The narratives that David Olney creates on his new EP, Robbery & Murder, are tightly wrought, but his music encourages a contemplative mood that runs counter to pop music's usual impulses. Olney's latest music is some of his best, and he doesn't digress — the Nashville philosopher-singer-songwriter hews to his subject throughout Robbery & Murder. Olney turns a rock 'n' roll story into something darker by staying close to the blues, but he's not a conventional blues-rock kind of guy.
From Rhode Island, Olney came to Nashville in the early '70s and achieved fame with David Olney and the X-Rays before going solo in the '80s. He's released a lot of interesting music since then, with 2010's Dutchman's Curve a typically intelligent bag of songs about the kind of subjects other tunesmiths don't always tackle: middle-aged lust, art history and so forth. Robbery & Murder completes a trilogy of EPs that Olney began releasing in 2011, and the short form of the EPs — each runs about the length of the average 1970 country LP — seems to have given Olney just enough room to ruminate.
"If you could shorten the form, you could stay more focused," Olney says of his recent work, which comprises Film Noir and The Stone, along with his new record. "I might do something further on down the line, but these last three things, you had to stay so focused on the stories. But I don't know — I just wanna go in a studio, and just play whatever songs that pop into my head, and not have to worry about that other stuff."
The Stone was Jesus-rock with actual Christian undertones, complete with politics and hard-edged blues playing from Olney and company. Robbery & Murder works variations on "Betty and Dupree," a tune familiar to rock 'n' roll fans of Chuck Willis' 1957 rock 'n' roll rendering. A song that exists in various versions, "Betty and Dupree" provides one narrative thread for Olney to pull, but the story is multilayered.
"The Chuck Willis song, there's really nothing to it," explains Olney. "You know, there's boyfriend-and-girlfriend talk, and gettin' the lay of the land, or whatever. I just liked the record, and asked the usual, 'Who are Betty and Dupree?' And they're kind of Frankie and Johnny characters. There was a Josh White version of the song, where Dupree kills a shop owner in the process of stealin' the ring, and goes to jail, ends up gettin' hung. I thought, 'There are any number of ways of looking at this.' "
In Willis' version, Dupree buys Betty a diamond ring, but the song is based upon an actual incident: In 1921, Frank Dupree walked into an Atlanta jewelry store to steal a diamond ring for his girlfriend, Betty, and escaped before ultimately being arrested and put to death the following year. During his escape and capture, Dupree shot several policemen. Willis omits those details, but the great 1930 version of the tale, Willie Walker's "Dupree Blues," tells the whole story.
The tale of Betty and Dupree — and the diamond ring — sits alongside Olney's story of a rich mill owner who discovers his wife's infidelity. He takes his revenge, but it's a hollow victory. "My Family Owns This Town" displays Olney's flair for unobtrusive narrative that retains a certain folkloric aura, while the music on Robbery & Murder is tough: Jim Hoke's harmonica and Olney's guitar intertwine for basic rock 'n' roll that sticks to the ribs. Olney sings in the wised-up voice of a man who knows the difference between flim-flam and truth, and it could just be that he suspects the distinction is ultimately meaningless.