When I saw Jimmy LaFave had named his latest disc Road Novel, my hope was he’d had some sort of literary breakthrough. After all, LaFave’s got a voice that could melt Fargo in February, but lyrics have never been his strong suit.
Unfortunately, Road Novel is another volume of songs rife with clichés, both lyrically and instrumentally. But in typical LaFave fashion, the Austin singer-song_writer’s honey-and-gravel vocals shine through with such soulful sincerity, you end up forgiving him once again.
LaFave’s strongest suit is singing lost-love ballads with the haunted sadness of one who’s been there. On his first release, Austin Skyline, it was his heartfelt cover of “Walk Away Renee” that did it. On this, his fourth album, “Long Ago and Miles Between” brought a mist to the eyes and “the one that got away” to the mind. LaFave’s voice embodies such songs so completely that the triteness of lines like “driving down the highway throwing caution to the wind” becomes insignificant as he draws you into his mood.
Road Novel includes the frequent presence of Stewart Cochran’s piano and organ work, giving an E-Street feel to many of the tunes, and Darcie Deaville provides balance with the twang of fiddle and mandolin. In addition to LaFave, six guitarists revolve through the disc, including the Bad Livers’ Danny Barnes, who plays both lead and dobro on a healthy cover of Leon Russell’s “Sweet Home Oklahoma”. The only other cover is “Buckets of Rain,” continuing LaFave’s tradition of covering Dylan on every disc.
But the standouts are few and far between, interspersed with throwaways such as “Big Wheels”, in which LaFave is “the original rebel without a clue.” Road Novel is not the recording that’s going to make LaFave a household name, for one reason: It’s not novel. Nonetheless, when he belts out another one of “those” songs, it doesn’t seem to matter.