Sean Rowe has been playing a haunted cover of Bruce Springsteen's "The River" on tour this year, usually using only his battered Takamine acoustic guitar, a harmonica and his well-deep, Old Testament baritone voice. It might give an impression — abetted by his impressive beard — that Rowe, a small-town upstate New Yorker, is some Dust Bowl folkie throwback.
But his albums paint a richer picture. Magic, Rowe's 2010 debut, is full of singer-songwriter balladry with Leonard Cohen echoes, rock 'n' roll outbursts and spooky modern production. Its follow-up, The Salesman and the Shark, adds offbeat junk-shop arrangements that recall labelmate Tom Waits. Madman shows Rowe twinning his styles together with new elements: soul, blues, gospel, R&B. The upshot, surprisingly, is his most coherent record yet.
If there's a spiritual forebear to Madman, it's Van Morrison, whose best records have woven the above styles (and more) into seamless cloth. Exhibit A: Madman's title track, with its handclaps, brass, bright melody, and burly "whoa-whoas." But there's cryptic humor here that's all Rowe's own ("You can call me a madman / but I'm spoken for.") The manic mix of "Shine My Diamond Ring," with its barrelhouse blues swagger and screaming gutbucket sax, shows a man who likes rough textures and exposed seams. But maybe the most striking number is "Desiree," a Motown-styled reverie with scats and screams; if only Amy Winehouse were around to make it a duet.
At the core of every song is Rowe's remarkable voice, which sounds inescapably melancholy, tremendously sexy and often slightly menacing. It does all sorts of things well, and its full range is on display here. It seems worth mentioning Rowe's interest in foraging and wild-crafting (see his series of videos on the many uses of milkweed). It's the idea of taking the bounty that's out there, and of using your skills to transform it into something useful, beautiful, remarkable. It's what Rowe does with his music, too.