by Thom Jurek
Jim Roll may be one of Ann Arbor's most self-effacing songwriters, but that doesn't hide the fact that he is also one of its finest. On this self-produced, self-engineered debut, he concerns himself with expressing matters close to the heart of everyday life: hopes, fears, sin, redemption, detachment, pain, compassion and the small wonder that lies at the core of self-discovery.
Roll writes from the rock side of folk and the country side of rock (along with a funk number and rockabilly gospel tune tossed in for good measure). His strength is in dispensing with overly ambitious writing, playing or production. He has surrounded himself with a host of Ann Arbor's best players and singers, and the result is comfortable, familiar, mostly seamless and rings emotionally and musically true.
Ready to Hang is, for the most part, a somber album; its 14 songs reflect and meditate on the sadness of love, and the struggle to survive, believe and participate in it. On the album's opener, a solid country song that shines with Chris Casello's rootsy, distorted guitar and Matt Comb's fiddle playing, Roll reports the discovery of just how pervasive love affairs, even after they've ended, are to our lives. In a clearly ringing tenor he gives us: "Comes to you when you're out on the highway/Comes to you when the phone rings late/Comes to you when you're fixing your dinner/Comes to you at an airport gate É Comes to you like a song on the radio/Comes to you like an overcast day/Comes to you like the colors in the fall, girl/Old love don't ever go away É Doesn't anybody understand me when I say/Sometimes a new old love don't make that old old love go away."
His voice gives us the truth in the small, mysterious wisdom that lies at the heart of the obvious. He sings not with bitterness, but with resignation and hope. Elsewhere, as on the title track, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and K.C. Groves' understated harmony, Roll crosses the threshold in a beautiful folk ballad and enters into the slipstream where memory becomes reflection and then admonition: "Lovers move on tired ground, and the screen paints a picture/He ain't gonna give you anything/that you're ready to hang your soul on/It ain't gonna be like in a movie show/It's not gonna be like in your dreams/Don't give in/Don't sell your love/Don't give in, it's all you've got/Lovers move on holy ground."
Roll always leaves room for hope in the darkness; it's always ready to enter whenever called upon, which is further showcased in "Double Time" and "My Savior." His songs have the detachment necessary to accept the big picture as it unfolds. Ready to Hang is not only remarkable because Roll can write and sing a spare, well-crafted song, but because of how free of overstatement and bitterness it is even when the words are sad. Ready to Hang is a small jewel in the crown of wisdom, the wisdom of everyday life.