There aren't many scenes or sounds that Greg Trooper hasn't tried during his 30-odd years as a singer-songwriter. He's lived in New York, Austin, and now Nashville, and he's played folk, country, rock, and the kind of scarred clank-folk hybrid perfected by the likes of Tom Waits and Joe Henry. Trooper has never had a problem writing songs with smooth-flowing melodies and well-shaded lyrical sketches, but as a performer, he's suffered from the same affliction that diminishes a lot of respected singer-songwriters. His music is too reservedtoo tasteful even at its roughestto prick the skin. Trooper is more for connoisseurs of the form, who can hear what a song might be someday, and don't care much about how soft it sounds now.
Make It Through This World doesn't offer a substantial change in Trooper's approach, but it's a looser and more immediately enjoyable record than any he's previously recorded. Working with songwriter/producer Dan Penn and a band of R&B veterans, Trooper settles into a homey, gospel-tinged sound set up by the shuffling album-opener "Dream Away The Blues." On the unobtrusively inspiring "This I'd Do," a humming organ and watery electric piano push the song past its finger-popping chorus to a quietly stinging guitar solo. It'd be better if Trooper obtruded a little, and kicked the "quietly" out, but at least on songs like the insinuating bayou murmur "Green Eyed Girl" and the flood-as-metaphor tumbler "No Higher Ground" he's making music for pleasure, not study. No need to wait for the cover versions.
Somewhere along the line, John Doe became one of those tame elder-statesman singer-songwriters, which is bizarre given how committed he and his old band X were to abrasion and aggression. Doe reclaims his edgeor at least a fraction of iton his latest solo album, Forever Hasn't Happened Yet, which attempts to dirty up the blues in the manner of The White Stripes and the Fat Possum label. The songs are short and demo-quality, and though Doe still can't resist the rote roots-rock classicism that used to be beyond his means, the slapped-around sound of songs like "Heartless" and "Ready" should thrill longtime fans. He hits a rare peak on "Hwy 5," co-written with his old X partner Exene Cervenka, and featuring Neko Case performing the kind of over-high harmony that used to make Doe's songs grate so magnificently.