2006's Minor Works may be accurately labeled alternative country-rock, but something about J. Tillman's voice and lyrics make the indie tag fit no matter how much twang is going on behind him -- call it a sense of alienation. In the vein of soft-voiced indie folk contemporary Iron & Wine but offering different textures, Tillman has a natural sincerity to his quietly impassioned ripplet of a tone. It’s not just intimate, it's compelling. With songs about growing apart, regrets, and loss, Minor Works is heavy, but not so much in a bummer kind of way as in a now-let's-get-real-for-a-few-beers way. His melodies carry this contemplative delivery to some really lovely moments. For instance, "Crooked Roof," with expanded instrumentation including piano, pedal steel, guitar, banjo, and cello on top of a full band, still draws the focus to the intimate vocal performance with its lilting, conversational melody and imagery-rich lyrics: "You call out, you call out every time I pass through the hall/That's where your pictures are." The melodic riffs at the end of "With Wolves" ("Young girls pay the price of pairing off with wolves") repeat and stress the line "Don't feel like they should," landing on the song's contrite conclusion, "I don't feel like I should." Only two songs -- the naked title track with just vocals and acoustic guitar and the closer, "Now You're Among Strangers" -- are truly sparse. The rest of the tracks have varying degrees of full rock band instrumentation plus banjo, mandolin, strings, and more, but even songs with near to a dozen parts play seamlessly alongside the stripped-down tracks. The album, as the double meaning of its title suggests, is about tone. With wall-to-wall sedate tempos to boot, Minor Works is a slow-rolling, late-night sort of record; reflective, serious, and often beautiful.
© Marcy Donelson /TiVo