Album review: Josh Nolan, FAIR CITY LIGHTS

Fair City Lights, the debut album of Kentuckian Josh Nolan, wears its influences the way an old man wears his jailhouse tats — the jagged ink not only sits there on the surface for everyone to see, it also burns in the skin, through the layers, into the marrow. It’s not just part of the old man; in a lot of ways, it’s who he is.

I’m guessing music is that tattoo for singer-songwriter Josh Nolan. It’s not just a part of him; it’s who he is. 

The classic bloodlines come through clean when you listen to Fair City Lights – bits of Springsteen there, Ryan Adams over here, John Prine and Neil Young, and Tom Waits over there, with lesser gods like Colin Linden, Loudon Wainright III lurking around the edges. But really, that’s all you hear – bits of the classics. Tributes, really. The rest is absolute, pure Josh Nolan, running his influences through a cement mixer, creating something unquestionably his own, singing about small town hearts and big-city dreams in a way that I haven’t heard in a long time.

In a world filled to the point of bursting with ironic songwriters and cookie cutter folk acts, it’s good to hear some straight up rock music again.

Though Nolan’s influences are apparent, he’s not running away from them. At times he even seems to be playing a game with his audience, tossing in the occasional ‘70s songwriter lyric or musical reference, just to see if we’re paying attention. “Between the Lights,” the album’s Mellencampesque finisher (Mellencampesque? Has that word been used before?), features an extended, rapid-fire string of references that start with Springsteen’s “Mary’s dress sways as the screen door slams” then rolls on through Bob Seger, (“way out past where the woods got heavy”), Don Maclean (it all dried up, but we made it to the levy”), and more.

In a lot of ways, Fair City Lights isn’t just a throwback, it’s a time capsule. These songs feel right at home in the rotation with the aforementioned Prine, Waits, et. al.. And let’s not forget Springsteen. Above all, Springsteen floats above this record like a favorite uncle looking down from Heaven – and not the bombastic, quasi-religious, borderline self-parody Springsteen that’s roamed the earth since he got the E-Streeters back together in the early 2000s, either. No, Josh Nolan has more in common with the early Springsteen, the Greetings from Asbury Park/Born to Run/Darkness on the Edge of Town/The River Springsteen, in no small part because his own natural voice sounds not just a little like the Boss of that era. Songs like“Come Mornin’”and “Do It Right” echo folky Bruce perfectly, while the screeching guitar (and accompanying glockenspiel) that opens “Waitin’ on the Night” proudly gives a shout out to Born To Run in a way that few folks even attempt these days.

That’s not to say that Fair City Lights is some shallow whipped-cream imitation of the real thing. Truth be told, it’s far from that. As any drink snob can tell you, the best wine or bourbon is so much more than the sum of its ingredients. I’m no alcohol connoisseur – I’ve never been able to taste plums or currants in my cabernet no matter how much the label says they’re in there –  but I damn sure know great music when I hear it. Josh Nolan and Fair City Lights fit the bill.

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Fair City Lights hits itunes, Amazon.com, and Spotify, among others, on April 4. Visit Josh Nolan at joshnolanmusic.com

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