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Halfway to Memphis

Singer-songwriter Greg Trooper's latest album masters mood

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Greg Trooper

Make It Through the World (Sugar Hill)

Playing May 26 with Richard Thompson at the Belcourt

He may still be, to some, the other scruffy-voiced, hope-hungry storyteller from Asbury Park, N.J. Greg Trooper's been in Nashville long enough now, though, that his excursions down the interstate in the general direction of country are not just accepted, but nearly taken for granted. (That steel-driven "Real Like That" duet with Julie Miller is four years old now.)

The man's sensibility is not so much urban (in a way Springsteen's clearly is) as urbane—and he possesses vocal gifts and control to match. Though he once recorded a duet with admirer Steve Earle on a Dylan song, Trooper's been one Scruff Rock exemplar who's proved amply that you don't have to be raspy-voiced to make it work. He sings with a clarity of purpose and variety of effect few in the world of acoustic music can match right now.

He's not prone toward making statements as large as Steve or Bruce, either—though he's occasionally turned to the political. Even as his instrumentation has evolved and shifted, Trooper has kept writing and singing, for the most part, about relationships that are very nearly successful, or failed but worthwhile. Or, as his new one "I Love It When She Lies" has it, relationships that are kind of attractive for their very limitations. His most emblematic song title ever probably was "Halfway." He can also be wickedly funny; his idea of an uplifting Nashville love anthem, after all, was "Take the Gun Out of Your Mouth."

Lately, Trooper's been taking a musical turn from Nashville to Memphis, stepping up his emphasis on mood over narrative. It's a move that, even in concept, challenges notions of the "singer-songwriter" job as literary—as if it weren't harder to write simply.

Trooper had already enlisted Memphis-friendly Buddy Miller as a producer several records ago, no doubt to pull away from dense imagery and balladry toward more soul per syllable. Trooper's current album, Make It Through the World, goes for situational moods whole hog, with the great Dan Penn in charge of production. The resulting tone can be churchy, from the record's opening wail of organ and bass, but Greg, with his exacting, nuanced vocals, never gives into the temptation to equate "soul time" with over-the-top operatics. The standout track, "This I'd Do," begs the woman in the song for acceptance, and Trooper wins the listener over as he does it, but never begs us for admiration at all. That's just who this guy is.

He's also the man who sang "Biologically Blue," so it's no surprise that getting nearer to the bluer—and blacker—side of town brings no special or final relief, no more than moving to the country. One new song, "Close to the Tracks," comes right out and nails the theme, metaphor and sonic stance. You can work that area between the styles looking for a home, Trooper suggests, but still "never sleep a wink"; the trains (and the thoughts) "run all night." That's not a comforting message, or an elevating one—but Trooper charms with it on record. No doubt he will Thursday at the Belcourt, too.

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