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Wrong Side of Memphis (1998)


8.5

(MUNICH RECORDS 1997, ’98)

Murder / Papa, Oh, Papa / Ft. Worth, Texas / One Way / Just Like a Dog / Average Guy / Ballad of Frank and Jesse James / Idle Conversation / Wages of Sin / John Deere Yeller / Thanksgiving Day / Heavenly Feast / First There Was / I Don’t Exist / Welcome Jesus

Wrong Side of MemphisAn anomaly in contemporary rock right from the start, Johnny Dowd, a 49-year old moving company owner, debuted in 1997 (in Europe in 1998) with this sparse (most of the songs feature only Dowd himself) and often morbid collection of country noir. More closely related to Nick Cave, Sixteen Horsepower, and Tom Waits than to Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, or The Jayhawks, Dowd’s twisted tales of murder, obsessive dedication, and other sinful behavior can be truly disturbing. The music is a fitting match for his lyrics: “Murder” sets the awkward tone with a hypnotic country-blues rhythm accompanied by Dowd’s distorted slur, as he reports a murder (“there’s been a murder here today, the weapon was a knife, the woman wore a wedding ring, I don’t think she was his wife”). “Ft. Worth, Texas” is the story of a convict on death row reflecting on his sinful life. The protagonist “shot and killed (his) girlfriend, then (he) sat and watched her die”. There’s no time for repentance (“there’s still too many people I hate”), although his only company is the ghosts in his head. The minimally executed and bluesy “One Way”, which contains several biblical references (a thorny crown, a sword in the side, the burden of the cross), is followed by “Sick Like a Dog”, one of the album’s scariest songs by virtue of its hypnotic percussion, eerie synths, and Dowd’s croaking voice informing us that “Momma Death ain’t got no respect”.

Songs like “Average Guy” and “Wages of Sin” are other ventures into the neo-gothic religion-obsessed worlds of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood or A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Nick Cave’s The Ass Saw The Angel, where mentally scarred outcasts try to live with their obsessions (often women, liquor, and their own sinful past).“Ballad of Frank and Jesse James,” in which the murderer of Jesse James asks to be buried next to his victim, reminds me of Lou Reed’s calmer work, with a guitar tone that’s a ringer for VU’s “Jesus”.
In “John Deere Yeller” a man expresses his lifelong commitment to a girl, whom he describes in a set of comparisons that could be a proof of his love, but sound rather peculiar (“Cotton candy sweet are the taste of her lips, like Brigitte Bardot are the shape of her hips, her mind is as blue as the Texas sky, gonna love that girl ‘til the day I die”) and ultimately obsessive ("Gonna love that girl 'til the day I die" sounds wicked, coming from Dowd's mouth). This is made even worse by Dowd’s almost drunken slur. “Thanksgiving Day” is another album highlight whose central line “Be content with your life, it may not get any better”, combined with the repetitive finger-picking and shards of electric guitar, provides an eerie and utterly original atmosphere. In “Heavenly Feast,” Kim Sherwood-Caso is introduced as (co-)vocalist. While she would play a prominent role on Dowd’s later albums, her role is limited here to three songs. Notwithstanding that fact, she does make an impression, as her clear and icy voice is the exact opposite of Dowd’s broken voice, and it’s particularly weird to hear that girlish voice (combined with the gently paced music) utter phrases such as “hung me in a courtyard, they let me hang up there a while” (“First There Was”). “I Don’t Exist” might as well have been written by Ennio Morricone, as Kim Sherwood-Caso’s soprano, and Dowd’s melancholy melodica and classic guitar strumming reminds of the composer’s classic Western-work.

All this makes Wrong Side of Memphis, despite a few minor shortcomings (“Idle Conversation” and “Welcome Jesus” are lightweight collages that merely function as atmospheric mood pieces), one of the most intriguing debuts of the past few years. It's not that Dowd's main themes (love, loss, death) are that remarkable, but the uncanny way in which he presents them, often combining seemingly contradictory instrumentation, makes sure he's out of step. With a lo-fi debut like this, it was hard to predict where he’d go next, but very few people expected him to choose the path he chose for his subsequent albums.

