Presenting The Great Unknowns

The Great Unknowns

Daemon Records, 2004

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


It’s a tried-and-true storytelling trope—start in the middle and then flash back to fill in the backstory. It works a little differently with musical artists, of course, but it’s still exhilarating as a listener to get excited about an artist you’ve just stumbled upon, only to discover they also have a substantial back catalogue.

A couple of years back, that artist for me was Nashville singer-songwriter Becky Warren, a gifted storyteller whose 2018 album Undesirable used the real-life stories of Nashville’s homeless as fuel for an album of gritty, moving first-person narratives. I called this dazzling album “a terrific batch of Americana, and a genuine work of art”—and then found there was more. First came Warren’s 2016 solo debut War Surplus, an equally outstanding song-cycle loosely based on her marriage to and divorce from a military veteran with PTSD.

Before either, though, Warren was the frontwoman and principal songwriter for The Great Unknowns, an alt-country quartet that recorded this debut album in the basement of a college dorm in Boston in 2003. The group—Warren (vocals), Michael Palmer (guitars), Altay Guvench (bass) and Andy Eggers (drums)—only had the budget to press a few copies for family and friends, but the album somehow found its way to Amy Ray of Indigo Girls, who promptly declared the album “one of the best things I have heard this year” and offered to release it on her independent label Daemon Records.

The modest origins of Presenting The Great Unknowns are rarely evident; in most respects it’s a remarkably mature and professionally crafted album of Americana, deftly straddling country, rock, folk and blues traditions. Warren—who writes all of the lyrics, while co-writing the music for most of these songs with Palmer—brings her trademark honesty and wit to bear on a set of songs that, while not as laser-focused and impactful as her later solo work, is extremely impressive for a DIY debut.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The highlights here are several. “When I Was Your Girl” immediately feels like an A-side single, a sharp-elbowed barroom rocker with sing-along choruses and a hint of country twang; to deploy my go-to Warren comparison, it feels a little like Lucinda Williams fronting the Heartbreakers. Likewise for “Something To Do,” a melancholy country-rocker whose protagonist is her on-again off-again boyfriend’s soft landing between conquests. “I’m just somethin’ to pass the time / Just somethin’ to do” goes the melancholy chorus of a song about bad decisions and frayed self-esteem.

The above snappy pair are backstopped by a set that leans more to the country-blues side of Americana. “This city is just a song that’s gone on too long” sings Warren in her dirge-like ode to “Las Vegas”; “You can’t make it in this town / Without leather for bones / And a conscience of stone.” In the same vein, “Forever” adds beefy guitars while asking “Why did God make forever such a long, long time?” Meanwhile “Don’t Come Home” offers something of a country-blues companion piece to “Something To Do,” with Warren warning an ex to stay away.

Warren shows her strengths in other ways on other songs. “Round Hill” is a well-crafted country-folk story-song with a strong sense of place (North Virginia) and sharp character details, buoyed by backing vocals from Noam Weinstein and banjo and dobro from guests Pierce Woodward and Glen Pangaro. “1000 Miles From Tennessee” delivers a jangle-licious road song about getting out and getting away, with “Deliver Me Home” providing its thematic return trip. “We’ll Be Okay” closes things out with a soothing, introspective ballad that weaves together the threads of leaving and staying, dependence and independence.

Even on her very first recording, Warren’s observations about human nature are acute, intense and artfully expressed; while the subject matter can feel a bit generic when compared with her themed solo albums, the songwriting definitely isn’t. In terms of performance, everyone in the band is solid, though it’s the various guest players contributing organ (Tyler Wood), accordion (Scott Roy), banjo, etc. who supply much of the instrumental color. And Warren’s vocals are the clear highlight throughout; she attacks her lyrics like a born storyteller, making choices about phrasing and emphasis that elevate every song’s narrative.

The Great Unknowns went on the shelf a year after this debut when Warren got married—the troubled relationship that ended up inspiring both a second Great Unknowns album (Homefront, 2012) and Warren’s subsequent solo debut War Surplus. While the songs on Presenting the Great Unknowns might lack some of the visceral edge of Warren’s more recent solo work, they showcase an artist rapidly growing into her exceptional talent.

Rating: B

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