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Jeb Loy Nichols

Born in Wyoming, raised in Missouri and Texas, schooled in New York and London, and living in Wales, Jeb Loy Nichols is a child of the world. This clearly shows in his musical explorations. Nichols's work is rooted in folk/country/soul, but it lives in nearly as many places as he himself has called home. It also subtly exhibits touches of everything that he has ever experienced. Nichols's range has never been in greater evidence than on his third and best album, Easy Now. Although critics have saddled Nichols with comparisons to James Taylor (because of his admitted vocal and phrasing similarities), there's a much better case to be made for Nichols as the American Van Morrison. Like his genre-hopping Irish compadre, Nichols produces rootsy work steeped in Stax soul and the heartbreakingly confessional American country of Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, with flourishes of reggae and folk. This kind of style-stirring could be a mess in less capable hands, but Nichols strips everything down to its most elemental components, leaving much less room for confusion or muddiness.

The album's opener, "Letter to an Angel," shows Nichols's affinity for bluegrass and gospel. "Heaven Help Me" and "Sure Felt Good to Me" play up the Taylor comparison with heaping platefuls of funk that Sweet Baby James hasn't played in many a year. And "Not the Only Man" is the greatest song that Morrison never wrote. Nichols adds a number of textural sonic counterpoints (the Stax-like organ fills of "The Other Side" and "Hold Me Strong," for instance) to give Easy Now a depth and richness that belie its sparse heart and simple presentation. It's further proof of Nichols's impeccable sense of songcraft, arrangement, and historical perspective.

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Brian Baker

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