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Songs for Lonely Americans

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Album Review

A peculiar but rewarding side project for Scottish folk singer/songwriter Jackie Leven, Songs for Lonely Americans puts Leven's sturdy folk-rock tunes into a modern electronic context. Leven's rich and thickly accented vocals and powerful acoustic guitar are at the center of the songs just as they are on his solo albums, but co-producer David Wrench puts ambient keyboard drones, downtempo drum machines and even a little hip-hop turntablism into the mix as well. The overall effect, a cross between Dick Gaughan and Portishead, works surprisingly well, especially on those songs where the keyboards and effects are used sparingly, to color the songs rather than to overpower them. However, at either end of the album, there are two songs, "Moscow Train" and "Straight Outta Caledonia," that don't quite fit the brief: these are full-on modern pop songs that are as gimmicky in their arrangements and overpowering in their production as anything on a Justin Timberlake album. The trip-hoppy "Moscow Train" acquits itself nicely, with Leven even affecting a bluesy, rap-by-way-of-Bob Dylan vocal style on the verses without embarrassing himself. "Straight Outta Caledonia," however, with its over the top soul-chick backing vocals and everywhere-at-once arrangement, merely sounds awkward. At its heart, Songs for Lonely Americans is close enough to the spirit of Jackie Leven's proper solo work that it likely could have been released under his own name without confusing or alienating all but the most doctrinaire folkies in his audience.

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