"What You See"


Gaunt thin beneath his big white cowboy hat, Dennis Jay has been a fixture on Washington's roots-music scene since the early '80s. On his new album, "What You See," Jay strips his beloved country music down to such bare-bones arrangements that the rhythm often falters. The result is neither the trad-country he's aiming for nor the alt-country that he's often lumped in with nor the singer-songwriter folk that his acoustic guitar suggests. Rather it's a kind of ghostly cowboy folk music that's unlike anything else around.

Jay's high tenor is not particularly strong or precise, but when it breaks into a fluttering yodel or holds an especially piercing note, it's quite effective. Backed only by two guitars (his and Tim Griffin's), Bob Graver's acoustic bass guitar and Susan Jones's occasional fiddle, Jay's dozen original songs, set in an Old West long gone, often seem ready to fall apart over a dropped beat or a missed note. But that very uncertainty fills the songs with a suspense that reinforces Jay's lyrics about romantic estrangement.

Songs such as "Eyes Full of Tears," "Betrayal" and "Sorry Excuse for Love" never whine and never shout; they betray their pain only in the small slips of Jay's dignity. This is cowboy minimalism taken to a new extreme. It has no commercial potential, but at least it's not just another case of alt-country mimicry.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Sunday at IOTA. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Dennis Jay, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8124. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)