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Pictures from Life's Other Side (1999)


9


A Picture from Life’s Other Side
/ Worried Mind / Ballad of Lonnie Wolf / Hope You Don’t Mind / God Created Woman / Blood Evidence / The Girl Who Made Me Sick / Greasy Hands / Vietnam / Just Because / No Woman’s Flesh But Hers / Bad memories / Mystery Woman / Butcher’s Son / Wish I’d Been Honest

Pictures from Life's Other SideDowd’s lo-fi (some critics even called it “no-fi”) debut probably raised quite some eyebrows, not to mention a few hairs, as his uncanny mix of country-blues, morbid infatuations, and plain weirdness didn’t quite fit into any specific genre (or maybe he just belonged with the other outcasts such as Tom Waits, or even Captain Beefheart, two other artists with a genuinely original universe). Anyway, Pictures from Life’s Other Side does the unexpected by upping the ante, proving itself to be an unequalled album of deconstructionist roots music. Dowd is more eclectic than ever: he mingles elements from country, blues, folk, and rock, and to finish it off, he throws in some weird keyboard effects and very peculiar percussion (courtesy of Brian Wilson, who also appeared on Dowd’s debut). Also added to the line-up are Kim Sherwood-Caso (icy vocals) and Mike Edmondson (keyboard, piano, banjo, xylorimba, guitar).

The title song starts off with a waltz rhythm, while Dowd’s crow-like voice repeats the lyrics of the first couplet of a Hank Williams song with the same title. Then, the song suddenly transforms itself into a tough riff-rocker, and the biggest difference with the previous album becomes obvious: Dowd has left the primitively produced stage behind, and has opted for a very full and detailed sound (although he sometimes wilfully selects a primitive and ragged sound and instrumentation). Hints of keyboards enter and leave the picture, several layers of guitar are added, and the drumming becomes a propulsive force. The percussion is also the first thing about “Worried Mind” that caught my ear. Wilson seems incapable of drumming “normally”, and prefers weird rhythmical patterns that at first seem to be all over the place. The keyboards are far more to the forefront too, and create a weird atmosphere in combination with Dowd’s almost whispered vocals. After two couplets, we’re in for another surprising return to Hank Williams, as the refrain, sung by Sherwood-Caso, is that of the country classic “Jambalaya” (“Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and fillet gumbo…”).

While Dowd’s debut contained the “Ballad of Frank and Jesse James”, this album contains the wicked “Balled of Lonnie Wolf”, about a guy who shot himself at a trailer park, and “he did not die, he’s paralysed, can’t even wipe the tears from his eyes”. Next is “Hope You Don’t Mind”, which on a surface level sounds like any other folksy song, but this time it’s about a man who’s obsessed by a schoolgirl (“I got your picture in my wallet, I got your picture on my wall, I got your name tattooed on my arm”), marking him as another misfit who can’t maintain normal relationships with women. That’s what the bulk of these songs seem to be about, as the morbid tales of murder from Wrong Side Of Memphis have largely been replaced by reflections on lost loves. In Dowd’s world love is generally lost either because of man’s inability to stay monogamous (“Greasy Hands”), or simply because of the contrasting nature of men and women (the Waits-like “Bad Memories”, “Wish I’d Been Honest”) – either way, the ending is the same, and there are no happy endings.

