Though he's an up-and-coming artist on the singer/songwriter scene, Joe Pug sounds like an old soul on his debut album, Messenger. It may have something to do with the fact that he's working an old-school sound. At a point in time when most acoustic guitar-strumming troubadours are tricking up their tunes with neo-psychedelic swirls, electronic frippery, or some other such device, Pug plays it straight-ahead, with a delivery that brings to mind John Prine, and lyrics full of poetic but never overripe imagery. If Messenger had arrived sometime in the ‘70s, Pug would likely have been one of the many songsmiths of that era (Loudon Wainwright III, Steve Forbert, et al) labeled as a "New Dylan." Many of the tracks here feature nothing but Pug accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, but the songs themselves are weighty enough that there's never a feeling of empty space. For that matter, even when Pug has a full band backing him up, as on the tunes that bookend the album, "Messenger" and "Speak Plainly, Diana," you get the impression that however much the musicians may add, the man up front could easily keep your interest all by himself on these cuts as well. "I was born into a circus, but I ran off to join a home" sings Pug on "How Good You Are," and it's a perfect example of how he can subvert clichés and come up with striking images without ever letting the seams show. It doesn't hurt that Pug brings an emotional accessibility to these tunes without seeming over-indulgent and emoting all over your shoes. On his first album, Pug already seems like an old hand at this game, even if he's exaggerating a touch when he brags "I wrote John Steinbeck's book" on "Not So Sure."
by James Allen