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Issue: April 2008

Sugar and Gravel

Joel Timothy
Fly Away With My Heart (Quarry Hill Records)

I had a friend who loathed, loathed Tom Waits with an intensity that would make her grind her molars into dust. So great was her rage that, as the mention of his name, I would expect her to turn green, grow three feet taller while her muscles bulged out of her clothes, then bellow, "Arrrgghhh! Hulk smash puny man with voice like snot!"

When I asked why she had a hate-on for Waits, she said, as if the answer was obvious, "His voice! I can't stand it." I've heard similar arguments from women who say they don't like Lyle Lovett because of his hair. Others think Dave Navarro is the grossest thing alive because of the asymmetrical alignment of his nostrils. And the tiny mole at the corner of his right eyebrow has gotten bigger over the last 10 years.

True, Waits doesn't have the smoothest vocal sound, but it works with his material. It's the persona of an aged barroom pianist who has spent more than half a century breathing in others' cigarette smoke and pulling wads of tip money from an oversized brandy snifter when the chairs get upturned until the next night.

You hear that same kind of life-lived-hard burr in the vocals of Louisville's Joel Timothy, but it is laid over lovely instrumentation and tender songs in his latest release, Fly Away With My Heart.

A follow-up to 2006's Broken Cage, Fly Away brings us a set of 10 passionate songs that thematically explore loss, seduction, love and redemption. Some would fit snugly into the Americana genre, others into country and a couple would find a home in blues. In short, Timothy covers all possible bases with this release.

Notable among the tracks are the title cut, which starts gently with acoustic guitar before exploding like a bright skyrocket into the chorus; "Loveland," where Timothy's sugar-gravel voice sings about a planned seduction, complete with Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra records on the hi-fi; "Over the Red Line," where engineering an album becomes a metaphor for someone's love life; and finally there's the spiritual optimism of "Rise into the Setting Sun" double-tracked with the obligatory lament of "Rooster's Crowin'."

In American music, it is, arguably, more about the song than the singer. To be sure, a good voice can make a mediocre song soar. Still, in our musical tradition we have many performers with vocal stylings that may not quite match up with the material, but it is hard to imagine the song without their flavors: Leon Russell singing "Lady Blue" or his version of "This Masquerade," or anything Bob Dylan has done over the last decade, or even Tom Waits himself.

Maybe now it is time to add Joel Timothy's sugar-gravel vocals in Fly Away With My Heart to that roster.

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