Paul K.

Saratoga

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Having been saddled in the past with "the next Dylan" and "spokesperson for a generation"-type descriptions, Paul K. has always had a lot to live up to musically and lyrically, although with a past that includes drug addiction and jail, he also has a lot of personal experience on which to draw. That is exactly what led to the wild ambition of 1998's concept album A Wilderness of Mirrors and it similarly serves him extremely well on that album's follow-up, Saratoga. Despite the critical/cultural weight placed on his music, Paul K. has always been more than able to deliver the goods. Returning with a new backing band, he does just that on this self-produced effort. Paul K. is an adept storyteller, and, indeed, he does compare favorably to Dylan. But that is at least partly a function of having roughly comparable influences. Though the music and songwriting on Saratoga is timelessly accomplished, it also seems very much grounded in the '60s folk-rock aesthetic, with loose, laid-back playing, strummed and finger-picked acoustic guitars that jut into rollicking, roadhouse blues, spacy electric guitar dynamics a la the Grateful Dead, and piano and organ that insinuate their way into the music. There is even some legitimate soul/gospel influences, such as the backing vocals on "Airport Road" and "The Judge (On Judgement Day)." Going even further, Paul K., like Dylan or Townes Van Zandt (whose "Harm's Swift Way" is covered on the album), seems an heir to Woody Guthrie, and there are lyrical nods to the Beats as well, with road-weary and down-and-out themes. That may be heady company, but it is deserved. Paul K. is a fabulous songwriter, and he inhabits the songs with just the right sense of character, sometimes sounding tired and beaten, sometimes vibrant and energized ("They Just Don't Make Things Like They Used To"). The songs veer from sad and gentle ballads ("Once It Happens") to loping country ("You Took It Too Far") to incendiary rock & roll, and, if it is not exactly a concept album, it at least holds together well thematically. There is a sense of catharsis about Saratoga, but even moreso it seems reverential, almost biblically ethereal in its dramatic and uncertain (but oddly romantic) inquisitiveness.

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