Doug Hoekstra

Around the Margins (Inbetweens/Innerstate)

There's always been something precious about Nashville folk/alt-country artist Doug Hoekstra. Not "precious" in the cute/pejorative sense; more along the lines of "indefinably rare." Among American singer-songwriters, he's possessed of a work ethic so uncommon and diligent it's likely one could trace his heritage in a straight line back to the Puritans. Rarely does a day go by when Hoekstra's not scribbling song ideas, organizing his tour itinerary, updating his mailing list, etc. Trust me, if you've ever muttered even a passing compliment about the man, you're on that list (both monthly snail- and weekly e-mail) for life -- he doesn't forget the little people who've saluted his steadily rising star. The ascent began circa '94 when, following a stint with much-loved Chicago roots combo Bucket No. 6, he commenced a solo career (the budget-conscious but utterly charming collection of back-porch ditties When the Tubes Begin to Glow), eventually moving to Music City USA to concentrate on honing his songwriting craft. Now on his fourth album, for Hoekstra the hard work has not only paid off in terms of critical notices even the most jaded rock celeb would kill for, it's reached an artistic level that probably surprises Hoekstra himself.

In "Lost Among the Ruins," for example, a fatalistic/optimistic song about growing older and more reflective, some straightforward strum 'n' jangle is offset by overlapping harmony vocals and snatches of spoken dialogue cropping up in the background as if to suggest conflicting internal monologues. The atmospheric plea for understanding and social justice that is "Birmingham Jail" wouldn't be out of place on a Daniel Lanois/Emmylou Harris project, its serene vibe undercut by an unsettling feeling of unfinished business. And "Houses Flying," with edgy drum loops, groaning bass and cello and off-kilter samples (street sounds, construction noises, Hoekstra's parents talking), is the perfect sonic analogue to the lyrical story line in which a visit to the hometown prompts a myriad of childhood memories. Elsewhere Hoekstra touches down in Dylan territory (the wry, lost-love sentiments of "Desdemona") and even submits a Dylan cover ("Isis," featuring Hoekstra and guest vocalist Colleen Kave swapping/sharing verses and additionally benefiting from the unexpected inclusion of sax, clarinet and muted trumpet to the freewheeling shanty's arrangement) that does the Bard of Minnesota proud.

By seeking out eclectic territories that aren't hewn in by your typical singer-songwriter barbed wire while maintaining a solid narrative focus and melodic sensibility -- think a perfectionism-obsessed Lou Reed gone folkie, or a more tuneful Tom Waits in a less caustic mood -- Hoekstra defies the common wisdom that says practitioners of his chosen genre will forever be destined for the coffee-house and bookstore circuit. In a sense, that makes him a role model for the next generation of up-and-comers. You ready to shoulder that burden, Doug?

 
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