We could probably argue at length, if we wanted to, about what makes good music good. Despite the fact that we all have different tastes, different opinions, we feel in our bones that we can recognize good music when we hear it.
We think we can recognize the other kind, too, though we're all probably wrong in that belief. Frank Zappa once famously called the Shaggs "better than the Beatles." For most people, I think it's safe to say, their "Philosophy of the World" is a touchstone for how bad recorded music can yet still attract fans. Pluperfect awful. Zappa may have been joking (or commenting more on the Beatles than he was the Shaggs) but he may not have been.
Still, I can't help but wondering what Zappa saw in it that I don't? Could you even say? And in a way the question is about as meaningful as wondering whether ossobuco is better than pasta puttanesca. If both are prepared with the same skill, maybe it's less a question of quality than it is a question of whatever you're in the mood for at that moment.
The reason I say all of this is because I've been listening to Steve Spurgin's new album, "Folk Remedies," which is, I think, simply brilliant, and I feel pretty confident in saying that. The guitar work is breathtaking, the writing stellar. At least I think so. For me, this is the best album I've heard this year. I can't stop listening to it in the car, in my iPod when walking downtown. I'm listening to it on my computer right now.
Still I know that there are lots of people who won't think that way. It's a quiet album that doesn't intend to break any land-speed records. The material here isn't going to grab anyone by the throat; it doesn't shout and you can't dance to it. You have to sit down and listen to it.
To be honest, I'm not really a fan of Spurgin, and none of his earlier records have really caught my ear that much at all. But this one is different. I think it's up there with the best of Gordon Lightfoot, a person that is clearly an inspiration to Spurgin, and to whom I suppose he's compared from time to time.
I also like that it goes places. Spurgin is from Texas and has made a career as a writer in Nashville, but this album has thoughts of Nova Scotia, Texas, Ireland; the desert, the ocean; booze, gambling; praise, complaint and comment. People do good things, people do bad things, but in a quiet way like you and I do. There's a folk instrumental ("Sunset on the Sierra") and a blues ("God Bless those Desert Rats"); yet the collection is beautifully even, with the inspired bass of Missy Raines.
But I've been thinking about why it is that I think this is such a good album, what I feel that it does well. And ultimately I don't think it has to do with the chops, but rather it's the honesty with which the whole thing is delivered.
Spurgin is experienced enough and wise enough to know that this album is not going to get him on Letterman, it won't sell a million copies. But he made it, and he sings about things that are important to him. It's quiet, but the thoughts cut very close to the bone. At it's best moments, this album is like an exhalation, a sigh. It's a chance to pause and think about some things that are important to us.
I love that and, at the moment, perhaps that's just what I need. And who knows? You might need that, too.
"Whiskey Town" - Steve Spurgin