Kevin Welch is such a great singer that even his weaker songs sound good. No matter what the subject or volume level, his craggy baritone always sounds like it's issuing a reluctant confession. But when he writes a really good song and really has something worth confessing, his voice acquires an immense dignity even as it reveals his most self-damning secrets.
Both kinds of songs can be found on "Changes," the first new album in nearly four years from this Oklahoma country-folk-rocker. There are some missteps, especially when Welch strays into the sentimentality of "Fold Your Wings" or the Garth Brooks-like bombast of "Bastard Nation."
But even the underwritten road song that is the title track is brought to life by Welch's weary vocal and Mike Henderson's ferocious guitar solo. And when Welch writes a couplet as memorable as "They keep talking about my drinking/ They don't care nothing about my thirst," as he does on "Anne Lise Please," his voice reveals the problems behind the problems.
The three best songs are secular gospel hymns, where Welch writes melodies and aphorisms sturdy enough to be sung by a congregation. Two members of the Fairfield Four help Welch sing "Everybody's Gotta Walk," a bouncy sermon arguing that all religious paths lead to the same spiritual mountain. Another journey, a romantic quest gone terribly wrong, is described on "Shores of Stone." These are just two of the seven songs Welch recorded with his Dead Reckoning pals in Nashville, while the third hymn, "Faith Comes Later," is one of three cut with a Danish rock band in Copenhagen.
Appearing Thursday at IOTA with Peter Mulvey. To hear a free Sound Bite from Kevin Welch, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8124. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)