As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, April 30, 2004
Fans of Johnny Dowd immediately will know they’re on familiar ground when they hear the first verse of “Brother Jim,” the first song on his fifth album, Cemetery Shoes:
“Brother Jim is locked up In prison/His crime, I’m ashamed to say/God bless his wife/Goddamn the knife/Brother Jim is doing life,” he sings to an upbeat nightmarish near-polka musical backdrop.
Once again, Dowd singing his off key, meandering melodies in his dark Okie drawl, takes his listeners on a sometimes frightening, but often funny tour of his troubling world It’s a planet populated by determined losers struggling against cruel odds; small-town Sisyphuses pushing their boulders up hills they’ve created themselves; spurned and humiliated lovers, killers, deviants, the repentant, the unashamed. All this, plus a good, unhealthy preoccupation with death.
A little background for the uninitiated: Dowd was raised in Texas and Oklahoma, but for many years has earned his daily bread operating a moving company in Ithica, N.Y. He didn’t start recording until he was nearly 50 when he released his 1998 debut The Wrong Side of Memphis, full of off-kilter murder ballads and other tales of the underbelly.
At first he was lumped in with the alternative country set (and Dowd indeed do very twisted takes on a couple of Hank Williams tunes on his next album Pictures From Life’s Other Side.) But as his sound developed, with all the horror-movie synths, screaming guitar and crazy rhythms, it started to resemble some mutant New Wave or garage band. Trying pigeonhole Dowd’s music was fruitless.
On the new album, it’s hard not to laugh at some of Dowd’s protagonists -- the cross-dressing butcher’s boy in “Wedding Dress” for instance. But in songs like “Easter Sunday,” which has the refrain “Please don’t fill Bobby’s head with lies,” you can’t help but feel the shame, fear and anger that non-custodial parents have all experienced at one time or another.
Indeed, holidays are special times In the Dowd Universe. This CD also has Johnny’s latest Yuletide ditty, “Christmas is Just Another Day,” which starts out “There’s no joy in Christmas without her …”
My only real complaint about Cemetery Shoes is the absence of Kim Sherwood-Caso, whose sweet voice made a striking counterpoint to Dowd’s crazed Residents-like vocal attack. I hope she’s not gone for good.
This album has been out since early this year, but only on the Dutch label, Munich Records. I waited to review it, hoping an American company would soon snatch it up. But I got impatient because I haven't seen any movement on that front.
Wake up, America! Johnny Dowd is a true American artist. There's no excuse for having to give money to foreigners just to hear his stuff (though the Munich Records people are good folks and were in Santa Fe recently). Dowd is already a psychic exile. Don't force him to remain an artistic exile.
Aw Cmon and No, You Cmon by Lambchop I’m basically a newcomer to this critic-hailed outfit and it took me awhile to warm up with these two simultaneously released CDs by Nashville iconoclast Kurt Wagner and his band.
Both albums are full of lushly orchestrated (courtesy of a studio ensemble called The Nashville String Machine) tunes, including several instrumentals Wagner wrote for the new score for a 1927 silent film called Sunrise. Both are full of slow, soul-drenched ballads and melodies that fall somewhere between American Music Club and Mercury Rev.
Wagner has an interesting voice. It’s deep and some actually have compared it to that of Leonard Cohen. I don’t hear that though. Cohen’s voice sounds like a geological movement, while Wagner’s is more choppy and, well, mumbly. It’s definitely more human scale. Plus he often sounds as if he’s suppressing laughter, holding back some funny secret to which his lyrics only hint.
The second album, No, You Cmon, is the more diverse of the two. It’s actually got a couple of rockers on it -- “Nothing Adventurous Please” and “Shang a Dang Dang” -- and “About My Lighter” sounds almost country. (Like Johnny Dowd, Lambchop initially was marketed as “alt country.”)
And one song, “The Gusher” starts out with a strange metal flourish, settles into a bosa nova groove and by the end somehow transforms into the Mary Tyler Moore theme song.
But I’ve come around to prefering the more somber Aw Cmon. The cocktail piano blues of “Women Help Create The Kind of Men They Despise” is irresistible. Zappa fans would recognize Daddy Frank’s influence on the weird vocal bridge in the middle of this song.
Even the last two tracks account for some of the sexiest music I’ve heard in years
The slow moving “I Haven’t Heard a Word I’ve Said” features Wagner singing over a gurgling wah-wah guitar, a piano and acoustic guitar. (The most disturbing lyric here: “Somehow with the help of pills, I remain a pillar of calm.”)
The final song on the album, “Action Figure” is even slower and dreamier There’s 3 a.m. Johnny Ace vibes and the drummer’s using brushes and a fuming guitar that sounds like it’s about to explode. Wagner croons like a cabaret singer on the verge of a prison stint.
Where can I hear Johnny Dowd and Lambchop?: On Terrell’s Sound World, the home of freeform weirdo radio, of course. I’ll play selections from all three of these CDs Sunday night, 10 p.m. to midnight on KSFR, Santa Fe Public Radio, 90.7 FM.
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