John Gorka – Writing in the Margins (2006)
If John Gorka had lived in Elizabethan England, he might have joined melancholia masters Thomas Browne and the “always mourning” composer John Dowland for a pint or seven of sorrow. If he had hung out in ’70s Texas, he’d have found a friend in Townes Van Zandt, whose “Snow Don’t Fall” he renders with a ripe languor that the author’s version only hinted at. Gorka’s sense of loss isn’t nebulous anomie and it’s rarely self-indulgent–it’s rooted in experience and a clear-eyed, often dissenting view of contemporary life. The title track follows the familiar genre of a soldier’s letter to the girl he left behind–only this warrior is a transport truck driver, and this anti-war song builds through ache to an almost orchestral sweep. While he dispatches the masters of war in “Road of Good Intentions,” he mostly identifies with the enlisted men smoking alone in airports. And while “Bluer State” surveys a lifetime of scattered friends, the Democratic pun is most definitely intended. The overall mood of this album may be contemplative, but it’s never dour. When he offers up a solitary summa on “I Miss Everyone” (including every person he’s ever met and some he hasn’t), he backs it with a surprisingly jaunty honky-tonk swing. Throughout, Gorka varies his acoustic urbanity just enough–the Mavis Staples-inspired “When You Sing” gets some subtle R&B horns and his warm baritone gets some sweet harmonies from Nanci Griffith–to reflect the complexity and intelligence of his romantic and political laments.