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“Messenger” a foot forward for Pug

March 23, 2010

Joe Pug
February 16, 2010
Lightning Rod

Rating: 7.8/10

Joe Pug’s musical career to this point has read like a Horatio Alger novel. A disinterested student at the University of North Carolina, he decided he had seen enough one day and packed up his things to hit the road as a folk singer.

Working as a carpenter by day and entertainer by night, Pug scrapped his way to the top of the musical heap, gaining fans with his earnest songwriting and charming melodies.

Now, with Messenger, his first full-length album (that he doesn’t have to distribute on CD-R’s through the mail), Pug has got his own Algerian happy ending, complete with his own rise to fame.

Though he may not be as established as a name as John Mayer, or even The Decemberists, Pug has carved out his own niche and this album helps cement his name in the annals of folk music.

It would be a stretch to say that this first full-length is perfect; rather, Messenger is more of a one-foot-forward one-foot-back kind of record. While Pug maintains his “guy with a guitar” mystique that made his first two EP’s so endearing, he steps out of those constrains by drawing full-bodied instrumentation into the fold.

The songs that feature a full band are the most successful on Messenger, in my opinion. The title track, “The Door Was Always Open,” and “Speak Plainly, Diana” have a western swing that lighten them up and make them very easy on the ears.

These full band songs have a certain quality that is reminiscent of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals or early Wilco that give a familiarity that makes them even more engaging. These songs are not wild rockabilly, but restrained folk-rock that hits just the right level of excitement to balance the album.

Messenger’s more intimate moments have a beautiful warmth to them, the kind that you only get from simple folk songs. However, the lyrical content is truly hit or miss, and often makes the song fall flat.

The slow-burning “Not So Sure” has lyrical content that borders on cheesy (“I undressed somebody’s daughter and complained about her looks”) yet manages to save face by the gentle drift of Andrew Harrison’s pedal steel guitar.

“Messenger” seems to follow that rhythm: for each slack section there is a song ready to pull the album tight again. Within the cozy, Pug-only songs there is a delightful lilt, like that heard on “Unsophisticated Heart,” that push the album beyond mediocrity.

Pug hits a lyrical high note with “Bury Me Far (From My Uniform),” which parallels “I Do My Father’s Drugs” from his Nation of Heat EP.

In general the high spots of Messenger shine brighter than the low, making them easily forgotten. With this album Pug has firmly planted his foot in the future and has set the table for a long and fruitful career.

Certainly the last page on his novel hasn’t been written yet, but the story thus far has been very entertaining, and it has given us plenty to enjoy, Messenger being no exception.

Originally posted at

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