It’s hard to keep a straight face listening to First World Blues (Flour Sack Cape Records), the compelling debut from Benjamin Jason Douglas. But then that might be the point of an album that is like a dance with fatalism played out in ten acts.
Douglas’ whimsical humor and satirical take on life conjure clever wordplay and quotable lines. His husky voice is weathered and grainy, adding to the weariness on the material about broken love, family dysfunction and the downtrodden. There’s also an air of mystery here as if Douglas isn’t just another new singer from East Nashville but has somewhat of an aura of a troubadour emanating from times past.
“The wedding album is yours to burn…I’d just watch a horror movie if I want ghosts at every turn,” Douglas laments in “Raggedy Andy Williams,” a blow by blow letter to a ex-lover that gains intensity in a sequence of unwavering despair. Douglas’s husky voice cracks in an increasingly groggy ruefulness that exudes the desperation of the song’s character.
Douglas’ band has a tight small ensemble feel that is soulful, rousing and swinging behind his deadpan delivery and lines in songs like “Beat Black and Blue Collar Blues” where he declares:. “I’d rather be in the ground than the mess I’m in.” The album features Douglas on acoustic/electric guitar, keys, and lead vocals; Ryan Dishen, electric guitar and backing vocals; Erin Nelson, drums/percussion and backing vocals; and Joe Lekkas, bass, keys, and backing vocals.
When he sings “Walking Down The Grain,” he sounds tortured as if Tom Waits was singing the soundtrack of a Stephen King novel. There’s a sense of fatalism that pervades the characters whether it’s in the protagonist of “Doc Red Blues” or the comical “Diggin a Stigmata” where you can almost see Douglas, trying not to laugh as he waxes about two ex-wives and responsibilities, proselytizing in a sly Dylan-esque delivery. “For the grace of God,” he sings with exhaustion, “there ain’t nothing free in life.”
There’s a little more joy in “Tentpole,” especially when he breaks out in the middle to sing “Amazing Grace.” One of the album’s best songs is the emotionally devastating “Street Preacher,” where Douglas gives dignity and conveys hope for someone grappling with a life of regrets.
“Tchoupitulous” is a respite, a travelogue written about a trip to the Bayou. “We can have a relationship, we can have it all,” Douglas extolls in the gorgeous song written by producer Joe Lekkas. Judged within the context of “First World Blues,” its simple promise somehow seems all the more illusive.
Get your copy here: benjaminjdouglas.com