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Jonathan Gregg

    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.
     If 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 relationships—specifically, 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.)

~Russell Hall

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