Jack Logan is the kind of songwriter who's clearly never figured out what kind of songwriter he should be -- a curse for your average dabbler, but a blessing of sorts if you're as good as Logan is. Logan, who lives just outside of Athens, Ga., snuck quietly onto the scene in 1994 with his double LP "Bulk," a selection of mostly lo-fi songs culled from 600 he had written and recorded between 1979 and 1993. Critics loved the record, and Logan's story made great press: Until recently, he worked full-time as a mechanic (although in interviews he's always been quick to point out that he's hardly the first musician to have a day job).
"Bulk" was a strange little triumph, tempering raw weirdness with abject tenderness. You couldn't shrink away from songs like the wryly amusing "Underneath Your Bed" (starring a goth vixen who keeps her offed lovers you-know-where) or the ominous "Chloroform" (in which a self-described gentleman puts his beloved to "sleep" with a soaked hanky) any more than you could from Johnny Cash's murder ballad "Delia's Gone." "If this world would just leave us alone / Wouldn't need handkerchiefs and chloroform," Logan sang on last line of "Chloroform" with a kind of rusted-out reasoning. The song's crusty roadhouse sound, ancient-sounding barbed-wire guitars wrapping around the verses like evil vines, was miles away from Roy Orbison, but the line was something only the lonely could understand.
Logan's third major LP, "Buzz Me In" is a lot less twisted -- there are no corpses under the bed, no murder ballads recast as dirty blues. And if it has less of the loose-limbed inventiveness of "Bulk," it also shows how Logan has bounded ahead as both a singer and songwriter. These are songs that have been shaped and sung with care without being overworked. Logan seems to have proceeded as if he wasn't really sure what kind of record he wanted to make -- any given track, whether it's a country number or a straightforward pop song, might feature strings, horns, any number or variety of guitars (some of them played by Logan's longtime associate Kelly Keneipp). But every song shows an offhand confidence, a certainty of what should go where that never sounds blatant or annoyingly showy.
"Buzz Me In" could be a true country record if it didn't have so many dyed-in-the-wool pop songs on it. Thank God Logan doesn't make much of a distinction between the two. He knows how to do modern country without falling into self-consciously dull, overly reverential alternative country (a label I've always hated for the way it's been applied to country music deemed safe for the hip masses -- like the Good Housekeeping Seal for the alternarati). Logan wraps his russet-velvet voice around "Melancholy Girl" and "Anytime" like a soft cloak; he may go easy on the twang, but there's no doubt that the seductive non sequitur of "Anytime," about a woman who's made good for herself, is real country: "I've seen your house, but I've never been inside / You can come and see me anytime."
Logan gets a luxe, underwater feel on "Diving Deeper" (where Vic Chesnutt guests on trombone), and he makes "Pearl of Them All," an elegy for a lost girl that's like a rolling seaman's ballad, sound both traditional and invigoratingly fresh. There's magic in the way he gives in to the sheer pop bliss of "Glorious World" (which contains the most romantic line of 1999 so far, "Your neck smells like peppermint / Come on, baby, let me pay your rent").
As a singer, Logan is appealingly casual: He comes off as self-deprecating without being maddeningly world-weary -- he's like a mohair bear with half the fur loved off, but half still on and good to go. And he's one of the rare fellows who can make a string quartet sound perfectly natural in a pop song, instead of pretentious. The strings on "Hit or Miss" (played by the Sundog String Quartet) have a seashell's simple elegance, the perfect foil to Logan's bare-lightbulb lyrics: "The bearing in the ceiling fan is drying up / I let it shriek 'cause it's too hot to turn it off / Sounds like music if you listen long enough."
"Hit or Miss" may be about inertia, but it's far from static -- if anything, it's bracingly alert, like almost everything else on "Buzz Me In." When you don't know where to go or what to do, writing a song is one way of taking action. The key is to sound decisive even in the midst of uncertainty, and Logan has that down. On "Buzz Me In," even the songs about not knowing what to do hit the gas pedal and never look back.