For those who observe the hidden pitfalls and wiles of the music business, it's deeply satisfying to see that, every once in a while, real tenacity, no matter how unfocused it seems, pays off. Singer, songwriter, visual artist, and author Jeb Loy Nichols is a case in point. It was there from his earliest days when he relocated from Austin to New York in 1979, hanging out with the Slits and Neneh Cherry; it displayed itself in the Fellow Travellers, a band Nichols formed with wife Loraine Morley, On-U Sound engineer Martin Harrison, and jazz trombonist John Harborne. It showed itself on his Capitol Records debut, Lovers Knot, in 1997, and with his participation in the electronic dance-pop of the Underwolves, one of his many side projects, as well as on all six of his own releases. Nichols perseveres tenaciously, but he hangs on loosely. His musical ambitions are limitless; he writes songs that reflect his love of country, dubwise reggae, jazz, the Great American Songbook, folk, blues, and rock. He hears music in his head like an old-school FM DJ spinning records all night long across the American wilderness. His approach is always laid-back but focused, warmly humorous, lithely sensual, and as comfortable as a well-worn shirt.
Parish Bar, issued on Compass Records, was originally recorded as an in-between project, something to reflect his many interests while he was thinking about recording another "proper" album. The ironic thing is, Parish Bar reflects the many elements of Nichols' musical identity better than any of his previous offerings. The 13-track set -- available on vinyl and CD, and the wax comes with a coupon for a free download of the album -- contains some new originals, an old cut radically redone, and some covers. Stylistically, it ranges from countrified reggae to funky Americana, some jazz, some dub, and other musics: all of them pure Nichols, who claims he conceived and recorded the set on his farm in Wales while working on a series of woodcuts called Ghost Land, taken from the nickname of Bronx park where Afrika Bambaataa founded the Zulu Nation. The opening cut, "Countrymusicdisco45," is exactly what it says it is. This is the heretofore secret terrain where Boz Scaggs' Silk Degrees meets the laid-back country groove of Willie Nelson and Charlie Rich in the 1970s, polished with a few select breaks, a nocturnal bassline, and some smooth Rhodes, strings, and harmonica. It might read like a horrible combination, but it all locks into a sensual, laid-back groove.
The covers are choice, too, including a stellar -- if highly unusual -- reading of Tom T. Hall's "I Took a Memory to Lunch," with Rhodes piano, soulful wah-wah guitar, and backing vocals from Morley, along with a jazzy funky "Foggy Road Ride." There's a fine near-dancehall version of James B. Smith's "I'm Blue I'm Lonesome Too." Right, the song originally recorded by Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys. But it's Nichols' own tunes that bring the greatest satisfaction -- his redo of "Days Are Mighty," with some more slippery beats, a high-string guitar, and rub-a-dub bassline bubbling under that tender Missouri-cum-Wyoming-cum-Texas drawl. The laid-back blue-eyed Southern soul of "Satan's Helper" may have country lyrics, but the music weds the Rascals to James Taylor to Dan Penn. Parish Bar may be the album that puts Nichols over, and it deserves to. He's slowly but surely gone about his business, and his sense of craft, honesty, and curiosity makes for music that is rich, sophisticated, and resonant with all the qualities of the human spirit.