Thursday, July 17, 2008


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 18, 2008

I wouldn’t be the first critic in Criticdom to compare the latest work of James McMurtry — who is playing this weekend at Santa Fe Brewing Company — to the music of Steve Earle. McMurtry’s most recent album, Just Us Kids, is full of political rage.
JAMES McMURTY at Frogfest 06
I’m not sure whether “The Governor” is about any actual governor — definitely not ours; the story takes place in a state that has water. It’s a hard-edged, blues-drenched parable of different kinds of justice among the various social classes. A fisherman is killed by a reckless cigarette boat on an unnamed lake.

“They try to get a warrant — dream all you want/They won’t be searchin’ any lakefront homes/Justice is blind to them that own it/Money don’t talk when it’s one of their own.”

The wistful “Ruins of the Realm” deals with the decay of various civilizations, including our own. My favorite verse is probably: “We got the National Guard with the bayonets/We got the Ten Commandments on the Swe shalt not kill/Dancin’ in the ruins of our own free will/Dancin’ in the ruins of the South/Confederate flag taped over my mouth.”

In “God Bless America (Pat MacDonald Must Die),” McMurtry, over a monster-metal riff, describes an SUV (and the political/economic realities behind it: “That thing don’t run on French fry grease/That thing don’t run on love and peace/Takes gasoline to make that thing go/Now bring your hands up nice and slow.” (No, the MacDonald in the title isn’t some obscure cabinet secretary. He’s the former leader of Timbuk 3, who plays harmonica on the song.)

The weakest political song here may be the one that’s gotten the most attention. “Cheney’s Toy,” a near-six-minute tirade against the president of the United States.

“You’re the man; show ’em what you’re made of/You’re no longer daddy’s boy/Take a stand, give ’em what they paid for/’cause you’re only Cheney’s toy.”
I dunno, but it seems to me that this piñata’s already been beaten to shreds, and the candy’s all gone. No, I don’t mind singers ripping into sitting presidents. I liked Neil Young’s Living With War. And, 40 years after they recorded it, I still laugh at Country Joe & The Fish telling Richard Nixon to “go back to Orange County and take off your pants” in “Superbird (Tricky Dick).” The point is, our current lame-duck president’s poll numbers are so low at this point that railing against Bush seems more like a tired ritual than a daring attack.

As always, McMurtry’s best songs deal not with politicians but with the lives of the working class and underclass trying to get by. “Fireline Road” is about a woman caring for her drug-addicted incest-victim sister. The narrator dreams of changing her name and changing her life. “Ruby and Carlos” is an aching acoustic tune about a drummer, his much-older girlfriend, and their deteriorating relationship.

But actually I wish there were a few less-serious numbers and a few more songs like the opening track, “Bayou Tortous.” It’s a straight-ahead swamp stomp (featuring a cameo by Cajun-rocker C.C. Adcock on guitar) and one of the few tunes in which the lyrics offer some of McMurtry’s trademark sardonic humor. The song starts off with the narrator and his wife “sitting on a couch watching Court TV.” But escapades ensue.

“I was lookin’ at every woman but mine/I was lookin’ at their faces,lookin’ at their parts/Lookin’ through the hole at the bottom of my heart.”
This tune comes closer than anything else on the album to some of McMurtry’s classics, like “Choctaw Bingo” and “Sixty Acres.” I hope he spends more time in Turtle Bayou and a little less time in The Situation Room.

James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards perform at 7:30 p.m Friday, July 18, at Santa Fe Brewing Company (27 Fire Place). Tickets are $18 in advance at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St., 988-1234; $25 at the door.

Also recommended:

* Deep Cuts by Tony Joe White. The undisputed king of swamp rock (well, I guess, unless you’re unless you’re Slim Harpo) is back with an amazing little record that actually adds weird new dimensions to the basic sound he pioneered nearly 40 years ago.
Chomp chomp!
With his impossibly deep drawl, his tremolo guitar, and a soul full of Louisiana funk, White brought the swamp to mainstream America with his hit “Polk Salad Annie.”

(Intellectual side trip: most people who think about this kind of thing believe that the coolest moment in the history of swamp rock was when Tony Joe says, “chomp, chomp” right after singing, “gators got your granny” in the refrain of the song. But I’m convinced that the coolest moment in the history of swamp rock came right after that, when Tony Joe says, “a wretched, spiteful, straight-razor-totin’ woman,” referring to Annie’s mother. Or, come to think of it, maybe it was the surprise wah-wah guitar solo at the very end. Discuss amongst yourselves.)

The new album, produced by White’s son Jody, updates the sound with some tasteful touches of techno, doing so without overwhelming his dad — and without being cheesy. If anything, it sounds even swampier.

Tony Joe performs a few of his older songs here, including “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” the foreboding “High Sheriff of Calhoun Parrish” (it now sounds like a tune Portishead might do), and a here-come-the-hippies 1968 oddity called “Soul Francisco (those flower children were “wearin’ beads and all kind of funky clothes,” according to Tony Joe).

There are also a couple of funky instrumentals: “Set the Hook” (with a nasty harmonica solo over the voodoo drums) and “Swamp Water,” in which crazy drums battle a choppy guitar (Tony Joe’s still got his wah-wah pedal!). There’s also “As the Crow Flies” a six-minute swamp odyssey.

So dive right in. The gators are still hungry.

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