“God Created Woman” offers another interpretation of the incompatibility of men and women: “You knew Cain, you knew Abel, your sister was a Jezebel, your love is no gift from heaven, your love is a dog from hell” and “God created a woman, but she’s the devil’s next of kin”. The music, another waltz perverted by some suitably jerky and dirty guitar soloing, is one of the album’s highlights. “The Butcher’s Son” a punkish rocker with a delirious Dowd uttering the story of two teenage lovers planning to flee their home turf (“this whole town’s full of hypocrites, bankers, lawyers and communists, call me trash, my family too, to hell with them to hell with you”) is further proof that Dowd can rock as well as play subdued. The most memorable song on the album, however, is the chilling “No Woman’s Flesh But Hers”, introduced by a man who got into a car accident with his wife. He came out of it unharmed, while “three years now she’s been in a coma”. The husband’s dedication is obsessive as he tells of how he’ll touch no woman’s flesh but hers. The subject matter itself is already quite unusual, but it’s the unadorned rendering of the details that makes this song so remarkable: “three hours not a word was spoken, found out later her neck was broken, three years she’s been in a coma, back in Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma”. The hypnotic drumming and synthesizers, and another ragged guitar solo by Dowd in the latter part, make this song the album’s icing on the cake.

Some of the songs ("The Girl Who Made Me Sick," "Just Because," "Wish I'd Been Honest") on Pictures from Life’s Other Side are not half as good as the standout tracks, but the latter are of such a stunning, original, and often gripping quality that it’s fair to say that Dowd may already have painted his first masterpiece. Moreover, it's truly intriguing to witness an artist of his age being more adventurous and challenging than many acclaimed contemporary "innovators". At the age of 50, Dowd's come up with a sophomore album that proves itself to be an emotionally rich and musically varied Feast of Fools.

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Temporary Shelter (2000)


7


Stumble and Fall
/ Vengeance Is Mine / Cradle to the Grave / Big Wave / Hell or High Water / Angel Eyes / Golden Rule / Hideaway / Sky Above, Mud Below / Planet Happiness / Death Comes Knocking

Temporary ShelterIf David Lynch were to make a new film that combined the best from quite different movies (yes, that’s an understatement) The Straight Story and Blue Velvet, he may have already found a soundtrack in the shape of Johnny Dowd’s Temporary Shelter. Combining grand cinematic songs with abrasive tales from the darker side of the human psyche, Dowd has come up with another unsettling goth-country opera.

“The highway of life, it ain’t no free way, for the cruelty you inflict, someday you’ll have to pay” is the doom-laden first line from “Stumble and Fall, an opener even weirder than the title song from the previous album. Drummer Brian Wilson, has taught himself to play Moog bass pedals in the meantime, and these ultra-deep bass sounds (Dowd was never accompanied by a ‘regular’ bass player), combined with Dowd’s jagged guitar and the thin synths (courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Justin Asher and new full-time member of the band) make up for a “Black Sabbath goes gothic”-comparison. “Hell or High Water”, also distributed on a vinyl single format during Dowd concerts, is another example of this style, with eerie percussion, gut-wrenching bass, and Dowd’s quavering voice going all over the place.

The band doesn’t forget to rock either: “Big Wave” deals, both lyrically (“I’m still waiting for that perfect wave, to take me to that special place”) and musically, with surfing matter, although in Dowd’s case, we never know for sure. “Golden Rule” is an energetic rocker in which Dowd’s deconstructed guitar solo (it makes him sound like an idiot savant version of Robert Quine), Kim Sherwood-Caso’s robotic voice (it sounds unhumanly flat) and his Texoma drawl make up for another highlight. “Cradle to the Grave” and “Angel Eyes” are two instances of Dowd making music at his most cinematic. In the former the almost unbearably slow tempo, multiple vocal layers, ethereal backing vocals and eerie accompaniment create a very chilling atmosphere; while “Angel Eyes” with it’s uncommon length (+8 minutes), pummeling percussion, and the contrast between Dowd croaky voice and Caso’s voice, becomes an almost hypnotic lullaby, again resembling some of Morricone’s desert tracks. The album’s unexpected, but successful, experiment is probably “Vengeance Is Mine”, a danceable (!) tune in which the keyboards and bass pedals are used to great effect. A last worthwhile track is “Sky Above, Mud Below”, which musically reminds of Tom Waits at his most chaotic (somewhere between Bone Machine and The Black Rider), with bashing and distorted percussion and lyrics that offer insight into the mind of a man who grew up with a Jesus-worshipping mother and a father who was lost at sea. Unfortunately, this song is also the last interesting one on the album. Both “Planet Happiness” (on American editions replaced by “Lost Avenue”) and “Death Comes Knocking” are, notwithstanding the promising titles, ultimately to be considered as failed experiments. They are too lengthy (6:39 and 5:52, respectively), seem to ramble on and on, and the music simply isn’t captivating enough to keep my attention. They may work as poems with a musical backing, but as songs they just don’t deliver the goods and delve into boring monotony, and hearing Dowd utter “I call it Planet Happiness” over and over again, is particularly annoying.

