Nearly 28 years since breaking into pop consciousness with his second album Jackrabbit Slim and its infectious Top Ten single “Romeo’s Tune,” Steve Forbert remains a master of songs offering clear-eyed insight and plain-spoken, heartfelt eloquence. On his 429 Records/SLG debut, the well-traveled Nashville-based troubadour—who maintains a busy touring schedule of over 100 dates a year — explores his ongoing fascination for Strange Names & New Sensations with characteristic wit, a sense of social consciousness and the ever-present romantic optimism that has endeared him to two generations of folk/rock fans.
Beyond launching an exciting relationship with a new label, the vibrant collection finds Forbert in the midst of a true career renaissance at the wonderful age of 52—a time in his life he reflects upon wistfully on the sly narrative of the uptempo, horn driven tune “Middle Age.”
This is his eleventh release of the decade, a roll that began with Evergreen Boy in 2000 and included four live recordings in addition to a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album for Any Old Time: Songs Of Jimmy Rodgers--a tribute to “America’s Blue Yodeler” who was the first country music superstar (and a native of Forbert’s hometown, Meridian, Mississippi). In 2003, Geffen released Rock While I Can Rock: The Geffen Years, which featured material from two albums Forbert released on the label, 1988’s Streets Of This Town and 1992’s The American In Me. In October of 2006, Forbert was inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame.
In addition to ten original vocal tracks and the easy rolling, country flavored instrumental “Around The Bend” (Forbert’s first non-vocal song since “Lucky” on 1980’s Little Stevie Orbit), Strange Names & New Sensations includes a new rendition of “Romeo’s Tune” that captures the folk-pop side of the singer’s artistry, complete with organ and harmonica. Recorded primarily at Moondog Music, the Nashville-based studio owned by legendary E-Street Band member Garry Tallent—who plays bass and co-produced the title song--Strange Names & New Sensations finds Forbert working with numerous longtime friends and collaborators, including primary album co-producer Tim Coats (who first worked with Forbert as engineer on Mission of the Crossroad Palms; producer Anthony Crawford (whose relationship with Forbert extends back to his vocal contributions on The American In Me); and keyboardist Paul Errico and drummer Roger Clark, both of whom played on Jackrabbit Slim.
“I never set out to do an album around a specific theme, but I enjoy the process of watching them develop as the songs come together,” says Forbert. “Even though I consider ‘Middle Age’ and ‘Thirty More Years’ to be flags around the new album, my intention going into the project wasn’t to create a recording about aging. The album title springs from the song ‘Strange Names (North Jersey’s Got ‘Em)’ and is obviously meant to reflect a lot of new sensations in my life. Many are positive, especially the romantic songs inspired by my girlfriend, and then you have the lament for (the late actor/monologist) Spalding Gray and the one asking all the questions about the conflict in Iraq.
“From the beginning of my career thirty years ago,” he adds, “I’ve always been about the songs. I like the challenge of writing good songs that reflect new things that are going on around me. But the songs can’t exist only on paper. Once I’m happy with what I’ve written, I work hard to make sure I’ve got a strong recording of it. I’m very happy with the results on Strange Names, which was recorded strictly with friends of mine (most of them longtime ones), and I’m happy to have this relationship with 429.”
The first three tracks on Strange Names & New Sensations perfectly capture Forbert’s knack for observational songwriting. “Middle Age” ruminates on the various paradoxes of midlife, while the very upbeat “Strange Names (North Jersey’s Got ‘Em)” pokes light at some of the goofy town names of a region he’s toured through for years. Surrounded by a haunting, Irish music ambience, “Simply Spaulding Gray” is a moody reflection of a brilliant yet tortured talent who suffered a tragic fate. “Man, I Miss That Girl” is a soulful, easy swaying song of romantic regret—complete with a sweet accordion harmony throughout—that opens the singer’s heart to express, in the next song, love for his significant other (the acoustic folk tune “You’re Meant For Me”), and then to fashion a mandolin-spiced, wonder-filled paean to the Creator of the Universe (“I Will Sing Your Praise”).
The next two songs, “Something Special” and “My Seaside Brown-eyed Girl” are joyous and unapologetic, tropical flavored love songs which remind the listener that, nearly three decades after singing “let me smell the moon in your perfume,” Forbert hasn’t lost his innocent optimism when it comes to love. War is another matter, of course, and the singer digs in heavy with a rage-filled electric blues rocker asking several pointed questions about “The Baghad Dream” and its deadly consequences—complete with the booming sounds of exploding bombs behind the groove. Forbert calls the witty time-gone-by piece “Thirty More Years” a sister song to “Middle Age.” Strange Names & New Sensations wraps up with the country-folk flavored instrumental “Around The Bend” (featuring the bright pedal steel guitar of Robby Turner) and the new twist on “Romeo’s Tune” that Forbert calls “meet me in the middle of the road.”
Growing up in Meridian, Steve Forbert first picked up the guitar at age 10 and spent his high school years playing in a variety of local bands. Frustrated with his later job as a truck driver, the restless singer/songwriter moved at 21 to New York City, where he performed for spare change in Grand Central Station before working his way up through the Manhattan club circuit. Performing at Folk City and eventually opening for artists like Talking Heads and John Cale at CBGB, Forbert became something of a local sensation and signed his first record deal with the CBS-distributed label Nemperor.
Released at the height of the new wave explosion, his 1978 debut Alive On Arrival offered a first look at his colorful mix of spare acoustic introspection and scrappy rock ‘n’ roll to become one of the year's most acclaimed albums. While critics tagged him—like Bruce Springsteen, John Prine and Elliot Murphy before him—“the next Dylan,” Forbert never put too much stock in the comparison and forged his own path, expanding his audience substantially with 1979’s commercial breakthrough Jackrabbit Slim and his era defining hit single, “Romeo's Tune.”
After releasing Little Stevie Orbit (1980) and Steve Forbert (1982), the singer encountered the harsh reality of record-company politics, resulting in a long and frustrating legal battle that kept him from releasing new music for the better part of six years. Live recordings from this period later surfaced in 1997 as Here’s Your Pizza, which showcased the rambunctious onstage energy of Forbert and his band, The Rough Squirrels; the group would later release another concert date, Live At The Bottom Line, in 2001.
After moving to Nashville, Forbert signed with Geffen for two albums that presented a rootsier musical approach and pointed, pensive lyrics reflecting his struggle to hold onto idealism in the face of adult disappointments. After two releases on the Warner Bros. subsidiary Giant in the mid-90s (Mission of the Crossroad Palms, Rocking Horse Head), he found a new home at Koch Records in 2000 and released some of his most compelling original works yet, including Evergreen Boy, Any Old Time and 2004’s Just Like There’s Nothin’ To It. Smaller labels also released the archival collections Young Guitar Days and More Young Guitar Days, consisting of previously unreleased material from the first five years of Forbert’s recording career.
When Forbert released Just Like There’s Nothin’ To It, he remarked at the time, “Music should be truthful and real, but it should also be healing and uplifting.” Delivering all of those qualities on the remarkable Strange Names & New Sensations, he will be presenting many of these songs live for the first time with his new band The Soundbenders throughout the U.S. this summer. “I enjoy playing live,” he says, “especially because I relate quite a bit to the audience I have at this point.
Since I was, say, five years old, I’ve been intrigued by songs. They’ve got so much power and information packed into just a few minutes. All these years later, I’m glad to still be in the world of songs.”