Long-awaited ‘Angel’ finally descends

Danny Barnes’ new record clutters the stairway to heaven with rusty dreams and unearthly ex-lovers who refuse to quit their haunting ways. The former Bad Livers front man took two years to finish the jubilant Dirt on the Angel (Terminus, 2003).

For better and worse (mostly better), it shows.

The first major follow-up to Barnes’ inaugural solo disc, Things I Done Wrong (recorded with Thee Old Codgers), Dirt on the Angel gives us mostly Barnes originals, plus the traditional tune “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy.” There’s also a cover of — no joke — Beck’s decade-old hit “Loser.” But more about that in a minute.

Luxurious ballads such as “Face to Face” and the CD’s title song — “Will you grant me your forgiveness/ In the sunlight of your nearness/ With the water on the table/ Wash the earth off of my angel,” Barnes moans, his dark-toast vocals in splendid form — unreel with the confident languor of future classics. This gorgeous pair of songs gives Angel its wings — but those who prefer Barnes in his sad-clown/cynic’s mode will also appreciate the slyly astute “Life in the Country” (hint: “It ain’t like in the movies”) and the powerful “Bluegrass Suicide.”

The latter song opens with an appropriate-for-the-occasion banjo solo and goes on to deliver a pair of lines you won’t be hearing on the main stage at the next IBMA convention: “Gonna kill yourself, because it’s good for the business/ Gonna kill yourself, but you better get a witness.”

A guy whose aw-shucks stage banter actually matches his real-life personality, the lanky native Texan is perhaps the only singer/songwriter who could pull off sexual innuendo like “I like your biscuits in my gravy, ma’am” (from “Get It While You Can”) and prompt fond smiles instead of rolling eyes. Recently based in a remote area of Washington state, Barnes got help from important muses like Darol Anger, Bill Frisell and Dirk Powell in making Angel.

His own prowess on the banjo is no secret to anyone who liked the Bad Livers, though Barnes’ imprint rises from his unique expressiveness on the instrument rather than any frenetic technical wizardry. The “more is more” culture of traditional barnstorming bluegrass is largely absent from his emotive playing — which is why Angel would have been perfect had Barnes shed a few feathers like the lightweight “Trinidad Hubbard” — and, yes, even the seemingly promising “Loser.”

On paper, Beck’s breakthrough tune looks like an ideal cover choice for Barnes — both musicians are decorated graduates of the genius/doofus school of aesthetics, and each has survived more artistic incarnations than the sneaker (remember the Livers’ ill-advised electronic experiments on 2000’s Blood and Mood)?

Barnes’ version of “Loser,” Angel‘s 15th and final track, should come off inspired — instead, it sounds sort of dishonest. Because by this point, he’s already won — our attention, at the very least.

And he knows it.

— Melanie McGee

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