By far Dowd’s most experimental and studio-oriented album, Temporary Shelter combines both the best and the worst in Dowd’s catalogue. By consequence, its uneven quality is the most enervating about it, although the weakest tracks situate themselves near the end. If only the first seven songs would make up the album, we would be dealing with a short, but mesmerizing third album. Now it’s a sprawling and slightly overproduced album with its frustrating moments, that just goes on for too long.

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Live (2000)


8


Golden Rule / Worried Mind / Vengeance is Mine / One Way / Thanksgiving Day / Hell or High Water / Mystery Woman / Butcher's Son / Lost Avenue / Stupid Song

Live - cover art not availableDamn! I just heard that I missed a Johnny Dowd-gig here in Belgium three days ago, and it was only about 70 miles from our place. I still have clear memories of the two shows I did see, though (and of course that’s the reason why I’m so disappointed I missed this one). The first show was in early 2001, right after Temporary Shelter was released. I wasn’t really familiar with Dowd and his work, apart from that album, but I was in for a surprise: it was one of those nights were nothing could go wrong. Dowd, clearly half-drunk traded one delirious solo after the other with Justin Asher, Brian Wilson did the weirdest things imaginable on his awkward drum kit and bass pedals, while icy-voiced Kim Sherwood-Caso didn’t show any emotion at all and did her thing. It was a long and exhausting show that left us spectators baffled and yelling for more. The second gig, about a year later, was much more controlled and tight. Especially for the occasion, Dowd had put on his fanciest suit, was apparently sober and delivered an impressive set that didn’t display the reckless abandon of the first show, but the musicianship was – if possible – even better. It also brings me to this artefact that I bought after that show (I never saw it in the stores, so it’s quite possible you’ll have a hard time finding it), one that always takes me back to those thrilling experiences of seeing Dowd and his band on stage.

Overall, Live gives a fairly good idea of what a Dowd-show sounds like, (despite the fact that an average performance of his is at least twice as long), and it dabbles in all three of Dowd’s previous studio albums. The songs from Temporary Shelter are uniformly impressive, “Golden Rule” and “High or Hell Water” sound as creepy and intense as their counterparts, having delightfully weird solos. The perverse-sounding “Vengeance Is Mine” maybe even eclipses the original version, benefiting form the sparser live sound that proves once again the production job on that third album might’ have been a bit overdone. Also “Worried Mind,” “Mystery Woman” and “Butcher’s Son” (all of them highlights on Dowd’s second album Pictures from Life’s Other Side) get successful renditions, the synth-parts of the albums usually replaced by guitar parts. From the debut the country blues “One Way” and the creepy “Thanksgiving Day” (announced as “Practise What You Preach”) are present (the second of which isn’t mentioned on the back cover). The first one is now in a more full-bodied and stretched-out version, with great faux-blues soloing, while the other sounds like the last lament of an eternal sinner looking for redemption. Finally, the live set ends with two non-album tracks, the enjoyable “Lost Avenue” that gets nearer to hard rock than you might expect from Dowd, and “Stupid Song,” a ballad performed by Dowd and Sherwood-Caso. It features some typical trademarks (peculiar conversational lyrics, the polarity of those two voices), but also a musical tenderness that’s rarely present in Dowd’s generally cruel fictitious universe. Live would be an ideal album to start your collection of Dowd-albums with: if you don’t like this one, don’t bother checking out the studio albums. It contains great playing (several of the songs have guitar parts/effects that are stunningly effective), the man’s original mix of roots elements and outlandishly disruptive influences creates an extra morbid tension, and above all, it offers proof of Dowd’s complete mastery of song brought to you in a hereto unheard of fashion. At 66 minutes it’s quite long, but it sure beats watching two episodes of Friends. Good luck truying to find it.

