Folk-scene veteran Bob Frank and relative youngster John Murry are a pair of separated-by-decades Memphis ex-pats who met when Murry moved to the San Francisco area several years ago. Two years ago, the pair joined forces for World Without End, a terrific collection of modern murder ballads based on true stories.
The pair's follow-up album, Brinkley, Ark. (And Other Assorted Love Songs), is also thematic, though less tightly knit. This collection of love songs is more personal and coheres more from a musical connection than a thematic one. Stylistically, the record leaps forward from the folk ballad tradition to the blue-eyed country soul of the 1960s and '70s.
It's a surprising move and one that helps both Frank and Murry. It pulls Frank out of his folkie comfort zone and reveals that his voice is less limited than those familiar with his previous work might have expected. Just listen to how he ably negotiates the different registers and phrasings in the smoky nightclub soul of "Night Train."
But this setting really underscores and expands Murry's talents in ways that World Without End didn't. Literary, old-timey, and dark, World Without End was a comfort zone of a sort for Murry as well, though he (and Frank) were able to explode the gothic costume-party limitations others have found in the murder-ballad genre. But this record takes Murry into more personal places.
Once a Jay Farrar doppelganger vocally, here Murry's grown into a voice both lighter and wilder. He sounds a lot like the Band's Rick Danko to me, and the blues/soul roots of the music fits the comparison as well.
Murry takes command on only four songs (three of them co-written with another former Memphian, Brady Potts, Murry's bandmate in the short-lived Bluff City alt-country band the Dillingers), but they're all powerhouse performances — especially the lovelorn drama of "Hey, Elly" and the stomping R&B of "You Better Move" (which echoes the Band's "The Shape I'm In").
In between duo records, Frank has kept his solo career going, releasing the fine Red Neck, Blue Collar on Memphis International. Murry needs to get his started, and the songs here should serve as a launching pad.
The lone misstep is a closing cover of Greg Cartwright's Compulsive Gamblers gem "Stop & Think It Over." Conceptually, this is a perfect choice: Cartwright is another Memphis ex-pat, and the song is a genius blast of blue-eyed R&B in keeping with the sound and theme of the project. Frank and Murry's version doesn't quite come off — perhaps the song is bit too sock-hop for these more grizzled voices — but the very different version does at least help the listener hear the amazing songcraft of Cartwright's composition even more clearly.
Overall, Brinkley, Ark. is less impressive on the surface than World Without End (that "assorted" in the subtitle is truth in advertising), but it might prove to be a more durable listen. And what it suggests for Murry's future is exciting. — Chris Herrington