Al Tuck & No Action

The New High Road of Song

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The third album by Halifax, Nova Scotia, native and one of North America's least-known exceptional songwriters is a dense, sublime masterwork. Al Tuck's songs are world-weary but rich in soulful élan, instant old friends. On the dubwise opener "Eliminate Ya," he sings nonchalantly regarding his music: "People are gonna want to hear it." This is not, however, braggadocio. It's as if the observation just happened to be floating around in his head, so he decided to let it free, yet he has no attachment to it one way or another. Regardless, the statement's supreme confidence is not misplaced. The New High Road of Song is an exceptional album. The degree of looseness in Tuck's music is endearing and exactly right. It is neither messy nor sloppy, it is simply candid and honest, and belongs to that late-late-night window of time when you cannot get to sleep no matter what you do and, as a result, are incapable of lying to yourself any longer, even when you try to. Tuck is less Dylanesque -- an almost inevitable comparison for such a literate and droll songwriter -- in his wordplay than in the tossed-off, immanently witty irreverence of his lyrics. His songs, in fact, bypass wordiness altogether. They sound, instead, like they are being slowly squeezed from him, and as soon as they are out in the open, the music envelops them. It renders what he does say even more wrenching and emphasizes how wonderful his lazy, workaday vignettes really are. The production is an apropos counterpart to the mood, attractively atmospheric like something Daniel Lanois might have helmed. The guitars weave intoxicated webs, warped oases of sound that nevertheless retain their loopy good nature and never threaten to drown Tuck's infectious sense of humor. The laidback nature of the music is perfectly framed by endeavors into languid reggae underpinnings on "(Damn Near) Do Me Justice" and "Hurry (Soon It'll Be Too Late)," and swaying Caribbean rhythms on "Not I." And Tom Waits -- or maybe Mose Allison -- could have written "Bean's Blues" if it weren't so much less downtrodden and so much more playful. Tuck's songs are like conversations with whatever stranger happens to be sitting at the bar. They open up with almost no prompting and reveal little insights that are as amusingly personal as they are poignant, even if that poignancy is almost an afterthought. The informal romanticism of "Killing Time" is all the more heartfelt because it is so casual, like two friends and would-be lovers lounging together on a couch on a Saturday afternoon with nothing else to do but sweet talk each other. The same goes for "When It Rains (Flora)," the jazzy guitar chords punctuating the dizzy conversation taking place, part of it in the narrator's own head. Those moments where he turns the dialogue in on himself are the most precious. We have all had similar internal debates with ourselves, but rarely have they sounded as exquisite and humble. Tuck may not want to toot his own horn, as he claims on "(Damn Near) Do Me Justice," but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be tooted, as often and as loudly as possible, and to the widest conceivable audience.

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