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Down in the Valley (2000)


5.5


Betrayal / Public Saxophone / The Similarity of Opposites / Winds of Insignificance / Colt .45 / Regrets, I Have a Few / Tractor / Ho Chi Minh / The Mighty Darkness of Love

Down in the Valley

Unless you're a Johnny Dowd fan or have attended one (or more) of his live shows, it's very unlikely you've ever heard, or even seen, Down in the Valley. As an item that can only be obtained at concerts or through the Johnny Dowd website, it's a classic example of indulgence only hardcore fans benefit from. Even though most of his albums already contained songs that many a music fan wouldn't even call a "song" with a Glock against his/her head, Down in the Valley goes even further, being more of a 25-minute soundscape or soundtrack to a nightmare than an actual album (you know, the thing with the separable songs, identifiable structures, verses, chords, the whole shebang). Weird noises pop up and disappear, or are used as basic tracks for Dowd to add his elliptical lyrics (a repeated "You sold me out, you little weasel" during "Betrayal") or hypnotic strumming to. Some of these are unsettling instrumentals made up of phasing guitar parts and primal rhythm tracks ("Public Saxophone," the bluesy "Regrets, I Have a Few" which perversely cops its title from a classy standard), others are mini-scores to imaginary movies (Miles Davis goes David Lynch), no-fi blues ("Winds of Insignificance," "Colt .45") or are plain fucked-up ("Tractor"). It ain't your average interpretation of roots music and it certainly ain't pretty, but those who dig Dowd's disquieting albums may have a use for it. Occasionally.

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The Pawnbroker's Wife (2002)


8


I Love You / Rose Tattoo / Monkey Run / On Shakey Ground We Stand / Billy Blu / Virginia Beach / Judgment Day / Jingle Bells / Separate beds / Sweeter Than Honey / King of Emptiness / Woody Guthrie Blues / True Love / Sleeping in the Grass

The Pawnbroker's Wife… and your favorite All-American guy returns, with his fourth studio album in five years. On the surface, it probably seems more accessible than Pictures from Life’s Other Side and Temporary Shelter, but Dowd’s alternately familiar (because you vaguely recognize some of his influences) and downright creepy vision is still very much intact. Like the majority of the songs on Temporary Shelter, the bulk of The Pawnbroker’s Wife oozes out an uncomfortable cinematic atmosphere that evokes imagery from the deepest depths of your dark unconsciousness. OK, album opener “I Love You” and the surprisingly conventional country ballad “Separate Beds” (“It’s so painful when love is dead, and you find yourself sleeping in separate beds”), which tackles one of Dowd’s favorite subjects – marital love and its decay – are easily likeable, but for each “Separate Beds,” there’s also a “True Love.” This murder ballad (told from the perspective of both the wife/murderess and the deceased husband) constantly seems to walk the thin line between innocent beauty (when Kim Sherwood-Case sings) and morbidity (Dowd’s monotonous croak still reminds me of fanatical brimstone preacher desperately trying to come to terms with his sinful past), and is an example of Dowd Grand Cru: menacing, perverse and infected with a sense of decay.

