The personal qualities that produce
great songwriting rarely go hand-in-hand with self-promotion,
and generally are even less condusive to fame. For every Bob
Dylan, there are a hundred Jimmy Webbs. For every Joni Mitchell,
a hundred Laura Nyros. Two of our best current songwriters,
Daniel Jonhston and Jack Logan, wrote and recorded in obscurity
for more than a decade before surfacing, and even now both
would probably prefer to remain at the fringe.
Jonathan Gregg's songs never appear in Billboard's
Top 100, it won't be because they don't belong there. Crafted
with care, Gregg's music keeps to a minimalist format of two
guitars, bass, and drums, and within that context, his precise
melodies are enhanced with subtle textures that never intrude.
Far from imitative, his songs nonetheless bring to mind the
wordplay of Elvis Costello (minus the causticity) and the
timeless relevance of mid-80's John Hiatt (before Hiatt got
gobbled up by the slickmonster).
Unconditional, Gregg's second CD, is one of the best
releases of the year. His first, 1992's Blue on Blonde
drew raves from the likes of Rolling Stone and Creem;
amazingly, Unconditional is even better. "I'm
kind of shy / Could've used my tongue for my tie." With
that disclaimer, Gregg kicks off the CD with "A Bit of
Mrs. Jones," a Mrs. Robinson-like mini-morality play
wrapped in urgent melody and wry humor.
"A Bit of Mrs. Jones" is emblematic; Gregg tends
to focus his attention on relationshipsspecifically,
the foibles and complications that attend them. Often his
songs take the form of a character study. In "Three Dollar
Dance," for instance, Gregg charts the sad life of a
cocktail-lounge stripper ("trying to believe that she's
all she can be") from its low beginning to its tragic
end. Like most of the album, the song is filled with poignant
detail, but never succumbs to sentiment.
The centerpiece of Unconditional
is the title song, a generous tale of unrequited passion.
The song brims with futility. "I can't get it from you
/ And you can't get it for me ... You see disappointment where
I see rejoicement and reasons to be / Unforgivable lies /
I would gladly believe / Just to be in your eyes for a while
like I've never been seen / Like anybody else who tries."
In the end, "Unconditional"'s casual feel becomes
nearly majestic; it's that rarest of love songs, one devoid
of saccharin and filled with heart-rending truth.
Jonathan Gregg deserves a wider audience.
For what it's worth, Living Colour's Vernon Reid named Gregg
one of New York's brightest talents and Rolling Stone
called him a "triple-threat guitarist, singer, and songwriter
[who writes] urbane, country-pop winners." Unconditional
is a gem, sparkling with melodic wit and revaling a new facet
at every turn. (Unconditional is available for $15.00
postpaid from Jagdisc, 304 Mulberry St. #LJ, New York, NY
10012, or call 803-261-3407 for more information.)