Sharps and Flats: Steve Poltz

By Keith Moerer

Published March 17, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Of all people to trust about love, a guy who used to front a band called the Rugburns should be near the bottom of the list. But this same guy, Steve Poltz, wrote "You Were Meant For Me" with Jewel, even played her junkie boyfriend on MTV. Which means Poltz is now a sensitive guy, this decade's answer to Jackson Browne, this year's Duncan Sheik. Of course, when Browne wasn't mooning over somebody's baby, he was taking swipes at Daryl Hannah (OK, allegedly), so love isn't always a simple thing.

On "One Left Shoe," Poltz offers love songs straight ("Everything About You"), shaken ("I Thought I Saw You Last Night") and stirred ("Leavin' Again"). There are times when his voice is so earnest and his acoustic guitar so soft, you'd swear James Taylor could left-hook him to a pulp. He's the kind of guy who sees a single tennis shoe wrapped around a telephone wire and doesn't think "Kids!" but rather: "That's me. One left shoe, lonely without you ..."

"Forbidden Fruit" is supposedly about how delicious sin can be, but it takes Poltz five verses before he's sitting cross-legged in a prostitute's apartment boring her with details of his life. After several minutes of talky foreplay, the actual sex is over in a line or two, and all that's left is Poltz's sad admission that he still wants what he knows he shouldn't have. Even when he's trying to be bad, he can't help himself: Basically, he's a boy scout of love.

To his credit, Poltz is more sophisticated musically, hiring string arrangers Van Dyke Parks and Jimmy Webb to add real ache to his wispy sentiments and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' peppy horns for a fascinating, if deeply flawed, ska-folk-doo-wop hybrid, "Impala." Particularly when it wanders off the straight folkie path, "One Left Shoe" sounds better than it reads. The album's three finest moments are the jazzy acoustic blues of "Salvation Song," a gentle country lament called "The Great Mystery" and "Silver Lining," a bitter but funny take on all the things wrong with his life.

The latter song is the one instance when everything comes together for Poltz. Instrumentally, it rides a lazy, sensual groove with two guitars (a bent-string acoustic plus a lovely slide) and high lonesome harmonies. But it's the lyrics, about a landlord with a "payday face" and a leg injury that leaves Poltz hobbling like major league baseball slob John Kruk, that push the song well over the top. Though not directly about romance, it's the album's most compelling song because sometimes the loss of love isn't remembering a long-gone lover, but rather facing everyday demons by yourself.

Keith Moerer

Keith Moerer is a regular contributor to Salon.

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