It’s during moments like these, when apparently peaceful moments are suddenly taken over by decidedly less pleasant events/threats that are looming like an abscess waiting to burst, that the tension is most effective. Several of the more abrasive songs on the album still display a totally unique style that situates itself somewhere in the skewed universe where The Residents’ folly, Captain Beefheart’s blues-rape, Tom Waits’ percussion flourishes and David Eugene Edwards’ single-minded passion coexist. The burlesque waltzes of “Rose Tattoo” and “On Shakey Ground We Stand” tell sinister stories of mysterious lovers with a score to settle, or family meetings that can’t obscure the fact that “death comes callin’.” All the while, you’re given an aural experience dominated by odd time signatures, heavily distorted bass pedal growls and manipulated vocals. Like a punk band’s take on Hank Williams interpreting Kurt Weill, these songs turn genres inside out, set fire to the notion of what’s expected of them, until an entirely new genre, combining the core ingredients of several kinds of roots music - but infusing it with avant-garde touches, jazz accents and a punk-ish rawness - rises from the ashes. Just when you thought that the explanations above are too obscure too make sense, you’ll be confronted with the sinister poetry of “Billy Blue” (“In the coming darkness, he’s the keeper of the flames, he repairs radios with alien transistors”) and the atmospheric “Virginia Beach,” which would’ve fitted perfectly on Temporary Shelter. In fact, the stress seems to shift more and more from the music towards the lyrics, which seems to be confirmed by rumours that the Dowd’s next album will complete the transformation into a multi-disciplinary art involving poetry readings and electronic backings.

But first things first: the Doomsday-announcing “Judgment Day” is allegedly about the execution about Carla Faye Tucker, who was executed when George W. was governor of Texas. Appropriately morbid (that recurring “She’s dead” will send chills down your spine) and threatening (“She ain’t the only one facing God on Judgment Day”), it’s probably the pivotal moment on the album, as the track comes off as a combination of Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” and a rant from a deranged psychopath. More demented trailer park-thrash comes in the way of the frenetic “Sweeter Than Honey” (“I hate you and your so-called friends, I hate the way they use foreign words”) and the simple “Woody Guthrie Blues,” which prove the band can rock out as well (as they do so generously on stage). Ultimately, it’s still a heavy chore to make sense of Dowd’s approach, and it’s probably better not to. What the hell is “King of Emptiness” supposed to mean, for instance? Beatnik blues-punk? Progressive voodoo-country? Just a scam? Beats me. Similarly, his take on the classic “Jingle Bells” succeeds in turning the original song into scary, conga-driven space-funk with the most monotonous vocals this side of Leonard Cohen on morphine. The Pawnbroker’s Wife certainly isn’t an easy listen, but like Temporary Shelter, it reveals its uniqueness only after several listens that’ll prove Dowd’s body of work is simply incomparable in the current music scene. Restless and idiosyncratic, he’s already come up with four albums that would make the average fan of any roots genre cringe, but whatever the final verdict is, his music requires the listener to go to considerable lengths, but ultimately, it’s rewarding in a way no one else’s is.

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Wire Flowers : More Songs from the Wrong Side of Memphis (2003)


6.5


Wire Flowers
/ The Pawnbroker’s Wife / Monkey Run / I See Horses / Black Rain / Judgment Day / Ain’t Got a Dime / Rockefeller Eyes / Just Because / Rolling and Tumbling Trilogy / Woody Guthrie Blues / The Butcher’s Son / A Change of Heart

