December 18, 2009
In the realm of rockabilly and rocking country, one major underappreciated voice is that of Rosie Flores. Though she’s never enjoyed much fame of her own, Flores — who’s spent most of her life between Texas and California — did a lot to resurrect the careers of rockabilly pioneers Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin. Flores convinced both to come out of retirement to help out on her album Rockabilly Filly back in 1995.
And Flores’ version of “Red Red Robin,” which appeared on a Bloodshot Records children’s album a few years ago, is not only the greatest version of that song I’ve ever heard, but it’s also the definitive song of spring.
It’s been too many years since sweet Rosie has graced us with an album of new material. Except for a Christmas record and a live album, her new one, Girl of the Century, is her first since 2001’s Speed of Sound. She’s got one fine band behind her — The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, led by Jon Langford (The Mekons, The Waco Brothers) and featuring Jon Rice on pedal steel, fiddle, and other stringed instruments and Tom Ray on stand-up bass.
There’s some solid rockabilly here with Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm,” “This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’,” and “This Cat’s in the Doghouse.” Flores sings a couple of Langford tunes — “Halfway Home” and “Last Song” — both of which sound like the type of ballads The Waco Brothers favor when they do slower songs.
But my favorite track is “Who’s Gonna Take Your Garbage Out,” a duet with Langford that was originally recorded by Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn. There’s some classic hillbilly humor here. The best line is “Callin’ a man like you a husband is just like callin’ old wild cat a pet.”
Another classy Flores/Langford duet is “Little Bells,” a song written by alt-country honky-tonker Paul Burch (from his recent album Still Your Man). It’s the type of tune Ray Price would have killed back in his early days.
The album ends with the title song, a slow tune featuring a Spanish guitar. As far as slow ones go, I vastly prefer the sexy, jazzy “Dark Enough at Midnight.”
* Honey Moon by The Handsome Family This latest album by The Handsome Family, released earlier this year, is actually a theme album. As the title implies, the theme is love.
It’s basically Brett and Rennie Sparks’ anniversary gift to themselves, as they have been married 20 years. It’s not that they haven’t tackled the subject of love in the past — just never in such a concentrated form and never so sincerely. As Brett’s baritone strains for the high notes in the refrain of “My Friend” and in “The Loneliness of Magnets,” he sounds as if he’s embodying the lovesick blues.
The Handsomes — who have lived in Albuquerque for the past several years and have played here a couple of times (including a Plaza Bandstand gig in 2007) — are known for dark and twisted tunes (lyrics all by Rennie) that feature mythological motifs often wrapped in mundane, modern imagery.
The Honey Moon tunes are lighter in spirit but no less poetic than their songs on previous albums. Take the first verse of “A Thousand Diamond Rings”:
“A smashed windshield, the dust of a pickup truck/ Shining with silver secrets in the Albuquerque sun/The light makes jewels of pawn shops and drive-through banks/Wrinkled faces staring out of the laundromat/;And even the broken glass in the street/Shines like a thousand diamond rings.”
But don’t worry, Handsome fans. The sweet weirdness of Mr. and Mrs. Sparks hasn’t vanished. It’s not all sweetness and light on this Honeymoon.
For one thing, this album is full of bugs. There’s a “cloud of honey bees” in “Down in the Winding Corn Maze.” And “June Bugs” is a slow country waltz full of huggy, kissy lyrics in which springtime and reawakening love are symbolized by June bugs and hawk moths returning to the yard.
But the greatest bug song of all is “Darling, My Darling,” which is sung from the perspective of a lusty male insect willing to give all to the gnawing fangs of a female insect lover.
Now that’s true love!
* Shine by Nancy Apple. This Memphis country singer hasn’t done an album with a full band in several years. With this one — recorded at Sun Studio in her hometown and produced by Keith Sykes — she’s back with a vengeance.
The album starts out with a Ronny Elliott song, the slow, pretty “Creole Boy With a Spanish Guitar.” But just when you think this is going to be a strictly mellow affair, Apple slaps you in the back of the head with “Voodoo Woman,” a bluesy romp featuring a wild harmonica (by Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms).
Another wild ride is “Rockin’ Granny,” a song for Apple’s friend Cordell Jackson, a crazy rocker during her lifetime. (True story: Apple was in New Mexico, appearing on my radio show The Santa Fe Opry, the day she got word of Jackson’s death in 2004. She had to cut her trip short, returning to Memphis to sing at Jackson’s funeral.)
A couple of my favorite Apple songs are on this CD. “Cathead Biscuits and Gravy,” which first appeared on a duet album with singer-songwriter Rob McNurlin, gets a full country-band treatment here, with McNurlin sharing the vocals. The album ends with “Moonlight Over Memphis,” a soulful ballad that Apple wrote, inspired by moonlight over the Jémez Mountains on one of her trips to New Mexico.
* Hear songs from these albums on The Santa Fe Opry: 10 p.m. Friday on KSFR-FM 101.1 and streaming live HERE. And don’t forget Terrell’s Sound World, same time, same station on Sunday.
* Christmas Enchilada: Red and green podcast featuring some of my favorite Christmas songs, available for free HERE.