As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, May 7, 2004
Stan Ridgway turned 50 last month. He’s been making records for more than 20 years, first with his band Wall of Voodoo, then on his own.
He’s just made his best record in years.
And that’s saying a lot. While he isn’t seen much on MTV much anymore and while he’s bounced around from label to label, Ridgway has produced a steady stream of fine albums, each one containing at least one song that’s a complete jaw dropper.
But the new one, Snakebite. basically is a jaw dropper from start to finish.
The album lives up to its subtitle, Blacktop Ballads and Fugitive Songs. Many of the songs deal with people who are trying to escape -- from the police in “Wake Up Sally,” from bad relationships in the black-humor blues of “King For a Day,” from terrifying political realities in “Afghan/Forklift“ and “Monsters of the Id“, from humdrum small-town life in “Running With the Carnival,” and from a Union Army firing squad in “My Rose Marie (A Soldier’s Tale).”
Snakebite starts out with “Into the Sun,” a breezy tune full of hope and promise. It reminds me of “Lonely Town,” from Ridgway’s 1989 Mosquitoes -- except while the lyrics of that song were full of foreboding, “Into the Sun” is outwardly optimistic. The singer is driving to some desert home “where the coyote walks the toad/The tumbleweeds speak in secret code ... Out where the sagebrush sings our song.” His voice sounds full of confidence, and a harp in the second verse gives the lyrics a grandiose veneer. But the backdrop of electronic noise, sounding like some flock of prehistoric birds, hint at some gathering inner storm that threaten the singer’s scheme.
That sense of impending undefined doom -- “something in the air, moving like a southbound train” -- resurfaces in other songs. In “Afghan Forklift” a warehouse worker in Arkansas is overcome with that feeling when he notices two crates “marked Top Secret, headed for Afghanistan.” We never learn exactly what’s in the crates, but apparently it’s serious enough to prompt the forklift operator to try (in vain) to call the president.” A repeated minor-key folk lick, punctuated by Ridgway’s piercing harmonica and low French horns add to the sense of dread.
“Monsters of the ID,” an inspired cover of a Mose Allison song are Ridgway’s main political statements on Snakebite. On “Monsters” he lets loose with the screeching, rumbling electronic noises (usually rising at the end of the verses), as well as horror movie choruses and some pretty impressive harmonica.
Singing in a lower register than usual, Ridgway moans, “The creatures from the swamp/Rewrite their own Mein Kampf/Neanderthals amuck/Just tryin’ to make a buck/And goblins and their hags/Are out there waving’ flags…”
While many of his characters are “fugitives” of one kind or another, Ridgway refuses to run from his own history. He sings of the band that launched his career in “Talking Wall of Voodoo Blues Part 1.”
With guitars suggesting both hillbilly and Mid-eastern music relentless drums and rubbery keyboards, Ridgway recounts the band’s brief history -- from the innocent days of “punk-rock fun” to signing 200-page contracts, MTV (“Labor Day in Mexico/Lots of beans and drugs and friends”) the pre-destined rip-off (“We played a show for 40 grand/And the manager took every cent”) and break-up, for which Ridgway shares in the responsibility. (“I did my best to patch it up/But we were all just big assholes.”)
While you can still hear the Wall of Voodoo echoes throughout the work, this is Ridgway’s rootsiest album ever. There’s a tasty country fiddle (played by Brantley Kearns) in “Wake Up Sally.” “Crow Hollow Blues” with its sinister banjo sounds like Ridgway’s been listening to Tom Waits’ Mule Variations. “Your Rockin’ Chair” is basically a hillbilly stomp, though the subtle keyboard counterpart in the refrain plus the bamboo flute give it an otherworldly quality. Alison Krauss could do a fine version of “Rose Marie.”
But the real trick Ridgway pulls off is combining these diverse elements without it feeling forced. He makes it sound like slide guitar and bamboo flute and spook house keyboards were meant to be played together.
*Saints and Scoundrels by Hecate’s Angels. Ridgway’s wife Pietra Wexstun is as responsible as anyone for the basic sound of her husband’s records for the past decade or so. A keyboard magician always reaching for the out-there, she also has a warm, soothing voice -- kind of like a sexier Laurie Anderson.
This second album by Wexstun’s band Hecate’s Angels is more vocal-oriented than the previous one, 1996’s Hidden Persuader, though both efforts are marked by an ethereal, almost mystical sound incorporating elements of jazz, electronica and world musics. Both have a soundtack quality to them.
Perhaps the strongest is the opener, a jazzy tune called “Way With Words.”
Also notable are the dreamy, boiling, guitar-heavy tune called “Patterns” then a slow lament called necklace, featuring Ridway on a twangy tremelo guitar.
And there are some spacy, mysterioso instrumentals here: “The Innocents,” “Moon Maid’s Lament” and “Appalachian Raga,” which features Wexstun on dulcimer and autoharp as well as keyboards.
*Blood by Stan Ridgway and Pietra Wexstun Fans of Hecate’s Angels’ spooky instrumentals and Ridgway’s darker tunes won’t want to miss this collaboration, a musical score for an art exhibit by Mark Ryden. The brooding music sounds like it could have been the greatest horror movie soundtrack, which is appropriate for Ryden’s disturbing images of bleeding big-eyed Margaret Keane children. The CD package, designed by Ryden with several samples of his creepy portraits -- is amazing itself.
These CDs are available only through the internet -- here or here -- or by mail: Redfly Records, P.O. Box 9524, Los Angeles, Calif. 90295
I’m on New Mexican Radio: Tune into Terrell’s Sound World, 10 p.m. Sunday KSFR, 90.7 FM, Sunday night for real long set of Ridgway tunes, including Wall of Voodoo, Drywall, Hecate’s Angels, etc.
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