Lyrics are not Jackie Greene’s strong suit; hooks and harmonics are. How else to explain the way Greene routinely crafts beautiful roots gems, inspired country blues and frayed-edge power pop with smooth, but ultimately featherweight narratives about bad love, weary yearning and wanton soul searching? It’s not meaty stuff, but it’s delivered with grace and gravitas; Greene says “feel it, anyway,” and you do.
It’s a formula that’s worked for him and continues to work on Till the Light Comes, his sixth album and, if not a great collection, surely a nourishing one, with buoyant arrangements and the fullness of a well-oiled band fleshing them out.
Greene’s haunted, passionate voice is as front and center as ever, and so is the harmony-rich sound he favors, which seems to draw generously from such storied California sonic pedigrees as Laurel Canyon, Bakersfield and San Francisco. It’s sun-dappled and warm yet always ominous, as if great sadness and turmoil hide behind a slightly stoned smile and a troubadour’s conviction. You hear it in everything from “1961” (about a love lost and a hard-luck scion left behind) to the piano-pounding “Grindstone” and the melancholy “A Moment of Temporary Color,” a journeyman’s lament not unlike the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace.”
Ah yes, the Dead. No sense ignoring it: Greene’s successful stint in Phil Lesh & Friends means he’ll now hear shouts for “Sugaree” wherever he goes. So credit Greene for not running from that but not indulging it either; you hear the Dead all over this batch of songs, but only as much as you do other forebears, notably Tom Petty, the Eagles and Boz Scaggs, not to mention (OK, fine) Dylan and Townes Van Zandt.
Ultimately, you’re left satisfied but not sure there’s much oomph to speak of. The album floats on by, rocks decently enough, and sticks to you only rarely, with Greene at his best when he sounds like he’s having a blast – the rollicking, Petty-like “Spooky Tina” is a tasty boogie, or without a care, as in “Take Me Back In Time,” definitely Dead-like in its easy tempo and pastoral images. Good stuff but we’re still waiting for a masterpiece.