A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 7, 2006
Johnny Dowd is an acquired taste to be sure, but once you’ve acquired it, it’s impossible to get rid of.
What can you say about an album that starts off with Dowd’s laconic Okie drawl rapping — an unsettling tale of a guy who purposely shoots himself in the genitals — over a sparse bluesy rock backdrop? “Give the drummer some!” Dowd shouts before the instrumental.
Damaged people, doomed love. Crushing struggles, down-home apocalyptic obsessions, and insanity as a defense mechanism. Grim imagery of mechanical cockroaches chasing albino rats.
All this fills Cruel Words, Dowd’s sixth album (not counting obscure live records and outtake collections). After you digest that first song, “House of Pain,” the rest of the album goes down relatively easy.
This album is an improvement over his last one, Cemetery Shoes, just by virtue of the fact that Dowd’s favorite backup singer, Kim Sherwood-Caso, is back, at least for several cuts. In the song “Unwed Mother,” she actually sings the “cruel words” to which the title refers: “You’re not the father of the child that I carry/You’re not the man who I want to marry.”
Welcome back, Kim. It just wasn’t the same without you!
Dowd, of course, can be cruel himself.
“Love can be so beautiful like Jesus on a cross/You don’t know what you’ve got till you see what you have lost,” he snarls on “Poverty House.” The narrator’s memories grow darker. “I recall your body, I recall your kiss/I recall your bitterness/That’s something I don’t miss/I met you in a churchyard in 1968/We walked down the thin line between love and hate.”
There’s also guest appearances by Mekons’ Jon Langford and Sally Timms on “Drunk,” a song about a reformed alcoholic fighting hard not to unreform. Timms and Langford join Sherwood-Caso on the refrain (“Oh what I’d give for a drink”) and mutter some inscrutable dialogue during the instrumental portion.
But the wrenching part of the song is where Dowd sings “I stare at the window repeating my name, Johnny Dowd, Johnny Dowd, Johnny Dowd, Johnny Dowd.” A listener has to laugh, but it’s inevitably a nervous laugh.
I can’t say enough good things about Dowd’s sidemen, drummer Brian Wilson (no, not that Brian Wilson) and keyboardist Michael Stark, who can sound like Jimmy Smith on some tunes, Greg Allman on others.
The band gets faux-metallic on “Poverty House” and Who-like and prog-rocky on “Corner Laundromat.”
Dowd gives the band an instrumental track here — “Wilder Than the Wind ’66” — which sounds like some mutated, forgotten theme by Davey Allen and The Arrows.
On past albums, Dowd has done his deconstructed/reconstructed cover songs — “Jambalaya” and “Jingle Bells,” for instance. Here he does a barely recognizable “Johnny B. Goode,” which he combines with the famous riff from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”
This isn’t Dowd’s best effort. Newcomers probably should start with Pictures from Life’s Other Side (my own favorite). But it’s a good one, and it’s good to know that Dowd’s still out there shouting his name in the darkness.
There’s no obvious musical connection between Johnny Dowd and the following two albums, which are both from Switzerland’s Voodoo Rhythm label. (Except maybe the fact that Dowd is probably better appreciated in Europe. Cruel Words, like his past several CDs, was released on a European label, the Netherlands’ Munich Records, months before it was released here.)
Yet, I somehow feel there’s a spiritual connection. Fans of Dowd should check out Voodoo Rhythm Records, and vice versa.
* Your Favorite Position Is on Your Knees by Rev. Beat-Man & The Church of Herpes. Beat-Man is the founder, brains, and inspirational icon of Voodoo Rhythm. Here he teams up with a Swiss industrial group; Voodoo Rhythm describes the result as “Kraut-influenced gospel from Hell mixed up with analog electro-trash.”
That about sums it up.
Truly this is hellish music. You can imagine it as the soundtrack of some slasher movie yet to be made, a portrait of a rockabilly werewolf l killer. Beat-Man has the voice of an evil robot disguised as a freak-show barker.
My favorite tracks here are “Bad Treatment” (Beat-Man as a wounded lover — you can almost feel the revenge fantasies playing out in his head); “Prophecy” (the melody is almost like a sea chantey); and “Faith, Hope, Love” (what cult is the woman’s voice sampled from?).
Don’t listen to this if you’re feeling halfway paranoid. But if you’re in the mood for some wicked, Dark Side chuckles, it’s hard to beat.
* Wunderkammer by The Dead Brothers. This is a sonic treat by a Geneva band with a Gypsy heart.
You hear the influence of Tom Waits on songs like the opening “Trust in Me,” a slow-motion tango featuring a lap steel, a trumpet, and clunky percussion — and on “Old Pine Box,” a blues tune with a sinister banjo.
Elsewhere there are echoes of 3 Mustaphas 3 (on the Mideastern-colored “Mustapha”) and the Squirrel Nut Zippers (on the Djangoed-out “Greek Swing”).
And they can do Woody Guthrie. “The Story of Woody and Bush” is a musical conversation between the Dust Bowl balladeer and the leader of the free world. “Woody” sings of a lonesome day and tells his kids, “Come children dry your father’s eyes.” He’s answered by “Bush,” who sings, “I don’t really care about people in despair.” When Woody sings, “My children need new shoes for their feet,” you can hear Bush in the background saying, “Yeah, sure.”
Dowd-o-rama: Johnny Dowd is underplayed and underheard in this country. But not in Santa Fe on Sunday night. I'll play a half-hour Dowd set starting about the 11th hour (Mountain Time) on Terrell's Sound World, 90.7 FM on KSFR (for you out-of-towner, you can hear it stream HERE at that time. Earlier on Sunday I'll play Rev. Beat Man, Dead Brothers and some other Voodoo Rhythm artists that you won't hear on any of those polite stations.
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