David Olney, Through A Glass Darkly (Rounder Records, 1999)

In the 1990 Dudley Moore movie, Crazy People, an ad executive goes nuts and is consigned to a mental hospital after he starts writing “truthful” slogans, like “Volvo: Boxy but good.” In that vein, and hoping that I won’t end up the same way, I present the three word summary of David Olney’s newest album, Through A Glass Darkly.

Gloomy but good.

Alternatively: Solemn but superb.

However, you didn’t come here to get the short version. You want details. Well, then… David Olney has the very special talent of “inhabitating” the characters he sings about. He doesn’t just tell their stories, he becomes them. This would be impressive under normal circumstances, but Olney doesn’t settle for comfortable characters. No, his “cast” includes a French protitute during World War I, John Dillinger (an Old West outlaw), an obsessive lover, a gambler, a homicidal loner and more.

That’s why I have to call this one “gloomy” or “solemn,” since for the most part, Olney’s subjects are very serious, and he approaches each one from that viewpoint. Each is a unique story and a special case, and he takes them on one by one. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this CD depressing. Far from it. But it’s not exactly the sort of music you’ll want to put on if you have a date over. And it’s not exactly relaxing music, either.

What is it? It’s sung stories, plain and simple. As the album liner states, it’s about “sometimes old, sometimes vicious, sometimes tragic, and above all, always fascinating people, real and imagined.” Frankly, that sums it up as well as I ever could.

Olney’s voice is cool and refreshing, luring the listener into a strange sense of security even as he spins forth these tales of lovers, madmen, criminals, and legends. His talent is unmistakeable, as is the guitar he plays by way of accompaniment. It’s clear from this one album (Olney’s sixth, but the first he’s produced himself), that this is no fly-by-night one hit wonder. This is a seasoned veteran, who’s managed to convey a sense of maturity, experience, and weathered accomplishment.

Olney isn’t alone on this album, either. He’s joined in places by assorted friends, all picked to give Through A Glass Darkly a very specific Thirties string-band/country/blues feel. Names to note are A.C. Bushnell on fiddle, Mike Fleming on banjo, Forrest Rose on bass, Deanie Richardson on fiddle and mandolin, and Pat McInerney on drums.

The first song, “1917” (about a World War I French prostitute and her doomed English soldier client), sports no less than four Davids! (Olney, Pomeroy, Davidson and Angell.) And I must say that the band does well with the material, giving it a unique feel, and that sense of Thirties string band, at least as far as I’ve always imagined such a creature sounding. “1917” is a very sad song, and fits the gloomy aspect as well as any.

“JT’s Escape,” a rolicking tale about an escaped Old West outlaw, is a toe-tapping, lively affair that brightens the spirit after the seriousness of Dillinger’s bleak adventures. However, songs like “Little Bit of Poison” and “The Suicide Kid” probably won’t make it onto your wedding playlist.

However, “Barabbas”(about the man who was set free in Jesus’ place before the Crucifixion), conveys a sense of wonder and surprise. The self-admitted thief and murderer finds a curious kind of freedom in another man’s sacrifice, and vows to spread the word and the mystery in exchange for his new life. The final song is a quieter, wistful almost-love song entitled “Dogwoods.”

For those completists out there, it’s worth noting that among Olney’s own songs are several that were written by Tom House (“C’Mon Through Carolina”) and Townes Van Zandt (“Snowin’ On Raton”).

On the whole, I’d have to say that Through A Glass Darkly is engaging, interesting, and worthwhile. As a pleasant addition, the liner booklet contains complete lyrics to all of the songs, proving that every one is a story unto itself. An introduction by Dave Ferman (Pop Music Critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram) goes into details about the album and is a must-read if you plan to listen to the music. Ferman’s able to sum up the depth and breadth of Olney’s work with a certain poetic appreciativeness that enlightens the casual listener.

In short, it’s a good album. Introspective and intelligent, but most assuredly not the most cheerful of topics. It requires attention and concentration, and it probably won’t do well for background noise. But if ballad-style songs are what you like, then just maybe this CD is for you.

Sadly, I was unable to find a website devoted to David Olney, but you can always check the Rounder Web site, which contains details on Olney and his albums, allows you to purchase online, and contains a wealth of details on the other artists produced by Rounder Records.

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