Jeffrey James O’Loughlin: Too Far Gone

Richard Thomas 

The story behind this CD, as O’Loughlin explains, is that after last October’s snowstorm, he built an igloo in his backyard. In memory of his cat, who had just died, he used a litter box to make snow blocks, a process that took 100 hours. Then he ran cords inside the igloo and recorded these songs.

He told this to me on New Year’s Eve, when he was playing a gig at Beaner’s. Since we were talking over loud music and I had a hard time believing my ears, I had to ask him to repeat it several times: You recorded this is in an IGLOO? Made with a LITTER BOX? What’s this about a DEAD CAT? 

Jeffrey James O’Loughlin, center, with Mike Guello on bass and Owen Mahon on drums. (Photo by Pete Cich)
Jeffrey James O’Loughlin, center, with Mike Guello on bass and Owen Mahon on drums. (Photo by Pete Cich)

Those familiar with O’Loughlin -- a Twin Ports fixture since 2000, who can be found in clubs in the winter and busking on the Lakewalk in the summer -- won’t find the story hard to believe. He usually records in his basement and his past topics have included the passing of his dog. While he recorded this CD alone, “Too Far Gone” is also the name of his current band, with Mike Guello on bass and Owen Mahon on drums and background vocals.

The album has his usual combination of rough-hewn vocals, country-rock-blues guitar and echoey upright piano overdubbed after the initial recording. (The piano is a story in itself: A hundred years ago his great-great aunt, then age 9 and living in remote northern Minnesota, ordered it from a Sears & Roebuck catalogue, unbeknownst to her family. They kept it rather than pay to ship it back.) The effect is alternately sad, uplifting, harsh and lovely, but always good company, especially if you got no one else but a liquor bottle. The lyrics are thoughtful and witty, when they’re intelligible, and they don’t always have to be: drunk people sometimes mumble, after all. But the performance is lucid and sober.

“Too Far Gone,” the title track, features a narrator who is too many sheets to the wind, or too resigned, to have regrets: “I’m just sitting here making mistakes, life ain’t perfect but it’s great.” It’s a fine singalong with a distinctive, catchy melody.

“Starlight” is a soft, blissful piece, but the floatiness of the music belies the anger in the lyrics. The chorus says twice, “The way I feel the world today I better watch out what it is I say,” making it sound like a general expression of frustration. But in the last refrain he adds, “I better watch out what I say to you.” Is he addressing the listener? Or is it a relationship song? The line “One and one and one make three, where the hell does that leave me?” suggests a cheatin’ song, though the music is more suitable for a piano lounge than a honky-tonk bar.

The next number, “I’m Gonna Rock,” despite its name, is very much a honky-tonk song. He starts with a cough and soon is shouting, “I’m gonna rock until I drop dead and I’m gonna roll with my lonely soul / I’m gonna sanctify, I’ll show this world that I’m alive.” When he later repeats the first line, he changes “lonely” to “only.” Is that deliberate? Or an intriguing slip?

“Cat Boy” is a beautiful piece mourning a late friend, though it’s not clear from the song alone if it’s about a cat or a boy. (He assures me it’s a cat, though not the same one that died last fall.) There’s also mention of “Clyde,” who happens to be the late dog he’s sung about before. It’s a bit worrisome; they all died years apart, but maybe O’Loughlin should stop getting attached to entities with short life spans. In fact he is pet-free now, or at least until another shows up on his porch.

“All Kinds of People” is another honky-tonk song with sardonic lyrics: “Now there’s some who won’t take a chance, and there’s some who can, they just won’t, they live in a vacuum, and they’re content just going to the bathroom, and when they kick that can you won’t even know what just happened. Now I don’t pretend to know anything … We could live, we could die, and no one asks us why, well, if we’re so damn important why don’t somebody stand up and say something? … Why can’t we all just get along for a while and sing kumbaya?” And sure enough, the song ends with him singing “Kumbaya.” I suspect we’re all meant to sing along and he’s no longer being sardonic.

If “Midway Stadium” sounds a bit like a Replacements song, there’s a good reason: It’s about The Replacements concert Sept. 13, 2014 at the Midway Stadium in St. Paul. (The stadium was demolished in 2015). “Shining Light Cafe,” about a cafe in the town he grew up in (Northome, Minn.) is another rocker, this time with an Elvis vibe. The album ends with another slow, sad, and soaring piece, “How Many Ways?” 

The CD is available at Electric Fetus and at his shows. His next is hosting the Valentine’s Day Love / Break Up open mic at 6 p.m., Feb 14 at Beaners. With these compositions, he’s the perfect bard for a bittersweet day.