taking a listen

by Ryan Snyder

reviews of the moment

Jon Fox

— Crooked Wheels

It’s tempting to say that singer/songwriter Jon Fox’s latest release Crooked Wheels picks up practically where his 2007 debut Something Real left off, but in actuality, the follow-up is a major improvement. The dark and incisive opener “Back to Harlan” evokes the RC Cola and trucker-hat imagery of the Barbara Kopple documentary Harlan Country, USA in a thoughtful, gripping manner, but Crooked Wheels finds him mostly veering away from the heavy-handed social commentary that chafed his debut. Instead, the album focuses on the simple pleasures of singing and playing music, espoused through tightly constructed verse and rhyme. Fox assembled an amazing repertory of musicians for this effort, bringing on CJ Chenier’s touring guitarist and Greensboro native Tim Betts to lend the album it’s fluid rock aesthetic. Betts’ melodic counterpoint is none other than Fox’s own father and UNCG professor Dave Fox, who spends much of the album buttressing the primary melody with shimmering organ. He surfaces on “Just Me” and “Better Off Today” with solos reminiscent of deceased Lynyrd Skynyrd pianist Billy Powell, but finds his significant role as the lone holdover from the previous record scaled back a bit. The rhythm section of drummer Chuck Cotton and bassist Tyler Barringer rarely stand out, but that’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from Cotton; quiet, consistent excellence. He’s so good you’re never forced to take notice of him, but when you do, you hear a man who not only dictates the tempo, he seems to understand it better than anyone else. Lyrically, the songs are simple and accessible, and Fox feels centered in his reverence for life’s purities. Fox’s voice sounds rough around the edges at times, which was sometimes veiled in production, though it grows on you after a few listens. He starts the album out with a gruff veneer that might simply reflect the solemn nature of opener “Back to Harlen,” but that gradually tapers off and eventually takes on jangly pop characteristic that begins to assert itself later in the album on songs like “The Place for Me” and the smoker’s opus “Answers.” Crooked Wheels doesn’t exude the plaintive individuality of Fox’s influences, guys like Steve Earle or Guy Clark, but he’s making big strides with every album