After twelve years of performing, Alastair Moock still has the blues, and with his latest album, Fortune Street, he has created an emotionally well-rounded set of songs, oscillating between poignant reflections of love and inspiration to foot-pounding contempt for bill collectors and landlords. The album is an offering nearly everyone can appreciate, holding strong to the idea that life deals you different cards each day. As we all know, sometimes you jump out of bed and whistle on the way to work, and sometimes you wake up hung over and stub your pinky toe on the nightstand. Like the many great folk raconteurs before him, Moock tells his tales with a comically irreverent style that paints a picture of a world not entirely sunny, but always interesting.
Part of Moock’s sound is defined by his thick, raspy vocals that draw comparison to Tom Waits. Moock, however, has less of a bark, and when he begins his rumbling lyrics over the light patter of his acoustic guitar, he becomes inviting enough to come into your room and tuck you in. The sound on Fortune Street can be recreated live with strikingly dead-on precision, due in large part to David “Goody” Goodrich’s production. Goodrich has his roots in the jazz scene and when recording, he places the emphasis on capturing the spirit of a performance, working in long, drawn-out takes rather than using studio tricks to manufacture songs. In addition to producing the entire album, Goodrich lends his talents on guitar on eight of the ten tracks, and along with Lou Ulrich and Michael Piehl (all three formerly of the Boston rock band Groovasaurus), forms the band behind Moock and helps hone the sound of the album.
The tracks “Woody’s Lament” and “Cloudsplitter” are the album’s two historical ballads. The latter, recorded solo and in one take, is adapted from the Russell Banks novel of the same name about the American abolitionist John Brown. “Woody’s Lament” is sung under the assumed voice of Woody Guthrie, who Moock cites as a personal hero, and starts off slowly with Moock alone accompanied by his plucky guitar and soon begins to build until it takes off like a train from the station.
With “Roll On (Song for Anne Marie),” we follow the story of a woman who finally leaves a bad relationship. The lyrics “Plenty of fish/Left in the sea/Don’t know if I’ve got/Any bait left in me” capture beautifully the difficulties facing middle-age separation, especially when the only other option is living out the rest of your days alone. The production is lush and serene, composed in a way that is so charming you actually forget you’re listening to a somber story, a clear gem in an already solid assembly of songs.
Two other standout tracks are “Yin Yang Blues” and “Swing That Axe,” both of which are playful and upbeat and show off Moock’s wit and sense of humor. With “Swing that Axe,” the humor is reflected inward, singing: “You’re broke because folk doesn’t pay/That’s the facts/Come on baby, swing that axe” over the bluesy twang of Moock’s acoustic backed brilliantly by the mandolin. “Yin Yang Blues” is a contradictory blues track that’s heavy on the humor, bringing you into the mind of a man playing tug-of-war with his own emotions: “I love you baby, no I don’t/I need you now, I surely won’t.”
I like to view Alastair Moock’s albums as collective pieces of his personality, impressively varied and cautiously avoiding the monotony of following the same beaten path. His albums are, lyrically and tonally, amalgams of his own influences brought to the surface, which blend with his own rootsy style. For a man that once said that when all the originators are gone “All we’ll have is tribute songs,” it still seems clear, in his own troubadour style, that the folk spirit is alive and well.