by Judson Branam
Jim Roll has long been known as a literate and sometimes witheringly honest folk-rock wordsmith, and on his third CD, Inhabiting the Ball, he raises the literary stakes by taking on noted novelists Denis Johnson and Rick Moody as collaborators. Eight of the CD's eighteen songs feature lyrics by Johnson and Moody, and these, together with Roll's broad repertoire of folk, rock, and country music touches, make for a record rich with sonic surprises and heady lyrical twists. From the somber biography of "Eddie Rode the Orphan Train" to the sardonic spoof of "In-Flight Magazines," Roll's plainspoken tenor drives forward on an undercurrent of informed melancholy.
Perhaps inspired by the edgy-to-twisted wordplay of Johnson and Moody's more traditional verse, Roll's own incisive lyricism takes on a more ambitious literary bent in the five songs he wrote himself. "Bonnie and Clyde" is a rock song extolling the tough, violent vulnerability of Faye Dunaway's character in the film classic. "Orphan Train" tells the true story of an orphan exported from New York to Arkansas and put to work on a farm, and "Curious One" deals in the rarefied territory of the ancient Middle East and the sun goddess Anana.
Musically, Roll is clearly comfortable straddling several camps, whether he's playing solo or with a band, rocking out or finger-picking a folk song, revealing his own thoughts or putting music to those of another writer. Roll himself sums up the three-voice approach as "just freakish enough to fit together."
Like Roll's previous CD, Lunette, the new recording plays off the ragged edges of folk-rock, blending acoustic and fuzzed-out guitar tones, sweet pump organ, loose banjo, and plenty of open space. Time will tell whether Roll's latest goes down as a fresh direction melding sound and mind or just a literary curiosity but it's an apt product to have sprung from the folk music-loving and literature-loving environs of Ann Arbor.
Jim Roll celebrates the release of Inhabiting the Ball on Tuesday, March 5, at the Blind Pig.
[Originally published in March, 2002.]