Singer-songwriter David Olney favors brooding, bass-heavy minor-key melodies; he populates his vignettes with vagabonds, outlaws, and losers in search of their souls; his voice goes dry at the top of its range, and he tends to mutter or speak the tail ends of his verses–in other words, he might as well have Townes Van Zandt’s name tattooed on his arm. Olney’s vision is at least as bleak as his idol’s was; on his current Through a Glass Darkly (Philo), “Dillinger” paints over the heroic proletarian outlaw of popular myth, depicting instead a soulless miscreant who dismisses the poor and beaten as “suckers,” and “Little Bit of Poison” recounts the nightmares a heartbroken lover endures. But bleakness can be overdone: “The Suicide Kid” shovels on the noir until it verges on self-parody, and not even the irony of its naive melody (which sounds a lot like “Scarborough Fair”) can save it. Olney’s devotion to Van Zandt also seems excessive in places: on “Avery County” his ascent from acoustic fingerpicking into a roiling assault too obviously takes after “Silver Ships of Andilar,” and the last line’s a direct descendant of Van Zandt’s farewell in “Tecumseh Valley.” On the best tunes, though, Olney’s gloomy outlook–and the heavy hand of his biggest influence–is leavened by the obvious joy he takes in making music. “C’mon Through Carolina,” with its jug-band cadence, sawed fiddle, and light-fingered banjo, romps like a fox in the mountains; “Lay Down Your Kingdom,” about a soul-destroying seduction, clips along with such ebullient urgency that it still feels life affirming. And “1917,” the album’s opener, sweetens its bitter worldliness with delicate, romantic lines like “Let us dance beneath the moon / I’ll sing to you ‘Claire de Lune’ / The morning always comes too soon / Tonight the war is over.” Thursday, September 9, 8 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508. Next Friday, September 10, 8 PM, Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit, 30 Riverwoods, Lincolnshire; 847-506-9035. DAVID WHITEIS
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brydget Carrillo.