Moving Through America, Steve Fobert’s 21st studio album of original material, finds him in an eclectic and, at times, playful mood. Backed by the same band as on his Earl Morning Rain covers set, Fobert offers observations and character sketches on contemporary America. It opens with the short, but succinct simply strummed Buffalo Nickel, a commentary on the paradoxical nature of the coin which, from 1913–1938, had the profile of a Native American on one side and a buffalo on the other, which, as he points, out was bitterly ironic since, in the course of expansion into the West, “We had to go an’ slaughter ev’ry Buffalo herd/And we couldn’t leave an Indian be”.
Gurf Morlix guesting on electric guitar, the easy rolling, tumbling folk-pop Fried Oysters is a whimsical snapshot of a man waiting for his girlfriend, who’s a tad late (“I’m your date and you said eight”) before heading out to a seafood restaurant to share a mollusc treat (“I don’t care what they cost/It’s worth those high prices… you’re my only pearl”), though, Forbert can’t help throwing in a touch of gloom as he ponders the prospect of another hurricane hitting Houston in the last verse.
George Naha providing the Telecaster licks, I Can’t Get Back, a driving song with descending notes and slightly Latin rhythm shuffle, has its narrator lost and astray on his dark horse (“You never know you’re far enough/Until you’ve gone too far/And then you can’t get back/To where you were from where you are”) and throws in a reference to Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. Then, adopting a lively chug somewhat reminiscent of Going Down To Laurel, It’s Too Bad (You Superfreak) offers a character with a gambling habit and just a few rungs up the ladder from homelessness (“My Sunday suit is in the second hand store now/My second wife consigned it there/She threw out half my stuff and gave away enough/To barely leave me clothes to wear”) and not doing great with his relationships (“I sent Leeann a letter to apologize/For saying she had gained some weight/I wrote it all out clearly, then misspelled sincerely/Now she’s cancelling our big date”).
Garry Tallent on bass, in contrast, things are looking up for the narrator of the rockier Neil Young-like groove of Living The Dream, a drug dealer looking to make a new start after being released from prison (“I’ve been in a police car/And lived to tell the tale!”) with life now all peaches and cream in his crepe sole shoes and new Stetson hat.
The title track arrives midway, a Latin-tinged folk n bluesy travelogue about his ten-day solo tour through the Midwest back in January 2017 that, punctuated by its “movin, movin, movin” refrain, is basically a list of places visited from Reynoldsburg, Ohio to Madison, Wisconsin where they serve a “Cocktail from the fifties with an olive in a glass”. The oldest song on the album, written in 2016, also touches on America’s past, the simple strum and semi-spoke USS Palo Alto recounting the history of a cement ship, built but never completed in time for WWI which was then mothballed in the Oakland Naval Shipyard before an enterprising amusement company bought it in 1929 and relocated it to Aptos, California, planning to turn it into an offshore “recreation hot spot/With a cafe and a dance floor and a bandstand/And a swimming pool on board”, only to be torpedoed by the Great Depression and Prohibition, the boat being bought back by the state and left to rot. It’s not hard to see the metaphor of the lost American Dream.
Turning to ecopolitics, Hugh McDonald on bass, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, is a funky folk-rock tune about climate change (“Polar ice caps melt away and still we chop down trees… As temp’ratures get higher the likelihood of fires keeps rising/’Specially on the coast where mudslides happen most”) and not being able to get away from the effects by just moving to a different state. Then, opening with keys, a steady drumbeat and jangly guitars, Say Hello To Gainesville starts out remembering when Florida produced 80% of America’s orange juice but then, namechecking Running Down A Dream and Free Fallin in the second verse, transforms into a memory of and tribute to Tom Petty who grew up in the Gainesville area and, by association, a musing on nostalgia (“Ev’rything we’re singin’s from a bygone time/ Listen to the guitars and the loose half-rhymes/ Photographs of Tom are in the past tense, y’all/Rickenbacker smiles and all”).
Coloured by John Martin’s flugelhorn, Times Like These is both an extension of 2012’s Don’t Look Down, Pollyanna and an echo of It’s Too Bad, a social commentary portrait of a homeless person moving from one makeshift campsite to another (“corrugated cardboard striped with paint”) somewhere in the heartland (“Looks just like another place you’d drift; Coffee cups are cheap and made of Styrofoam…Hike back from the yard sale having bought some things/Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”), the songwriter’s voice noting “It’s hard to even rhyme in times like these”.
It ends, though, back in a whimsical mood with What’s A Dog Think? a sort of song version of The Truth About Cats And Dogs where he wonders what goes through a canine’s mind as they observe their two-legged companions going about their daily tasks (“What’s a dog think you’re doing/When you’re vacuuming the floor?/What’s that random forward, backward/ Noisy, nonstop motion for?”), how “You walk in, the lights come on; you walk out, the place grows dark”, tail-waggingly looking forward to sharing time together (“I have amped up expectations/That you’ll now find time for me”) and being scared of thunder (“Can I just stay close beside you/Till what scares me so subsides?”).
Of course, if you want to infer a commentary on people too, well, I’m sure Forbert wouldn’t object. Musically relaxed, melodically infectious, lyrically witty and insightful in equal measure: in other words, precisely what you’d expect of and want from a Steve Forbert album.
Moving Through America is out now: