BY JENNIFER KELLY
Tom Heyman’s pedal steel has been the secret sauce in SF indie-country recordings by the Court & Spark, Paula Frazer, John Vanderslice and Chuck Prophet, his haunting slide work etching ghostly shadows into moody roots melodies. Cool Blue Feeling is his third solo album, and though he necessarily moves to the front, Heyman remains reticent, subdued and unflashy, murmuring blues-y regrets over glistening guitar licks but not throwing anything in your face.
Heyman’s voice, for instance, is workman-like and plainspoken, with decent range but not much drama. He sounds like a more urbane and self-aware John Hiatt – you know, with the hokey-ness dialed down – as he mutters wry, world-weary observations. He seems, for much of the album, to be singing right into your ear. His guitar playing is a little showier than his singing, with luminous slide work in “Chickenhawks and Jesus Freaks,” and smouldery blues vamps in “Always Be Around.”
Yet it’s all so tasteful and understated that you wish he’d cut loose, forget about getting everything aligned and just turn up the temperature. That’s why, maybe, “Black Top,” the album’s opener, seems like such a highlight. Its heat is kept to a simmer, sure, but it’s bubbling underneath, and it radiates sex and desperation in a way that the other tracks don’t. I like the way the slouchy blues underpinning erupt into trebly guitar soloing; it’s like a rainbow slicing through the murkiest sort of thundercloud.
The quietness can work, too, when it suits the songs, as on the title track, which mourns the spluttering out of a love relationship. Here the reticence, the meditative distance, the steadiness of feeling mirrors the burnt out stunned-ness that comes after a break-up. And the song is beautiful, too, in its way, as it finds curves and valleys in a well-contained landscape. The little shifts, like a fat-string solo mid-way through, seem like landmarks. The slight crests in volume, the embedded sighs, the flutters of infinitesimal vibrato—all this signals deep, not fully-expressed sensation. It’s nearly stoic, but not quite, and as a result all the more powerful.
DOWNLOAD: “Black Top” “Cool Blue Feeling”