Like the last guy at the party, Greg Humphreys looked around and discovered he was by himself. With Hobex on indefinite hiatus and Dillon Fence done long ago, Humphreys was suddenly and surprisingly a solo artist, a guy with a guitar. So he decided to own it: To commemorate his newfound single status and to clear the slush pile for new output, he released a dozen recordings that had gathered dust for several years. Spare and relatively straightforward, the tunes, collected as Trunk Songs, are a return to the roots music Humphreys' father played for him growing up. The odds-and-sods nature of the debut dissipates some of its energy, but there's still at least a half-dozen impressive cuts.
Humphreys' best moments are his most caustic and self-deprecating: "Buttons & Strings," for instance, is a trebly country waltz that simmers in bitterness as Humphreys contemplates an old friend "on the cover, reaching for the stars ... I'm still out here playing these smoky bars." Over a gently strummed chorus, he imagines the friend pushing buttons and pulling strings: "You wouldn't know about that, would ya?" he closes venomously. The folk pallor of "Townie" recalls CSN&Y, while the song offers a wistful, if biting, sketch of a college grad who only threatens to leave town. He never does, of course. Sound familiar?
Humphreys also delivers during Trunk Songs' most eclectic moments, like the supple warmth of album-opening jazz standard "I Cover the Waterfront," and the elegiac eight-minute "All You Know is Blue," which shocks some bluegrass with some blues by wringing a greasy jam from fiddle and banjo. Humphreys' velvet vocals never sound better here than on the Bacharach-biting "Faded Beauty." In austerity, he's barely accompanied by a lithe acoustic guitar line, circling longingly like "My Funny Valentine." Even the bluesy stomp of "Natural Child" and the languorous, moribund carpe diem stance of "One Song Away" possess allure. Together, these tracks prove Humphreys is capable of mostly anything. Onward and alone, it's only a question of focus. —Chris Parker
Greg Humphreys (www.greghumphreys.net) plays Cat's Cradle for Jon Shain's Pre-Turkey Day Jam Wednesday, Nov. 26. Ticket sales benefit the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service.