Friday, May 06, 2005


As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 6, 2005

Terry Allen’s latest musical release, The Silent Majority, is a reissue of a an old collection of outtakes and oddities and stray cuts from soundtracks, theater and dance (!) productions and other Allen projects.

In the liner notes there’s a “warning” describing it as “a compilation of out-takes, in-takes, mis-takes, work tapes, added tos, taken froms, omissions and foreign materials.”

So you’d think the album would be in danger of dissolving into a disparate jumble of unrelated musical notions.


Originally released on Allen’s Fate label more than a decade ago (the original cover was a doctored photo of Allen with Nancy Reagan. On the new one she was replaced by a stuffed coyote) The Silent Majority presents a surprisingly unified collection of irony-filled commentary on what it means to be an American.

Allen looks inward at America and its history. He sings “Home on the Range” with Joe Ely. He envisions Jesus as an Old West gambler/gunslinger (“Yeah, you went for your cross/But you drew slow and you lost …”), he memorializes a doomed New Mexico honky tonk picker in a medley from Pedal Steel, a 1988 dance production by Margaret Jenkins.

But Allen looks outward too, as an American pondering the rest of the world. And that’s when things get really interesting.

The first cut, the minute-and-a half “Advice to Children,” has Santa Fe resident Allen alone at his piano urging youngsters to strive for mediocrity, “Because this is America/the biggest and best of them all/Yeah this is America/All strung out on valium at the mall.”

Next thing you know, you’re listening to East Indian instruments -- tambora, veena, santoor, tabla, mridangam -- introducing Allen drawling about sailing in the ocean, “Trying to find America with you.”

You barely notice when Lloyd Maines’ steel guitar sneaks in.

The song is titled “Yo Ho Ho,” a nod of solidarity with sea pirates.

It may seem contradictory, looking for America while sailing to a foreign land. With Allen, somehow it makes sense. It’s a theme he also explored in his stunningly still relevant soundtrack for the 1984 film Amerasia, re-released a couple of years ago. (The song “The Burden” appears in Silent Majority.)

Some of the most satisfying tunes on Silent Majority feature Allen’s country-eastern experiments with musicians in Madras, India (recorded in 1992).

Besides “Yo Ho Ho,” Allen used the Indian musicians on his old outlaw romp “New Delhi Freight Train” (covered almost 30 years ago by Little Feat).

But the most thought-provoking cut recorded in Madras is a tune called “Big Ol’ White Boys,” a song first featured in a Paul Dresher theater production called Pioneer.

“Big ol’ white boys cross the ocean/In little bitty ships the whole world ’round,” Allen sings as the Indian instruments play obliviously in the background. “Got no notion where they’re goin’/What they’re doin’, or what they’ve found.”

In Allen‘s final analysis, the Big White Boys, after taming the mountains and the prairies, “rule the world while we get dumber/In the name of glut, our Lord and greed.”

Not every track on The Silent Majority is full of socio-politico importance. One of my favorite cuts here actually is a fairly mindless six-minute jam called “3 Finger Blues.” It’s a snarling little rocker with Allen on piano and Maines on guitar sounding like they’re trying to tear down some prison wall.

It’s great that Sugar Hill is re-releasing all these great out-of-print Allen masterpieces. But this just whets my appetite for some new material from Allen. I know the big white boy’s got some new material. Let’s hope we hear it soon.

Also Recommended:

Valentine Roadkill
by Ronny Elliott. Here’s another tasty collection of tunes by Tampa, Fla. roots rocker Elliott. To steal (and mangle) a line from Elliott, it’s full of full of song, soul and fire.

Elliott’s voice, as well as his subject matter, lends itself to sad melodies, but this album seems even more somber than usual.

The war in Iraq seems to permeate Valentine Roadkill -- and not just in tunes like “No More War,” “War-Scarred Horses,“ and “I Don’t Hear Freedom Ring Anymore.”

You also hear a reference to “the blood of Arabia” in songs like “Hope Fades” over a droning steel guitar and a martial drum beat, along with sad images of a drunken George Jones on stage and Elvis passed out at Graceland.

Then there’s an untitled song about having a little talk with Jesus (featuring Elliott’s first dabbling in electronica weirdness) where the Lord “wasn’t wild about the idea of being appropriated by a bunch of hillbillies in the United States of America to fight wars for oil and greed.” But, according to Elliott, Christ likes Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.

It wouldn’t be a Ronny Elliott album without some great songs about his fallen rock ‘n’ heroes. The album starts out with “Valentino’s Dream,” an ode to Huey Meaux, the “Crazy Cajun” who produced Freddy Fender and discovered Doug Sahm. Another troubled record producer, Phil Spector, is the subject of “Do Angels Ever Dream They’re Falling.”

Lord Buckley, Hank Williams and Jack Keruoac are memorialized by Elliott in “When Idols Fall,” though the singer did Hank more justice in “Loser’s Lullaby” from his album Magneto a couple of years ago.

It’s easy to get lost in Elliott’s words and stories. But the music by his longtime band The Nationals makes it even easier. Sonic delights on this album include Wayne Pearson’s sax on “Valentino’s Dreams” and Natty Moss-Bond’s harmony vocals on “War-Scarred Horses.”

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