CD Review of Traveling by Steve Poltz
Recommended if you like
Harry Nilsson, The Rugburns,
Loudon Wainwright III
Label
Thirty Tigers
Steve Poltz: Traveling

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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Y
ou may never have heard of Steve Poltz, but you’ve almost certainly heard his music – this is the guy, after all, who wrote “You Were Meant for Me” with Jewel, and whose “You Remind Me” is being used as the soundtrack for that one Jeep commercial. You know, this one:

So again, you may not know his name, but that hasn’t made much of a dent in Poltz’s bank account. And he hasn’t exactly been sticking to the coffeehouse circuit, either – with the Rugburns in the ‘90s, his brand of half-serious folk-rock helped break the band out of the San Diego circuit and onto the national scene (you may remember “Me and Eddie Vedder,” the track that finds Poltz musing about what it would be like to overdose with the Pearl Jam singer). By the end of the decade, the band splintered, but Poltz soldiered on, pocketing a solo deal with Mercury that resulted in 1997’s utterly ignored One Left Shoe.

In an earlier decade, Shoe’s failure might have sent Poltz tumbling down the label ladder, signing a series of progressively crappier deals with ever-shittier record companies – but after the divorce with Mercury, Poltz decided to hang up his own shingle and take his wares to the Internet (visit him here). In the decade or so since embarking into the indie wilderness, he’s carved out a pretty comfortable space for himself, releasing whatever the hell he feels like (including Answering Machine, a collection of 45-second outgoing messages that is supposedly one of Neil Young’s favorite albums) and building a devoted fanbase.

Good as Poltz’s previous albums have been, they’ve also been fairly uneven, which is sort of to be expected when you’re vacillating between cuts as tongue-in-cheek as “Hand Job on a Church Bus” and ones as straight-up pretty as “Good Morning (Waking Up With You),” but still often adds up to a less-than-completely-satisfying listening experience. Here, though, Poltz nails a perfect landing on the balance beam – sometimes gently humorous, sometimes gently sentimental, and always…well, let’s just abandon the dispassionate rock-crit façade for a minute: It’s terrific. The whole album is terrific.

It’s terrific for a lot of reasons, first of which is – duh – the songwriting, which plays purely to Poltz’s strengths without ever getting dull. The atmospheric 2:27 vignette “I Think That She Likes Me” sets the stage for the Byrds-y Laurel Canyon raga “Rains,” whose false ending snuggles up against the witty “What Would Gandhi Do,” which leads into the mournfully reflective “Hater’s Union.” Before you know it, Poltz has run the emotional gamut, and done it while throwing a tackle box full of hooks at you, and the record isn’t even half over.

Part of the key to Traveling’s success is Poltz’s overall reliance on more subtle forms of humor. “I Believe,” for instance, is all about being a pussy, but the first few times you hear him singing “I believe in something – I believe in running,” you could easily mistake the sentiment for your garden-variety fear of commitment lyric. Throughout the album, Poltz tucks his serious subject matter – the mutilation of a soldier in Iraq, the heartbreak of an affair with a married woman – into the folds of bright calico arrangements, trusting his points to get themselves across without being telegraphed. It’s refreshing.

Billy Harvey’s production deserves special mention – it’s full-bodied enough to suggest a healthy budget, but never obnoxiously showy. Matter of fact, Traveling is a terrific headphones record – the sonic margins are packed with the sort of nifty little touches that signify a lot of time spent in the studio, but Harvey hasn’t worked the record to death; there’s plenty of room for everything to breathe.

A review, of course, is worth as much as the paper it’s printed on, and no trees died for this one. You’ll want to sample the album before buying it – so point your browser at Poltz’s MySpace page, listen awhile, and then purchase your copy of Traveling without delay. You won’t be sorry.

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