Songwriter Vincent Cross was a mainstay of the late, lamented Banjo Jim’s Americana music scene, but he’s hardly been idle since that club shut its doors. His previous album Home Away from Home was a pretty straight-up, purist bluegrass collection; his new one A Town Called Normal is a lot more eclectic, a mix of rustic acoustic Americana with a bit of folk-rock and traditional sounds from across the pond. Most of the album is streaming at various places, including Cross’ site and his myspace page. Cross sings with an unaffected, easygoing twang, plays guitars, mandolin and harmonica and has an excellent band behind him, incorporating the talents of various combinations of Bennett Sullivan and Doug Nicolaisen on banjos; Max Johnson, Allen Cohen and Larry Cook on bass; Mark Farrell on mandolin and Shane Kerwin on drums on a few tracks.
Several of the songs sound like they could be Appalachian standards…except that they’re originals. One of the richest sounding of these is Cursed, with its lusciously intermingled layers of banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar. Cross has a way with aphoristic oldtime vernacular: “How can we distinguish the evil from the good? The chorus always should,” he observes on the title cut. Likewise, the metaphorically-charged cautionary tale Turn Your Eyes: “Warning bells from the mizzzen mast, don’t go down with the crew and cast.” And Childish Things – a catchy, swinging bluegrass-tinged original, not the James McMurtry hit – muses that “nobody knows why the caged bird sings til you put away your childish things.”
My Love starts out quietly and then builds to a neat series of tradeoffs between Cross’ harmonica and nimble guitar flatpicking. Old Christmas Wrapping, a bittersweet waltz, goes into down-and-out Tom Waits territory, but less pessimistically. Walking on the Outside sounds suspiciously like an acoustic version of Son Volt’s Tearstained Eye, with a soulful dobro solo. Sometimes builds up to a brooding, hypnotic two-chord jam, while Trouble Being There evokes Matt Keating with its wry surrealism and gentle folk-rock melody.
There’s also Footnotes, a brooding polyrhythmic miniature; Wrack and Ruin, which takes a stab at honkytonk; and a nicely syncopated take of the traditional folk song Cuckoo, “who never hollers ‘cuckoo’ til the 4th day of July.” How’s that for symbolism? Cross is at the American Folk Art Museum on 4/26 at 5:30 PM.