Raleigh, North Carolina country singer Jeanne Jolly’s latest album Angels has a lot of great tunes and great stories. Jolly is conservatory trained, with a jazz background: she had a money gig singing in a well-known pop-jazz band for awhile. In the last couple of years, she’s honed her chops on her home turf, embracing the country styles she grew up with there. Much as the album blends oldschool country with rock, it’s a million miles from New Nashville. Although Jolly’s voice can give you goosebumps, she saves the pyrotechnics for when she really wants to nail a lyric or drive a chorus home. Her songs usually follow a narrative: she’s got an eye for detail, likes to work the suspense for all it’s worth, and her band is sensational. She’s at the big room at the Rockwood on March 1 at 7 PM with eight-string guitarist Chris Boerner and drummer/keyboardist Nick Baglio.
Angels on Hayworth Street, the album’s opening track, sets the tone. Over Boerner’s tersely bluesy electric guitar and Allyn Love’s deliciously keening pedal steel, Jolly sings about a woman who “Found out on a Sunday with a pale face and racing heart” who knew she had to leave. As the narrative goes on and she finds unexpected comfort, it’s not clear if she’s actually escaped, or died and gone off to a better place. Likewise, the propulsive, crescendoing Happy Days Cafe, lit up with James Wallace’ jaunty, rippling piano, could be about a heartwaming encounter with a stranger…or a chance meeting with a ghost who can’t let go of what haunts him.
The rest of the album is impressively eclectic. Sweet Love, a balmy, shuffling bossa-tinged acoustic trip-hop number, reminds of Bob Marley. The Hard Way is a honkytonk song done as backbeat rock with a wild, snarling Boerner guitar solo, while the bitter, aphoristic Tear Soup is the most traditional C&W number here, complete with a spine-tingling blue yodel or three and more than a hint of operatics in the vocals as it winds out.
The anxious road song Long Way Home evokes another first-class Americana chanteuse, Mary Lee Kortes, right down to the catchy chorus and the crystalline vocals. The album’s strongest and hardest-hitting song, Round and Round Again, begins as a gentle waltz, a fond look back at young love and then explodes: “I’ll walk by you, as the sky splits in two,” Jolly wails in anguish on the chorus. The album ends with The Kiss, which sounds like Bjork doing Betty Carter, Jolly’s torchy vocals over an ambient drone and Mat Caughan’s muffled percussion, followed by the country waltz Good Man. This is an ambitious album: Jolly covers an awful lot of ground here, keeps her bearings and when she pulls out all the stops, it can be breathtaking.