“I’m torn/Torn like a bullet through my teeth,” sings Bobby Bare Jr. in his meandering voice, extending syllables and presenting his idea of a chorus. The line makes me think of a guy I used to see on ABC’s Wide World of Sports when I was a kid, a man who could catch a bullet with his teeth. That’s one of many cool things about Bare Jr.’s solo debut, which follows two releases with his eponymous band: Every song gives you a souvenir, something that you can pull out and appreciate days after listening to the album. In the case of “Bullet Through My Teeth,” it’s an image that takes me back 30 years, to just about the time Bobby Jr.’s pop had a number No. 1 hit with “Marie Laveau.”
Other gifts include the pure-pop bah-bah-bahs of the album-opening “I’ll Be Around,” the la-la-la outro on “Mehan”–kind of a folk song for the hard of hearing–and the perfectly timed horn visitation on “The Ending.” Both “Flat-Chested Girl from Maynardville” and the instantly hummable “The Monk at the Disco” present you with painstakingly detailed sketches of outsiders; they’re so well-scripted, in fact, that you can’t help but think they were written by someone who’s been outside looking in at least once in his life. The album’s best cut, a half rant, half fan letter directed at rock royalty titled “Dig Down,” shares an urgent reading of the dead-on couplet, “Chuck Berry, Chuck Berry, you wrote the only original song/Some white boys stole it, we all still sing along.” And the album’s final souvenir comes fully formed: a lovely and obscure song called “Painting Her Fingernails” written by the late Shel Silverstein, whose work, like the aforementioned “Marie Laveau,” Bobby Bare Sr. often recorded. (Sr. provides backing vocals on the song.)
With help from members of Nashville’s roots-soul brigade Lambchop, and leaning much more pop-ward than the Bare Jr. records (which tended to lean toward whichever side of the studio had the most speakers), Bobby Bare Jr. has come up with one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of the year. You’ll wish you were there.