EP Review

Joe Pug – Nation Of Heat (Revisited): EP Review

Rowdy and rough full band revisiting of 2009 solo dustbowl project.

Release date: 22nd July 2022

Label: Nation Of Heat Records

Format: CD / vinyl (10″) / digital

A name that I have more noticed rather than paid much attention to over the last decade or so, if asked whether he was any good, I would always reflexly say yes, based upon the snippets heard, reliable and rootsy Americana. And one of those snippets was his debut EP, Nation of Heat, then a simple beast of voice, harmonica and acoustic guitar, a stubble-chinned troubadour in stubbled midwest fields. This is the opportunity to redress, frankly, what he couldn’t afford back then. Namely a full band to back his grit’n’gravel songs. I’m glad he did, this well worth the less than half hour it will take of your time. (Mind you, if you don’t then source out the original iteration, you’d be odd.)

His name an abbreviated version of his given, Joseph Pugliese, Pug is from Maryland, plying his muse since dropping out of university in 2005, where he has been studying to be a playwright, becoming, instead a carpenter. The temptation is a little too strong to catch some link between the two disparities, given his tendency toward literate and wordy sturdy song constructions. Very much of the class of Prine and the countrier acoustic leanings of Springsteen, with echoes also of John Hiatt in there, not least his voice, if with a tad more range. OK, and Dylan, if you must, the burden of every half-decent US songsmith, toting an acoustic guitar and a penchant for harmonica. The 2009 original Nation of Heat was recorded in downtime at a studio in Chicago, when other musicians had cancelled. He initially self-released it, shipping out free copies to anyone who would show an interest, going on to sell northwards of 20,000 copies. This got him the attention of Steve Earle, who took him out on tour, and, latterly, of Nashville’s Lightning Rod records. Fast forward and he has released 5 full length recordings and a further EP, ahead, now, of this one.

Hymn #101 is a bleak processional on the earlier version, reminiscent actually, despite my words above, of a mid to late 60s Dylan. Revisited, with electricity, keyboards and a rhythm section, it is a whole different ambience. Pug, interestingly, plays bass, on this track and throughout. A distinctly skiffle ambience permeates the arrangement, with that woozy organ tone that so immediately sets the scene of sepia toned lithographs of the old west, pedal steel and chiming piano shimmering in from the side. Lots of words, lots of them, cram between the lines: “For more I seek, the more I’m sought”. Brandon Flowers, from the Killers, adds some vocals, not that you’d know, but the occasional heavy friend can’t hinder. Nobody’s Man, almost a dirge on the original, positively bowls in, swept along by incandescent organ, again by journeyman keysman, Phil Krohnengold. With Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket also on electric guitar, this is now more of a defiant song of intent, the resentment apparent first time around long gone. The lyrics come enclosed with the accompanying booklet, and bear reading as social commentary as much as poetry.

The title and content of the third song must have struck a painful chord for Steve Earle, who also writes in the sleeve notes. I Do My Father’s Drugs is every bit as bleak as it sounds. The sound of a church organ alongside a chugging conveyor belt introduces it, maybe the weary creak of an aged crematorium carousel, taking the coffin through the curtains? Some lonesome harmonica and we’re in. This time it is Derry deBorja on keyboards, from Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit, “If I return with eyes half open don’t ask me where I was”. Ouch, and so it goes. Hymn #35 starts off pure Nebraska before taking another tangent, the whole, if indeed a hymn, sounding all fire and brimstone in promise, kissing snakes and talking in tongues. A word here for the drummer, mostly throughout, Mark Stepro, who maintains both momentum and interest, whether in steam train chugalug mode or, as with this song, dramatic flourishes to underscore the lyric.

A drift into more tuneful vicinity, the country sway of Call It What You Will, actually has, instead, the backbeat of Dom Billett (Yola, Erin Rae), with some more beautiful steel, now in the hands of Broemel. The mellower side of Pug, my only complaint is that is lasts but a little over three minutes, as I could have let it waft over me for a much longer time. It is also perhaps the biggest contrast with the original iteration, that being a skeletal spectre, a melody not yet fully discovered. A hint, then, of a slower Werewolves of London materialises in the altogether Zevon-eque Speak Plainly Diana, even down to mysteries in the basement. Quite who Diana is or was, Lord only knows, but it makes for an upbeat and diverting slow jaunt, if the weakest selection here, needing Justin Craig’s blistering guitar to give it heft. I think the one track where I prefer the original.

The closer, and title track, is another good ol’ parable song, painting the scene with words, with the A team of Krohengold, Craig and Stupor back behind Pug’s drawled snarl, his harmonica showcased to the fore. Lots more “I seen” type lyrics, perhaps redolent of the Hard Rain the parched-sounding landscape needs. “We got billboards for love and Japanese cars. It ain’t rare to hear the street lights call themselves stars” is the level of coruscating rage he barely suppresses. Wonderful stuff.

Older? Wiser? Well, certainly one of those, with that nuance of age slanting somewhat the perspectives offered back then, this is a disc that will certainly have me paying that greater attention than before. Will you?

Here’s a video of the opener, giving a pretty good flavour of what to expect:

Joe Pug online: website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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