Figure Drawing

Josh Joplin and Among The Oak & Ash

NarrowMoat, 2023

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Time affects us all, or at least it should. Humans aren’t supposed to be just one thing forever; we’re meant to evolve and become several versions of ourselves between the start and finish lines.

In his days thus far, Josh Joplin has been: a coffeehouse folksinger of uncommon urgency; an indie-label darling who hit big (2001’s #1 AAA hit “Camera One”); an indie-label castoff finding his way again; co-founder of the folk-Americana collective Among The Oak & Ash; an award-winning independent film producer; and a family man.

After a decade spent mostly away from music, Joplin returned last year with an exuberant reunion show featuring the Josh Joplin Group that had backed his turn-of-the-millennium moment in the popular music spotlight. Around the same time he also turned to writing and recording new material. The result is Figure Drawing, a new album whose promotional materials attribute it to “Josh Joplin and Among The Oak & Ash,” although the physical packaging of the CD features only the album title. While it’s likely reading too much into that detail, one can’t help observing that it’s as if Joplin is both seeking and instinctively shying away from that bright, familiar spotlight.

Figure Drawing finds Joplin supported by Among The Oak & Ash comrades Wes Langlois (guitars, backing vocals), Jeremy Darrow (bass) and Brian Owings (drums), plus Allen Broyles (keyboards) from the Josh Joplin Group, along with Hannah Miller (vocals) and Fats Kaplin (violin, pedal steel, mandolin). However they ultimately bill themselves, this collective is well-suited to Joplin’s approach here: organic, earnest, heartfelt singer-songwriter material that’s grounded in a folk-rock vibe but ranges to wherever the individual song needs to go.


Opener “Just Ghosts” leans into the pastoral side of Joplin’s musical persona, living up to its title with a dreamy, haunted country-folk lament that feels like it might be about the simultaneously lovely and lonely isolation every writer experiences. Second song and first single “Me Then Now” takes us back to JJG days with an up-tempo number melding appealing acoustic-and-electric melodies with a lyric that engages ideas about fate and friendship in an elliptical, beguiling dance. It could be an outtake from 2002’s The Future That Was if not for the silvery violin and gauzy reverbed vocals.

The traditionalist Americana tune “Skeptics Gospel” is just what its title suggests, a lilting set of moral teachings for the nonreligious (“No matter what you choose / You can’t ever lose / If you’re decent and kind / Then love will provide”). The equally earnest “Tell The Ones You Love Them,” a contemplation on grief and connection, urges us to speak up while we can, because you never know what may be around the corner.

What’s clear by now is that we’re hearing a Josh Joplin who’s both the same and different, an exuberant wordsmith and engaging vocalist with a lot on his mind and a gift for turning that into art. And if the overall feel of the music is more, well, mature than in the past, why wouldn’t it be? As everyone who’s ever done it can testify, growing up is hard, but full of chances to learn along the way.

The bouncy “Status Update” feels like a direct descendant of Joplin’s early hyper-verbal coffeehouse raps, a rambling, rollicking number that seems to be about aging, with a side of internet addiction (“I’ve settled on bittersweet diversion / Scrolling for a thrill but I never get my fill”). Marking the midpoint of the album, the title track is an expansive, rather Band-flavored number about a creative’s life: the observations gathered up and discarded along the way, the crushing losses and heart-exploding joys, concluding with gratitude for it all.

Mournful road song “History Of I Do” doesn’t leave a big impression, but then comes “Thoughts And Prayers,” a mesmerizing, devastating meditation on school shootings, told from the point of view of a parent. Next, “Lazarus And The Gospel Plow” offers a sprawling, Dylanesque take on how the twisted “doctrine of prosperity and fame” has turned many American Christians toward a philosophy that would make Jesus recoil.

Joplin melds pop smarts and Americana jangle on “Shifts That Transform The Heart,” an existential self-interrogation disguised as a love song—and loaded with hooks galore. The album closes on a more contemplative note with the piano-led “Late Night, Early Morning,” which feels like it might capture a pandemic interlude, one of those moments when the larger world feels like it’s crumbling but an instant of connection and love is all it takes to regain your footing.

Figure Drawing introduces us to an older and more grounded, but no less intense and inquisitive Josh Joplin, offering an album richly layered with keen observations and engaging hooks. To which I can only say: it’s great to meet you, again.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2023 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of NarrowMoat, and is used for informational purposes only.