Joe Pug – Nation of Heat EP

Joe Pug
Nation of Heat EP

I’ve been burned out on folk music – an old favorite genre – for some time now. There seem to be too many two-bit, untalented hacks trying to pass themselves off in coffee shops, street fairs, and bars as the next great singer-songwriter. Add to that the overwhelming number of submission we receive here at DOA headquarters and it’s hard to decide what to listen to from the stacks of CDs. Chicagoan Joe Pug’s seven song EP, Nation of Heat, arrived in a simple paper slipcover with a scrap of paper telling me that Pug is a “stunning 23 year old songwriter”. I almost didn’t bother to listen to this disc at all, then reconsidered it for a spot in my semi-regular “Short Takes” column where I try to take on mini-reviews of some of the discs that would otherwise get overlooked. About half way through the first song, “Hymn #101”, I knew this EP was set to shoot straight to levels of awesomeness I haven’t heard from any folkie in ages.

Once you hear Joe Pug sing you’ll be looking for proof that he isn’t a middle-aged, well seasoned vet of the folk circuit. He’s not. Pug is a mere 23 years old, and he’s only been playing (guitar and harmonica), singing, and songwriting for a short time. Nation of Heat is his debut recording, and each of the seven songs here is an absolute gem. Pug has a world weariness not often found in such a young person and it shines through in his voice and lyrics without a shred of a put-on. This is a guy that will either burn out young (and perhaps, tragically) or have an amazing, decades long career. At present, he’s green enough that he still works a day job as a carpenter and plays at night. Trust me when I say that Joe Pug is absolutely poised on the edge of blowing up, and all it is going to take is more word-of-mouth recommendations. You can even write to Joe directly via his website and he’ll send you a copy of his EP free of charge.

“Hymn #101” is so damn good that you may find it hard to move on to the next six songs. Umpteen repeat listens later and you’ll still be marveling at Joe’s amazing stream of consciousness lyrics, simple acoustic accompaniment, and timeless voice. Every word here is just amazingly beautiful, and the whole song is packed with symbolism and pure poetry. Consider “I’ve come to wish aloud among the overdressed crowd, come now to watch the sinking of the ship” or “I’ve come here to get high, to do more than just get by, I’ve come to test the timbre of my heart”. Amen, Joe Pug.

Once you make it past “Hymn #101” you’ll find six other equally wonderful songs. “Call it What You Will” will fill you with a melancholy feeling that you just can’t shake. There’s a second voice layered here, but I can’t quite tell if it’s a different person or just Joe’s own vocals layered. I imagine there could be some great harmonies in Pug’s future. As he sings “Call it what you will, I’m heartbroken still…words are just words” you’d have to be the world’s most cold-hearted bastard to not be moved in some way. “Hymn 35” makes good use of Joe Pug’s talent with the harmonica, and I’m reminded of some of Dan Bern’s most beautiful songs. The title track bookends the EP with another four minute plus slice of perfection. “Nation of Heat” is more earnest than “Hymn #101”, and he crafts this one with more of a chugging troubadour style that suits lines like “I seen skeleton mothers and hungry folks cross the street from the kitchens…”

Nation of Heat is a CD I almost passed over, and I could kick myself for coming that close to missing out on Joe Pug. Listening to this EP is like reading the love letters of someone you’ve never met. You get a glimpse into another person’s core – both joys and heartaches – and you latch on to the fascination of spying into this stranger’s emotions as you attach their meaning to your own life. Without a doubt, Nation of Heat will be a top album of 2008 for me. Joe Pug really is a stunning songwriter, and I hope to hear much more from him in the future. Pug is confident enough to be giving away this EP, so you really have no excuse now do you?