John Doe

Dim Stars, Bright Sky (iMusic/ArtistDirect)

For a guy with such an anonymous moniker, John Doe surely has an instantly identifiable style about him -- that plaintive voice, at once folksy and underground urbane; a lyrical approach that favors the narrative with occasional flashes of pure impressionism; a minor-key, often profoundly melancholy mode of composition; and an overall musical stance that pays respect in equal parts to Johnny Cash and Darby Crash.

More than 20 years ago, when L.A.'s burgeoning punk scene found its first true forceful voice in X's seminal Los Angeles, probably not a single Black Flag-tattooed Hollywood wastrel listened to John Doe and Exene keening that pretty little ditty called "Nausea" and thought, "You know, this guy really should make an acoustic record." But now, with Dim Stars, Bright Sky, he has. And it works.

Of course, this really isn't a strictly acoustic record (as if such a pure beast even exists these days, which it doesn't). Electric guitars and pianos, pedal steels and lap slides accentuate the tracks, but the overall effect is overwhelmingly intimate, as if the ever-shifting collective (guest musicians include Juliana Hatfield, Jane Wiedlin and Aimee Mann) was playing for free in the listener's living room.

Doe's lyrics have always bordered on the literary, but this time around they have blossomed into flat-out poetry. The music is strong throughout, but the words are frequently stunning, especially the end of a song called "Forever for You": "You told nothing but the truth/And I wanna be like you/Crawl into your skin, feel your clothes from the inside/But then you'll think that I'm a freak/You'd push back your chair and say 'I'm going out for air'/And then you'll just leave/And I don't want you to leave."

 
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