A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 26, 2007
Ed Pettersen is a singer-songwriter who is not well known in these parts — even among music geeks and cultists. But he ought to be. He’s a fine writer and a good singer, as he proves with grace and style on his just-released album The New Punk Blues of Ed Pettersen.
Pettersen is a native of Pennsylvania who has been living in Nashville in recent years. His original career goal was to be professional hockey player, a dream shattered by a terrible elbow injury. Luckily, the damage didn’t keep him from playing guitar. Although he is responsible for a slew of self-released CDs in the mid-to-late ’90s (under his own name and with bands like The High Line Riders and The Strangelys), in recent years he’s mainly been working behind the scenes as a producer. (Among the projects consuming much of his time is co-producing The Song of America, an upcoming, various-artists concept album that, according to Pettersen’s Web site, “will tell the history of our country, from 1620 through the present, through music.”)
Some of Pettersen’s well-respected studio pals show up to play on New Punk Blues. Motown bassist Bob Babbitt — you saw him on Standing in the Shadows of Motown — kicks off “Been There Before” with an ominous bass line suggesting “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Speaking of Motown, engineer Bob Olhsson twisted the knobs on this album. Steel guitar great Al Perkins plays on “Tabitha.” Muscle Shoals muscleman Reggie Young plays guitar on several songs. And did Will Ferrell really play cowbell on “Magic Glasses,” as the credits indicate?
It’s Pettersen’s songwriting that’s the main attraction here. “Tabitha” is a troubling true-crime song with a melody suggesting an old Civil War fiddle tune. Pettersen sings from the perspective of a little girl kidnapped from Nashville. In the first verse she’s “playing in the sun,” but later there’s the disturbing image of Tabitha “lying in the sun.”
Pettersen plays tribute to one of his buddies, Scott Kempner (The Dictators, The Del-Lords), on “Top Ten,” a cool tune that subtly nods to Kempner’s early-’60s rock sensibilities. (That's Top Ten himself backing Pettersen in above photo.)
Speaking of an early-’60s influence, “Magic Glasses” is an understated but soulful little number that reminds me of New Frontier-era pop/blues productions like Brook Benton’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” (I’m glad there isn’t much cowbell on it.)
My favorite song here is “June 1945.” Performed on acoustic guitar, this song was inspired a few years ago, when Pettersen received an e-mail from a stranger who said he thought his father was Pettersen’s grandfather. It seems that grandpappy Pettersen had a secret life and secret family that young Ed never knew about, until that e-mail. He always thought his father was an only child. The song is written from the grandfather’s point of view.
As for the song “$500 Car,” I am tempted to say it’s about half as good as The Bottle Rockets’ “Thousand Dollar Car.” But seriously, it’s a fine tune based on a cool slide-guitar riff.
*Popular Delusions & The Madness of Cows by Ramsay Midwood. This is nothing but modern-day swamp rock, pure and simple.
You hear bits of organ, accordion, banjo, and even tuba on this album. Ace stringman Greg Leisz shows up to add some mandolin and lap steel. But it’s Randy Week’s tremolo guitar playing those snarling licks — along with Midwood’s deep, backwoods-cool, mush-mouthed vocals — that seal the deal on most of the songs. You’ll detect echoes of Creedence and Tony Joe White and J.J. Cale in Midwood’s music. And yet this album — produced by Don Heffington, who co-produced one of my favorite albums last year, Tony Gilkyson’s Goodbye Guitar — doesn’t sound like some retro museum piece.
Midwood, originally from Arlington, Va., and now living in Austin, is responsible for one of the finest unsung roots records a few years ago, Shoot Out at the O.K. Chinese Restaurant.
He sings of damaged heroes — the Vietnam vet who only wants to lift weights and praise the Lord in “Jesus is #1”; the “so far gone” subject of “Prozac”; and the “Withered Rose” who “goes down the boulevard trying hard to captured her long-gone rapture.”
There’s even a song called “Planet Nixon” that I probably should have played on my recent radio tribute to Tricky Dick. I can’t really tell what this song — a sweet acoustic song that suggests The Band and The Gourds — has to do with the 37th president. It seems to be a hobo fantasy, with an enigmatic refrain that goes “Planet Nixon spins on, shine on Confucius Sun, shine on.”
Most of the songs are original, but on Delusions, he has a couple of tasty covers. There’s the country-flavored gospel classic “When God Dips His Pen” that ends the album. And there’s “Rattlesnake” (a song that The Everly Brothers recorded as “Muskrat”), where the singer speaks with several members of the animal kingdom.
*Sweet Soulful Music by Andy Fairweather Low. Why should I write a review of this? A pretty accurate review can already be found right in the title. The music is indeed sweet and soulful, led by a high voice that sometimes almost cries. This is basic, stripped-down rock by a veteran picker. Like NRBQ, Low does roots with good pop instincts.
Also like the ’Q, Low has been around forever. He had a band in the ’60s called Amen Corner (I hadn’t heard of them either) and has done studio work with some giants — George Harrison and Eric Clapton among them. He was a background singer on The Who’s song “Who Are You.” This is his first solo record in more than a quarter century.
Highlights here are the irresistible “Hymn 4 My Soul”; the poetically titled “Bible Black Starless Sky,” which almost sounds like a Gene Autry cowboy song; and “The Low Rider,” where he does his part for the secret ukulele revival, which is poised to sweep the nation.
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