Images of obsidian eyes and fountains of youth that can be traded for wine float by on starkly insistent streams of melody. Delicately plucked acoustic guitar arpeggios, softly humming organ chords, danceable fiddle tunes, and gently urgent drum patterns take their turns weaving their way into the songs. Welcome to the world of Joe Stickley, a singer/songwriter of consummate talent and impressive imagination.
Though Wasn’t It Pretty is Stickley’s first solo release, he has been no stranger to recordings and live performance. Three albums were released in the early part of the 21st Century under the name Joe Stickley’s Blue Print. He also produced a keepsake a couple years back with his partner Sean Canan of their ongoing weekly performances Sunday nights at the Irish pub John D. McGurk’s in the Soulard area of St. Louis. That duo, Stickley & Canan, now augmented by bassist Ryan Kennedy, are already planning a follow-up album for later this year. But Wasn’t It Pretty flows entirely from Stickley’s brain, a collection of five songs connected by their awareness of the ways dreams and hopes motivate people.
“The song “Wasn’t It Pretty” came after re-reading The Sun Also Rises,” Stickley says. “It’s a variation on the last line, which is, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” You come across a line like that, and it’s enough to spearhead a song. I found that to be quite palpable, and just a really potent sentence. It was me understanding the line, I think.”
That line forms the base of a song which recalls scenes in Ernest Hemingway’s novel – the moon in Paris, smokey bars and stars, raging bulls – without corresponding in every way. Stickley’s vocals, as they are throughout the record, are romantic, engaged with the emotional context, and able to manipulate the rhythms to emphasize meanings not always obvious from the written words. Thus the lovely tune of the lines “Wasn’t it pretty to think / Our love was enough” becomes a heartbreaking statement of rejection and loss combined with the knowledge that the singer was fooling himself the whole time. And yet, he’s ready to “Roll and carry on / The other side.” Stickley sells the sentiment both ways, that of devastation and that of a future.
“The songs are all things that happened,” Stickley says. “No one’s ever asked me if the songs are autobiographical. But to some extent, they all are. But they are also inspired by outside forces. I think songs can be both.”
Thus “Country Wine” was born by imagining a past in the setting of Stickley’s wife’s aunt & uncle’s home on the Meramac River, a past of moonshine and arrests that didn’t take place but which led to an emotionally satisfying tale of deeds and recriminations and the desire to be free. Or “Tumblin’ Baby” may have begun by observation and pondering of his own infant children, but it grew into a large tale of connections between ancestors and future progeny, all tied to the experiences they’ve shared or at least told. This is song also benefits from the delirious fiddle melody of guest Kevin Buckley, who plays both Irish folk music and alternative pop/rock around town.
Stickley considers his music to be more than just folk music. His greatest inspiration is the work of Bob Dylan, especially the album, “Blood on the Tracks”, which he discovered while in college. “The influences are all over the place,” Stickley says. “As far as an artist changing my life, there aren’t that many. Dylan’s one of them. Pink Floyd’s another. They are influences in some intangible way, maybe.”
Literature and movies have also been a major part of Stickley’s life since childhood. The film titles referenced in the song “Going Home (In a Streetcar Named Desire)” should make the latter obvious. But it was mathematics that gave Stickley a career. “It’s a very private experience, watching a movie, or reading a book,” Stickley says. “Or being a mathematician.” Writing songs may be private, too, but Wasn’t It Pretty is a great way to connect his talent with the world.
- Steve Pick (Host of Sound Salvation on 88.1, KDHX)