Wire Flowers“In the winter of 1996, I retreated into a small room to write and record songs on my four-track. Many of those recordings found a home on my first album, “Wrong Side of Memphis.” The rest are here. Different versions of some of these songs are on “Pictures from Life’s Other Side” and “The Pawnbroker’s Wife” – but what you’ll find here are the original bad seeds.” Even though most of the 13 songs gathered here are – like Dowd’s liner notes suggest – bare-boned, fairly simple narratives, they combine the no-fi crudity of Wrong Side of Memphis with the more ornamental and contemporary sounds of his previous two studio albums. While most of the songs mainly feature vocals and (often only) acoustic guitar, Dowd’s embellished several songs with out-of-place keyboards accents (repeatedly nothing more that threatening sheets of sound) or drum machines. In several instances, these early recordings aren’t that different from the versions that’d end up on the respective albums, but some tracks, like “Rose Tattoo” (appearing here as “The Pawnbrokers’s Wife”) and “Judgment Day,” convey a different “feel” than their album counterparts. A few of these songs are fairly sane, but to an outsider’s ears, this album will sound as one hell of a scary ride.

Dowd’s version of “scary’ doesn’t evoke vultures, graveyards or cold-blooded murder. On the contrary, it shows the gooeyness and perversion of what we see when our skull cracks open, when suppressed anger, blood-lusting jealousy and sheer insanity are set free. When it comes to combining sinister soundscapes with appropriately doom-pending lyrics, Dowd’s the reigning king. No sooner as the inhuman drum machine introduces it’s nauseatingly slow trance, Dowd’s ominous lyrics make the unease complete:

His balls are soaked in gasoline
Her body burns in flames
What is it that they feel?
Is it love, or shame?
How can they face themselves
In the evil, brooding dawn?
If marriage is forever,
Adultery must be wrong.

Nearly as effective are a sparse version of “Monkey Run” (already one of the highlights on his previous album), while “Rockefeller’s Eyes” offers a skeleton of rock ‘n’ roll, but explained by a drugged spastic. Another, uh, interesting track is the lengthy “Rolling and Tumbling Trilogy,” during which Dowd’s demented vision of the blues is translated into a piece of avant-noise that combines the sonic experimentalism of Morricone (twang-y guitars and ear-piercing string-scraping) with ideas from a wrathful Tom Waits on a bad acid trip. It constantly hesitates between near-impenetrable noir and overly obscure theatre, something a few tracks didn’t really succeed in: the annoying “Black Rain,” a fucked-up version of “Just Because” (an atonal waltz with the capacity to drive you totally mad, believe me) and the confusing chaos of “The Butcher’s Son” are simply too messed-up to get into. If anything, the album’s most digestible moments don’t come when he renders spare versions of familiar tracks (“Judgment Day,” “Rose Tattoo”), but when he seems to be at ease with nothing more than an acoustic guitar: “I See Horses” and “Ain’t Got a Dime” (an early version of “Mystery Woman”?) aren’t exactly your mom’s favorite music either (that croaky voice will never appeal to my mom), but they at least seem to make sense. On the other hand, they’re not a very good introduction to Dowd’s output (except for his debut) and lack what makes his best material that captivating. No matter how lovely “A Change of Heart” may sound with that campfire harmonica, it’s only an oddity in his usually bizarre cosmos. Wire Flowers contains a few tracks I’d consider filler and a few songs he’d improve upon with later attempts, but it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of the man, and only then.

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Cemetery Shoes (2004)


7


Brother Jim / Garden of Delight / Whisper in a Nag’s Ear / Rest in Peace / Wedding Dress / Shipwreck / Dear John Letter / Easter Sunday / Christmas Is Just Another Day / Dylan’s Coat / Rip Off

