Greg Trooper says “The Williamsburg Affair” is the missing link in his recording history. Befitting any missing link, it’s a piece of archaeology, a release of songs recorded in 1995 with his touring band featuring Brooklyn rocker Eric Ambel at the knobs. “I was touring with a band exclusively in those days and writing for that kind of energy,” Trooper says. “I think it informed my future writing as well. I believe my writing has improved since then and that was a stepping stone towards what I do now.”
What he does now is write and release some of the best roots work around, notably his last two studio discs, the infectious “Floating” and the soulful “Make It Through This World.”
But to get here, he went through Williamsburg on his way to Nashville and (metaphorically, at least) Memphis before returning to New York recently. “The Williamsburg Affair” is a snapshot of Trooper’s progress. There’s none of the assured humor of Trooper’s live show and later work, but there’s an appealing immediacy throughout. And it’s Trooper so there isn’t a dud in the set, including the lone cover of Neil Young’s “Wrecking Ball.”
There are the beginnings of his recently soulful forays on “Stronger All the Time” and “These Sunday Nights,” which foreshadows later tunes like “I Love It When She Lies.” Abel Domingues rips through “Paradise,” one of many highlights with searing slide work. The twang that would slip into Trooper’s work more obviously after he moved to Nashville in 1996 shows up on “These Sunday Nights” thanks to Larry Campbell’s pedal steel work.
Not surprisingly given the band and Ambel’s fondness for straight-ahead garage rock, the sound is more muscular, less adorned, than Trooper’s recent work. Kenneth Blevins, the drummer on several Trooper albums when he’s not hanging with John Hiatt, is ferocious from the opener, “Angel.” Ambel and Dan Zanes provide the guitar muscle on “When You’re Not Here.” “Let’s Pretend” is another in a long line of propulsively rocking love songs.
As usual, there are quieter moments as well. “Quite Like You” can take its place beside “The Lasting Kind.” “21st Century Boy,” a reflective ode to his son, hints at Trooper’s genius for accompaniment featuring Joe Flood’s sighing fiddle work (“21st Century Boy” and “Paradise” make appearances with different arrangements on “Popular Demons”).
“Once I got to Nashville a whole new project emerged with a new label so I figured I’d return to the Ambel produced record shortly afterwards but of course things didn’t go that way,” Trooper says.
The way things went is Trooper became everyone’s favorite songwriter who couldn’t get a break. Yes, Buddy Miller and then Garry Tallent produced albums. Steve Earle took “Little Sister” for “Copperhead Road.” Emmylou came in to sing harmonies. But Trooper has endured one hard luck label after another. He signs, records an album, and the label folds or fails to back him. “Floating” on Sugar Hill Records ended that string and landed Trooper on plenty of “best of” lists in 2005. Then Dan Penn produced the followup, the reflective “Make It Through This World.”
“The road we ride is a little rough, the times we live in are a little tough…these are my shoes, will you walk in them? These are my blues, try avoiding them,” he sings on “21st Century Boy.” Trooper’s road has taken him North, where he began life as Jersey boy. He’s back on the road, telling those stories about being so French, suffering through another shitty Saturday night, and being mistaken for Joe Pantoliano, enduring obscurity.
If songwriters were paid for good reviews and the admiration of peers, Trooper would be on Easy Street. That he’s not doesn’t diminish the power and craft of another stellar set.