Since his 1980s days in Austin, Greg Trooper has been building a fan base around insightful, real-life lyrics and a regular-guy vocal style. His next-door-neighbor sincerity and hard-knocks knowledge make him one of those rare male singers who projects a strong sense of intimacy and sensitivity without diminishing his one-of-the-guys traits. Trooper seems like an artist who can paint a dainty watercolor landscape, then chop wood or change the oil in his car. There's an appealing silent but steady element about the Nashville songwriter.
Floating, Trooper's sixth album, has an easy simplicity that avoids the usual artistic production facades. Producer Phil Madeira has kept the instrumentation spare and straightforward, the only embellishments being quiet, tasty organ, accordion and mandolin, with harmony from stellar voices like co-writer Claire Mullaly and Maura O'Connell and Buddy Miller. Yet whether the musical setting is loose, sunny bluegrass ("Lucky That Way"), a choking-up ballad ("Apologize"), a country-soul twanger ("When My Tears Break Through") or a crisp roots rocker ("Hummingbird"), Madeira and Trooper find memorable, fun grooves that elevate Floating above the usual folk ensemble offerings.
We all come to songwriters for zingers, those economical yet memorable lines that separate the genius for the merely literate or smart. There isn't a song on Floating that doesn't have at least one wish-I'd-written-that line. One of the best comes from the wistful "December Skies" as Trooper tries to fathom separation and loneliness: "Now a brand-new snow / has covered all I know." On the spirited "Hummingbird," the sentiment is pure and simple as Trooper sings, "Daddy don't play his Hummingbird no more / it sits in the closet gathering dust / his chubby little fingers gathering rust." These are lines that make other songwriters envious -- and explain why musical scribes like Buddy Miller and Steve Earle sing Trooper's praises or why Trooper is a regular traveling chum of John Prine's.
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Two tracks stand out even on such a complete album. With observations that probe beneath the media caricature and popular history, Trooper pays tribute to a 20th-century pillar of individuality and integrity on "Muhammad Ali (The Meaning of Christmas)": "I remember this Louisville kid / wouldn't do what they said / found his own god instead / and was teaching us all the meaning of Christmas." The title track, with its lazy, unhurried, summery pace, is a brilliant conception. What disarmingly begins as a warm, harmless ode to memories of floating in the river turns dark when the narrator reveals he no longer floats because he once murdered a girl there. Trooper twists the plot with all the subtlety of our best mystery writers.
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Although his last two labels folded under him, Trooper has landed solidly on his feet with Floating. With a respected, financially secure label behind him, it may finally be Trooper's time to get the cash, not just the respect.