Missouri-native Jeff Black is an expressive singer with a mature voice who writes impressionistic songs that often pack an emotional punch. It’s a sort of lived-in voice of authority along the lines of a John Hiatt that allows Black to chew the scenery effectively from song to song.
Tin Lily is the singer’s fourth album, and in terms of overall sound, it sort of splits the difference between his major label debut, 1998’s Birmingham Road (on which he was backed by members of Wilco), and the low-key, more under the radar, mostly acoustic B-Sides and Confessions Volume One. Joining Black on this record are hot-shot guitar slingers Will Kimbrough and Kenny Vaughn, as well as Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle.
The soulful reminiscence “Free At Last,” which features the record’s best melody, is about gunning the engine and leaving your hometown behind. “I’m following a star over the rainbow now,” Black sings. “Nineteen” is a moody number about growing old: “They say if one remembers/Well that’s all I have to give/Thirty five Decembers/and I’ve but half my life to live.” And Black sings about a friend with the weight of the world on his shoulders on “Hard Way Out.”
Occasionally on Tin Lily, Black seems to coast on the gravitas in his voice even when the lyrics aren’t particularly interesting or universal or profound enough. “All Days Shine” is pretty but lacks something to hold onto. The rocker “Libertine” is kind of a throwaway lyrically too, though it is a nice change of pace on this mostly downbeat record. On the other hand, “These Days” is a heartfelt rocker with a personal touch. “I am fighting for some reasons that I may never understand,” Black sings. “Save for these pictures in my pocket and coming home again.”
Black could also benefit from a few stronger melodies and choruses and from switching up the tempos a little more often. And many of the songs on Tin Lily lack the specificity and power of Birmingham Road tracks like “A Long Way to Go” and “That’s Just About Right.” But Black’s still got that “voice of the wise friend” thing down.