The only thing that seems southern about Anthony Neff is his accent. Born in West Virginia, calling from North Carolina, the guy talks knowledgeably about The Replacements, The Kinks and Neil Young. But if it wasn’t for that tender twang of his that bends certain vowels, he’d sound like just another American rock geek with awfully good taste. In truth, Neff is not just another anything. He’s a vibrantly-gifted songwriter, fluent in pop, folk rock and Americana. All of these genres and more are featured on his new album, Blood Beneath The Sun (Porch Glow Records), sporting his superb backup band, The Nearly Distants. It’s a keeper, wherever he’s from.
Due to his initial, arguably unfortunate geographical location, Neff got off to a strange start.
“Growing up where I did, you became a Johnny Cash and Hank Williams fan,” says the affable Neff. “Then I went to college and got all punk rock for a while. You know, lots of Sex Pistols and abrasive stuff like that. I played my guitar along to it. But eventually, that got a little old. It wasn’t really my wheelhouse. So I began to listen to more lyrical stuff. Townes Van Zandt, John Prine. That made me pay attention to lyrics. I eventually mixed that with pop like The Beatles and Squeeze.”
Put that all in a blender, and you have an idea of what Neff sounds like.
You have to hear the opener, “Scene of the Crime” to understand this guy. It features a hypnotic synth, a slamming groove, crunchy guitars and Neff’s ominous voice, which has traces of the creepy Transylvanian bite of Bryan Ferry. Still, it’s all Neff and irresistible. Follow that with the sick vaudeville sound of “Keep Movin’ On,” with its staccato keyboards, horns and snarling guitars, and you know this guy doesn’t sound like anybody but himself.
“That one was tricky,”Neff says. “I pretty much wrote it in my car, on the way to work; the parts and everything. Obviously, I had no instruments. I can’t believe I was able to remember it and get to a guitar before I lost it.”
One of the most enticing aspects of Neff’s songs (and there are many to choose from), is how he approaches a subject from a tangent. He’s never too literal. Even when talking about that familiar pop topic, love.
“When I wrote ‘Scene,’ it was a brokenhearted love song,” he says. “But I wanted it to be a little more poetic than the usual specimen. So I never really talk about that, specifically. I speak about ‘the boys in blue’ and people ‘dragging the lake.’ It gives you the feeling that a crime has been committed, but I leave room for interpretation. That way, more people can put themselves inside the song.”
When complimented on this approach, Neff, typically modest, says, “It’s something I learned from (Replacements frontman) Paul Westerberg. I love how he never spells stuff out in his songs. It makes them more interesting and gives them more muscle.”
Now that this awesome little album, beautifully produced by Jason Merritt, is out, Neff is hoping to get out there and “spread the word” about his wonderfully eclectic music. One wonders if he’ll ever make it back to West Virginia and if he does, how he will go over. He certainly doesn’t sound like Hank or Johnny. That much is certain, but the hometown folks are bound to like Blood Beneath The Sun, anyway. After all, West Virginians, Anthony Neff has been gone a long time. Cut the guy some slack.