Paul Doffing may be given the generic title of folk singer, but as his performance at this February’s Folk Alliance demonstrated, his songs resist all of the revivalist trappings that now seem to accompany such a moniker.
His newest release, Songs From the (Quaking) Heart, taps from a broader range of influences, both traditional and contemporary. His guitar suggests the subtle beauty of John Fahey, early Bob Dylan, and Nick Drake, showcased most evidently on the instrumentals, “The Drifter” and “No Path up Cold Mountain,” which sound like they could easily serve as soundtrack music. Besides the gentle guitar, these songs demonstrate more clarity of purpose, more savvy, and more focus than his previous releases, which were often compelling but occasionally listless and straying.
Doffing has always been a very direct songwriter. There are no fussy arrangements, unnecessary instrumentation, or cluttered sounds on his newest release. No melodramatic foot stomps or singalong choruses. This is folk music is the most classical sense, the type that will appeal to admirers of Jackson C. Frank and Tom Rush as much as fans of Damien Jurado and the late Jason Molina. While some of the environmental themes and antiwar sentiment is a bit too blunt, Doffing’s lyrics are at their best when he mixes these themes with compelling narrative arcs and subtle turns-of-phrase, illustrated most impressively on “The Legend of Mick Dodge.”
There’s plenty of heartbreak here too, but Doffing’s vulnerabilities contain so much goodwill and cliché-resistant optimism that the album never gets mopey or pitying. “New Day Dawning” is the album’s masterpiece, a quietly defiant song with a guitar melody that will crawl under your skin. His voice is fragile but steady, sometimes almost quivering but always resolute enough to let you know he believes his convictions.
This is, quite simply, a beautiful, often gorgeous album from a folk singer that deserves a much wider audience.
Recommended If You Like: Damien Jurado, Nick Drake, early Dylan, Jason Molina
Recommended Tracks: 6, 7, 5, 9, 4, 11
Do Not Play: none
Written by Vince Meserko on 06/13/2015