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Rolling Stone US - Review: Joel Rafael: Baladista

By Will Hermes

Joel Rafael - Baldista

Joel Rafael is a disappearing breed: a Guthrie-Dylan-Llewyn Davis-style folk singer and Vietnam draft-dodger armed with a harmonica rack and acoustic guitar, who sings tales of love and history flickering with ache and political outrage. His ninth LP is unfussy and modestly heroic, drawn in clean fingerpicking laced with Greg Leisz's laidback pedal steel. Rafael has a weathered, fragile survivor's voice that fits his material; lyrics are plainspoken, sometimes to a fault. The strongest tracks are "El Bracero," about the hypocritical legacy of U.S. immigration policies, and "Sticks and Stones," a folk-continuum object lesson in which Rafael describes performing a Woody Guthrie song about a lynching ("Don't Kill My Baby and My Son") and is met with an echo of the same racism that inspired it. The record ends with the folk-revival staple (and Inside Llewyn Davis highpoint) "500 Miles." It's a beautiful rendition, and Rafael sounds like he's walked every inch. . .

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