Just The Clothes On My Back

Naked Blue

Independent release, 2019


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


There is of course a long history of music inspired by writing, from Hamilton (inspired by the Ron Chernow biography Alexander Hamilton) to Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans (inspired by various Hindu scriptures and a ton of weed). There has also been plenty of writing inspired by music.

The point is, music and writing enjoy a naturally symbiotic relationship; one form of creative expression feeds the other even as they both feed the imagination. What’s fresh and different in the case of Just The Clothes On My Back, the new album from husband-and-wife Americana duo Naked Blue, is that Jennifer Ferguson Smith (lead vocals & guitars) and Scott Smith (lead guitar, background vocals, production) actively collaborated on these songs with the writer whose fictional creation is brought to musical life here. And it’s hardly an obscure creation—it’s bestselling author Lee Child’s iconic ex-military drifter Jack Reacher, the American ronin who wanders the countryside alone, dispensing justice before moving on once again.

Lee Child has been here before, trying to help Reacher make the leap into another medium, and it hasn’t always gone well. As sharp as the action was in the two recent Hollywood movies, most avid fans of the book rejected the idea of 5’7” pretty boy Tom Cruise playing Reacher, described in the books as a craggy 6’6” mountain of a man. Among the many wise choices made here is to keep the songs in first person for the sake of immediacy, while embracing the idea of having a woman sing them. It might be counterintuitive, but Jennifer Smith’s voice works better here singing the thoughts of Jack Reacher than almost any man’s could; it removes any pretense that she’s acting out the part of Reacher in a radio play, and allows you to simply engage with the songs.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The songs themselves are bold, assertive blues-rock tunes that, thanks to Jennifer Smith’s throaty, expressive delivery, remind of artists like Susan Tedeschi and Lucinda Williams without feeling derivative of either; Naked Blue is its own thing, a potent pairing whose natural rawness and muscle suit the Reacher ethos beautifully.

The opening title track sketches the essence of Reacher’s compulsion for autonomy, declaring “I found out the hard way, you don’t own things, they own you.” The privileges and pitfalls of this extreme form of freedom are explored further in “Alone,” where Reacher notes “I was born alone, I have lived alone, I will die alone.”

In almost every Reacher book there’s a moment when he connects with someone he meets along his path and shares a moment (or two or three) of passion. While it takes a moment when “Sanctuary” begins to adjust to Smith’s female voice describing a love scene from Reacher’s perspective, the universality of the human experience being described is underscored by the song’s chorus: “Will you be my sanctuary / My harbor in this wild and bitter sea? / You always need me strong / Now will you let me be weak?” Supporting an evocative, insightful lyric, the music does a steady build to a patch of assertive guitar towards the end.

“Big Man” brings the inimitable Reacher swagger as he warns an obstacle “That’s a door you don’t want to open / You’re gonna get something broken,” supported by a menacing riff and propulsive backbeat. At the album’s midpoint, Child makes his only vocal appearance, intoning “Reacher said…” as a winking introduction to moody instrumental piece “Reacher Said Nothing” (a phrase Child uses frequently to describe his leading man’s typically taciturn approach).

The second half of this concise 34-minute album finds Naked Blue trying out different musical shadings on a number of similar themes. “Eighty-Eight Steps” explores the wistful side of a solitary life, while “Midnight Train” employs a sassy honky-tonk feel well-suited to a more playful exploration of Reacher’s randy side. “Blessed Or Cursed” delivers a churning commentary on Reacher’s nose for trouble, with the Smiths slipping in a funny line about the British-born Child himself in the third minute: “I met a man born in Coventry / He was tall, and thin, and his name was Lee / He said ‘I know you better, that’s for damn sure / I’ll start you out on a killing floor’” (the first Reacher novel was titled The Killing Floor).

After the too-familiar “leather and lace” ballad “Canvas,” the album closes in style with “Killing Floor,” a gritty acoustic blues that builds steadily into a rousing electric thumper, putting an emphatic exclamation point on the proceedings. This ambitious project had many potential pitfalls, all of which the Smiths seem to have avoided. Just The Clothes On My Back achieves the notable trick of bringing a well-known fictional character to life in song in a way that honors both the author’s conception of the character and readers’ expectations, while also offering fresh perspectives and insights into what makes him tick.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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