When Uxbridge musician Luke MacNeil titled his album “These Are Good Songs,” he wasn’t kidding. Of course, they’re all covers, but when you’re playing songs written by the likes of Ryan Adams, John Hiatt, Kris Delmhorst, Martin Sexton, Peter Mulvey and my two personal favorite living songwriters, Tom Waits and Jeffrey Foucalt, it’s kind of hard to go wrong.Or is it? Because really, a lineup like that — comprising songs that any music critic worth his or her salt would recognize as being excellent — leaves the musician nowhere to hide. These are songs that will reveal any flaw in technique, every missed note, every strained vocal. This album has MacNeil far more exposed than it seems on the surface, each song a potential minefield.
The good news is that he makes it through unscathed, his stripped-down Americana sound and his rich voice, warm and slightly scratchy like a favorite old sweater, bringing the wealth of feeling and emotion to these songs that they demand.
There’s no real point on this album where MacNeil cuts himself a break, opening with the Tom House-penned ballad of a man falsely accused of murder, “Cole Durhew,” a song popularized by folk legend Mark Erelli. It’s a song with little light inside, and MacNeil captures its simmering rage and underlying dignity. A neat trick, but pivoting from that to Tom Waits’ iconic “Hold On”? That’s just plain gutsy.
“Hold On” is one of those songs that’s been covered to death. (And I say that as someone who counts it among his favorites.) And every new rendition invites comparisons to every other rendition, and to Waits’ original. And inviting comparison to Tom Waits is asking for trouble. But again, MacNeil pulls off the trick, and if he doesn’t exactly reinterpret the song, he at least captures the jagged heartbreak at its center.
In that, this album is more an act of excavation than it is anything else. MacNeil digs into each song to find its emotional core, whether it be something as basically obscure as Foucalt’s poetic “Secretariat” or more well known, such as Death Cab for Cutie’s haunting “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”
MacNeil finds what’s hidden underneath the notes and lyrics, the small, burning humanity that bring the songs to life.
Luke MacNeil will perform in the round with Ray Parenteau, Matt Nichols, Frank Sugrue and Ed Zaloom at 6 p.m. March 1 at the Whitinsville Fish and Game Club. Admission is $15. The concert is a benefit for MacNeil’s step-mother, who was, according to MacNeil, diagnosed with Lyme disease that spread to her brain, putting her on disability. MacNeil’s father, Danny MacNeil, died in November after a long illness.
Email Victor D. Infante at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ocvictor.