Cemetery ShoesNot considering the outtakes compilation Wire Flowers, Cemetery Shoes is Dowd’s fifth studio release in a mere seven years. At least somebody is still being productive out there, while managing to maintain an imposing consistency. Well, admittedly, I only gave Temporary Shelter a 7, but despite the fact that it has its flaws, I may have underrated that album, as the strong songs are among the best stuff by any contemporary artist I’ve heard. But anyway, let’s get back to this fifth album, that we Europeans could buy a few weeks before the Americans out there (gotta love Munich Records for that). So, I’ve spent a lot of time with the album the past two weeks and I gotta be honest and admit I’m a bit disappointed. Scanning the back cover in the store, I immediately calculated Cemetery Shoes would be his shortest album yet (barely 37 minutes) and keeping in mind that each of his albums had a few songs I wasn’t that impressed with, I was expecting a mind-blowing trip from start to finish, a string of portraits containing nothing but the best ingredients from the previous efforts. However, for some reason it didn’t work out that way. A few things have changed, the most striking one Kim Sherwood-Caso’s disappearance. It’s not that she wrote the songs or anything, but her innocent, angelic voice certainly made a nice contrast to Dowd’s sinister croak. Also Justin Ascher’s part in the story has sizeably diminished: apart from his keyboard- and bass parts in “Wedding Dress,” he only gets to add backing vocals on a bunch of tracks. As a result, the two-piece of Dowd and Brian Wilson deliver the lightest, most accessible and least calculated item in Dowd’s catalogue yet. Sounds fine, doesn’t it? Certainly if you’re one of those people who thought his, uh, dense and macabre arrangements were a bit overbearing.

Unfortunately, the album’s not only a lightweight one, it also sounds as if some of the tracks were tossed-off, as if they were concocted just an hour before the actual recordings started. It’s not that Dowd has completely succumbed to mediocrity though, as his sense for wicked songwriting is still intact: “Brother Jim” (“…is locked up in prison”) opens the album with the good ole pots ‘n kettles- sound, with a pace reminiscent of Ringo Starr’s silly “Don’t Pass Me By” and familiar subject matter (make a sentence with ‘sinner,’ ‘knife,’ ‘wife’ and ‘murder,’ and you’ll get there). Even better than that one are “Garden of Delight” and “Wedding Dress,” two songs that seem to mess around with classic rock as it’s supposed to sound. While the former has these great falsetto accents during the chorus (“In the garden of de-LIIIIIIIIIIGGGHHHT”) and a guitar solo that’s reminiscent of Neil Young’s minimalism, the latter sounds as if Dowd – accompanied by Weezer – tears through Roger Glover’s “Love Is All” during the chorus. It must be the chords, since the lyrics – basically some sort of biography - are entirely in full Dowd-fashion: “When I was twelve years old, my daddy took me to work at the butcher shop, he said “Son, stand back and watch, and see how a man carves his place in the world, and he began to cleave…” Other fun tracks are the Residents-tango of “Rest in Peace” and the concise Addams Family-conga of “Dear John Letter” with its cheesy keyboards and slashing guitar accents. In the meantime, you’ve also had the restrained ballad “Shipwreck” and the wicked “Whisper in a Nag’s Ear” to digest, but regrettably, the final quartet of songs on the album is quite disappointing: although he wrote in his website biography that he doesn’t give the Easter date “any special significance,” he’s written a song about it (“I would go to church, but I don’t think I’d be welcome”) that’s just a bit too flimsy, while “Christmas Is Just Another Day” sounds like a country-ish lullaby that gives the concept of off-key singing a new dimension. Closing out the album are the sober spoken word-piece “Dylan’s Coat” (featuring some awkward wise-ass lyrics like “I know what I know, and I do what I do, if you don’t like my coat … fuck you”) and the country/surf-instrumental “Rip Off” that’s fun, but bears a pretty adequate title. If it weren’t for the fact that this is a Johnny Dowd-release, I probably wouldn’t have given it a 7, but I can’t help it, I just like the guy’s completely unique vision and approach. Easily the humblest item by the man yet, Cemetery’s best moments may serve as a nice introduction to the music, but overall it’s probably the least impressive of his five albums yet.

 

Reader comments:


Judy Dorsey (USA):
Thanks for your excellent and insightful reviews of Johnny Dowd's CDs. Awaiting your review of "Cemetery Shoes" which has not yet been released here in the U.S.


 

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