Pete Nelson

The Restless Boys' Club

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Pete Nelson is certainly not the only storytelling folk singer in the business. It has, in fact, become something of a folk reviewer's cliché to compare a singer/songwriter to a novelist, short story writer, or playwright. But such descriptions are unavoidable in discussions of Nelson's work, and they are even more apt when applied to him than they are to better-known storytellers like Dar Williams, Ellis Paul, and Darryl Purpose. That's because story seems primary to Nelson and music only secondary. On his debut album, The Restless Boys' Club, fundamental conventions of popular music are regularly tossed aside if they don't suit the narrative. In the liner notes, his lyrics are printed in prose format with complete sentences, paragraphs, and quotation marks. Nelson's choruses, usually the heart and soul of a song, tend to be brief and unmemorable, almost thrown away; enlisted in service of the verses rather than the other way round. Meter and rhyme are all but vanquished from the tragicomic opener, "Norman," and on "Let's Get Some Beer," the purported solo artist steps aside to let an all-star cast (John Gorka, Bill Morrissey, Cliff Eberhardt, and Greg Brown) voice his characters. Nelson's own voice -- soft, thin, and sometimes unsteady -- seems a liability on the first listen, but he uses its gentle, unaffected simplicity to great effect. Of course, none of this would work if the stories weren't well told. But Nelson has a great gift for quietly underscoring the poignant depth of ordinary events in ordinary lives. And though he isn't nearly as good a singer or composer as most of the celebrity guests that play on his albums (Paul Williams, Chistine Lavin, and Peter Mulvey, to name a few), he finds plenty of luminous musical moments to shed light on those well-crafted narratives.

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