When The Deal Goes Down is as good – if not better – than anything Olney has done to date, partially because the guy’s a true blue talent whose muse seemingly never shuts up, and partly by his decision to bring Nashville blues guitarist Mark Robinson into the fold to play on, and co-produce the album. The inclusion of Robinson’s immense talents adds another dimension to Olney’s enormous musical palette, and he puts his co-producer to good use playing alongside longtime musical foil Sergio Webb – one of the most spectacular six-string talents on the planet who you’ve also never heard of – as well as his band of usual suspects, skilled musicians capable of breathing life and energy into Olney’s creations.
David Olney’s When The Deal Goes Down
Olney opens When The Deal Goes Down with a bang, the title track a shady entreaty that sets the stage for the songs that follow, the singer setting down the rules with the almighty, a sort of prayer set to an energetic soundtrack propelled by Justin Amaral’s vigorous drumbeats and spotlighting the six-string talents of Webb and Robinson. The song leaves more questions behind than it answers, but it’s an up-tempo romp that Olney gets to really work out on, his defiant vocals more demanding than pleading. By contrast, “Little Bird (What I Do)” is one of those densely atmospheric, almost eerie folk-blues analogies that Olney excels at, his somber vocals perfectly matched by Webb’s elegant fretwork and Tomi Lunsford’s angelic backing harmonies.
The laid-back vibe of “Soldier of Misfortune” takes on an exotic air thanks to Webb’s intricate guitar lines, but it’s Olney’s gift for wordplay and his sonorous vocals that drive the romantic tale into truly emotional territory. Jen Gunderman’s delicate piano fills emphasize the lyrics, while Robinson’s acoustic guitar adds welcome texture to a truly enchanting performance. Olney’s cover of Australian folk-rock guitarist/songwriter Bill Jackson’s wonderful “Something In Blue” fits like a glove, Jackson’s lyrics displaying more than a little Olney influence, and Olney’s performance here honoring the song nicely. The song takes on a Western lilt with Webb’s banjo plucking and Olney’s acoustic fretwork, while Olney’s mournful vocals are matched perfectly by Robinson’s expressive, bluesy solo, which rides low in the mix alongside Amaral’s lively percussion.
The opening lyrics of Olney’s “Scarecrow Man” describe a coming storm, and that’s exactly what the song sounds like…the fearful, silent calm before the thunderclaps and the falling curtains of rain. The song sits on the edge of a knife blade throughout its entirety, Olney’s forceful vocals slowly reeling out a tension-filled, tragic tale while the percussion rumbles and the guitars strike like lightning behind the menacing vocals and the swelling danger. You just know that somebody’s not going to get out of this story alive. “Why So Blue?,” on the other hand, is a smoky ballad that emphasizes Webb’s weeping lap steel guitar and Amaral’s even-handed brushwork, the song’s rhythmic foundation held down by Daniel Seymour’s underrated and often understated bass lines. Robinson throws in some scraps of guitar for effect, and the result is a jazzy little vamp that would be equally at home in 1954 as it is in 2014.
Olney swerves onto blues-rock turf with the raucous “Roll This Stone,” the song picking up a sort of 1990s Bonnie Raitt groove with its deep rhythms and Robinson’s slinky slide-guitar licks. Olney’s vocals here are gruffer and grittier than anywhere else on the album, growling and barking their way above the mix as the band lays down a muscular, but not overpowering rhythmic backdrop. The lovely “No Trace” brings Olney back to more familiar territory, the song’s Spanish flavor enhanced by Gunderman’s subtle accordion riffs and the singer and Webb’s intertwined acoustic guitars. It’s a gentle ballad that displays one of Olney’s more wistful set of lyrics and world-weary vocal performances.
When The Deal Goes Down ends with “Big Blue Hole,” the song itself a complete 180-degree turn from the opening track, and one of the odder entries in Olney’s extensive songbook. Lyrically, it sounds more than a little like a Tom Waits screed, Olney’s seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics alluding to the finality of oblivion, delivered above a cacophonous soundtrack that is scrubbed to a rough grit by Webb and Robinson’s serrated-edge guitars. Olney’s vocals become surprisingly kinetic as the singer name checks talents like Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain above an instrumental abyss, concluding that “heaven ain’t nothing but a big blue hole.” It’s a powerful, moving performance and a heck of a way to close the album.
The Reverend’s Bottom Line
The bottom line is that David Olney is the true heir to Townes Van Zandt, a thoughtful and thought-provoking songwriter and mesmerizing performer that wears his hard-won experience like a badge of honor. Much like Van Zandt, Olney brings country and folk influences to his songs, but he also imbues his performances with a punk-rock intensity and attitude.
Young songwriters would do well to listen up, because Olney puts all of you wannabe whippersnappers to shame with the vision and storytelling insight that only a grizzled veteran of four decades in the trenches can bring. It’s a testament not only to Olney’s talent but his enduring muse that some 20 albums into a career spent flying beneath the mainstream radar, he can deliver a musical tour de force like When The Deal Goes Down and hold his head up proudly! (Deadbeet Records, released July 8, 2014)
Buy the album from Amazon.com: David Onley's When The Deal Goes Down