hang themselves in your trailer like the pictures of real (or reel) life they are.