June 18, 2010
Two-bit hustlers living in shame. Men with broken hearts and bitter dreams. Dark secrets, ugly schemes, and soiled pleasures. Welcome to the world of Johnny Dowd.
The singing moving-company operator is back with another warped little masterpiece, a 13-song album called Wake Up the Snakes, which, unfortunately, is destined to be appreciated mostly by the scattered cult that reveres him. I’m proud to be part of that. Care for some Kool-Aid?
Quick recap for the uninitiated: Dowd is a Grandma Moses-like latecomer to showbiz. Living in Ithaca, New York (but with roots in Fort Worth, Memphis, and Pauls Valley, Oklahoma), he didn’t release his first album until he was 50 years old. That was 1997’s Wrong Side of Memphis.
Like the title of one of his early albums (which was lifted from a Hank Williams song), this CD is full of pictures from life’s other side. For reasons I’m not sure of, Dowd is frequently classified as “alternative country.”
True, he rose out of alt country circles. The first time I saw him play was at a No Depression magazine party at South by Southwest in Austin. And it’s true, he has that Pauls Valley drawl, and he has covered a couple of Hank songs.
But I don’t think Hank done it that way. With keyboards that zigzag between “96 Tears” and Fright Night With Seymour and background vocals by Kim Sherwood-Caso, who sounds like a torch singer from the dark dimension, Dowd doesn’t easily fit into any category.
Wake Up the Snakes is a classic Dowd album. It starts off with “Yolanda,” which has a slow, smoky, almost Latin beat, with keyboardist Michael Stark sounding as close to original Santana organ-man Gregg Rolie as you’re going to hear on a Dowd record. Dowd recites — almost whispers — the story of a guy whose girlfriend tries to involve him in a plot to kill her own father. He balks, but she goes through with the evil deed. You can almost taste his regret that he didn't help her.
“Lies” is built on the classic ’50s grease- ballad chord pattern. Dowd sings verses (“Do you think I’m pathetic and easy to ignore?/Does it bother you when I pace up and down the floor?”), while Sherwood-Caso comes in crooning sweetly on the chorus (“Lies, I told you nothing but lies/Everything I said/Was a lie”).
There are some bitchen garagey rockers like “Howling Wolf Blues,” “Fat Joey Brown” (where did that weird trombone come from?), and “Swamp Woman.” On the last, Dowd praises his woman: “Lord God a mighty, my baby is hot!” goes the refrain, even though he later observes, “She’s got the moral perspective of an alley cat.”
“Words of Love” is another Santana-influenced tune — and a solo spotlight for Sherwood-Caso — while “Hello Happiness” is a sinister bossa nova with Dowd and Sherwood-Caso trading lines like a damaged version of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.
Meanwhile, “Demons and Goats” lives up to its name — it’s pure evil. So is “Voices,” which starts with the line, “I wish the voices in my head would shut up.”
The one big misfire here is the song “Mary Lou,” about a father who sexually abuses his daughter. The subject matter seems like a good one for Dowd; he sings from the perspective of the father, who realizes that he will “burn in hell” for his sins.
But what bothers me is the name of the daughter/victim: Jessie Mae Hemphill. Didn’t Dowd realize that this was the name of a great Mississippi blueswoman? Or is this Hemphill’s actual story? I honestly don’t know.
That quibble aside, it’s always an adventure to explore darkened corridors with Johnny Dowd.
* Self-Decapitation by Delaney Davidson and 5th Sin-Phonie by The Dead Brothers. New Zealand native Davidson used to play guitar with the Swiss “funeral” band The Dead Brothers, and his solo album reminds me of his old group.
Traces of Salvation Army marching bands and dark blues permeate Davidson’s album, as they do the latest Dead Brothers outing.
Self-Decapitation begins with “Around the World,” which recalls a little of the old faux-Dixieland hit from the early ’60s “Midnight in Moscow.” As on that earlier song (made famous by the long-forgotten British group called Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen), you can hear influences of American blues, early jazz, and Eastern European/Gypsy sounds on “Around the World.” And you can hear them loud and clear on “Back in Hell” and “Ladies Man,” which features a pretty amazing Gypsy-jazz guitar solo.
Davidson does a credible version of “In the Pines,” a close cousin of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” He does it as an industrial-edged blues tune with an acoustic guitar and altered vocals yielding to overamped guitar and crazy-loud drums.
My favorite here, though, is the delightfully filthy “Dirty Dozen,” a foul-mouthed country-blues stomp that reminds me why I love this music in the first place.
The Dead Brothers are in top form, too, on this, their fifth album. Starting out with an old-timey Appalachian-sounding fiddle-and-banjo tune called “Drunkards Walk,” the bros go into a Tom Waits-y stomp titled “Death Blues.”
The one song I don’t like is one called “Teenage Kicks.” Somehow it reminds me of a chamber quartet doing Ruben and the Jets.
But they make up for it with “Drunkards Dream,” which sounds as if Bertolt Brecht started a bluegrass band, and a cover of Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” an ode to the old vampire that evokes fond memories of Alejandro Escovedo’s pseudo-baroque take on The Stooges’ “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog.”