It's customary in rock criticism to begin any discussion of a singer/songwriter, even a good one, with withering complaints against "confessions," "navel- gazing" and, worst of all, "sincerity." Most singer/songwriters -- read about it in the alternative weekly of your choice -- are just too sensitive, as if the deadening of one's senses and soul were a sign of artistic achievement. After all, you can't be hip and still pretend music means anything more than keeping up with fashion.
Jim Roll is a young singer/songwriter who grew up in the Chicago burbs and now lives in Michigan. He's sensitive and fashionable -- like a gunshot wound. His debut, Ready to Hang (One Man Clapping, 1998), was an ecstatically tortured, poetically tangled folk-rock affair. Dave Marsh likened it to Dylan, the two Elvises and Beck. Sounds like a big, wet smack of death, right? Perhaps, save that Roll does what good singer/songwriters have always done, turning each song into an emotional fulcrum, delivering melodies as if worlds depend on the smallest aesthetic choices -- the quivering turn of phrase, the sly buzz of a guitar string, the stories that unfold in finding just the right word, no matter how worn by the everyday: "wire," "dry," "bedroom fan," "hang." His brand-new disc Lunette (New West) finds him on less tense but terser songwriting ground. In the company of alt-country cognoscenti Walter Salas-Humara (Silos), Jon Dee Graham (True Believers) and Gurf Morlix (Lucinda Williams), Roll keeps up with fiddle and banjo breakdowns, Waitsian wrecking-crew marches, some cello noise and cello grace, one ambitious (but failed) keyboard loop-the-loop and, mostly, a lot of dirty, melodic, cut-and-run rock & roll, the kind Tom Petty or Alex Chilton used to make. The opener, "1955," may be one of the most stunning celebrations of historical delusion ever recorded, but your ears hardly care -- the huge backbeat, the overdriven guitars and Roll's wiry, gorgeously scratchy tenor make for a thrilling mix. And if you were at Twangfest last year, you'll recall what Roll and his band of scruffy sweet rockers can do with Dylan's "Abandoned Love": They knock it right through the back wall. Roll returns to Off Broadway sans bandmates, but no matter: his songwriting is the real reason to attend. With One Fell Swoop opening, fans of smart, swinging roots-rock couldn't ask for a finer double bill.