Confronted by the anonymous spectral faces framed on the sleeve of this CD it was comforting to read that JǒŞhǔA is a side project of the great Joe Cassady and the West End Sound. Featuring Cassady himself and his superb guitar player Shu Nakamura we were ready for another dose of literate and wry observations delivered with aplomb in a country folk style as in last year’s The Chymical Vegas Wedding“ However the PR blurb stating they had “got a bit bored by what they were doing and did something else” should have alerted me. JǒŞhǔA don’t deliver hummable melodies or toe tapping tunes, instead they delve into the dark recesses of the soul with a piledriver percussive sound and distorted voices that reek of danger and doom. Think of Krautrock, Tom Waits, Johnny Dowd, Harry Partch, add in some Lee Hazelwood, Beat poetry, Tibetan bells and top it off with a dusting of Joujukan master musicians and you’re in the territory this pair inhabit. In fact they say it better themselves describing their influences as “garbage cans, screaming children, half-empty bottles, half-full bottles, deer antlers, tambourines, mortal flesh, pots, pans, vocal chords, squeaky chairs, sheets of paper, the words on the paper, bells, whistles, the whole bag of chips, etc.”
With such a smorgasbord of sounds it’s a tribute to the pair of them that the album is a bit of a triumph. See-sawing between spoken word poems accompanied by a jangled cacophony and more intimate and tender spooky ballads all is weird in here. In Thee O Lord which opens the album is a trance like invocation that recalls the opiate nightmares of William Burroughs, Unstarted Symphony is a whirling percussive dervish and Dear Words throbs like a heart beating to burst. By comparison Don’t Let them Hurt You sounds almost tender despite the surreal sci-fi imagery. It’s a genuine surprise to find a Christmas song towards the end of the album. Christmas Eve 2012 is jaunty with a faux country feel but listen to the lyrics and you soon release that you’re still in JǒŞhǔA land.
Back from the holidays and here’s a couple of albums that have been sitting on the shelf for a while.
First up is the curiously named The Chymical Vegas Wedding of Joe Cassady and The West End Sound. Cassady, a New Yorker has a voice that is similar at times to that of Butch Hancock of the Flatlanders and at others like the young Mick Jagger. He sings in a laconic, laid-back style with a fine handle on the words that pack the songs here. The opening song Broken Down for example is a textbook example of how to use alliteration with the repetition of the words broken down throughout the song. Elsewhere he muses on the possibility of history reversing in Van Gogh’s Ear and in Make It Rain uses the silver screen and the dreams therein to reflect on the impossibility of achieving them. This is all delivered over a very attractive backdrop. In particular Shu Nakamura on guitar, mandolin, Dobro and banjo shines throughout. For the most part the band play acoustic based rock with Nakamura providing colour. There are a couple of throwaway confections with Rosarch in Love a dead ringer for Six Days on the Road and We all Tour With Elvis done as a sprightly country romp. However Cassady and the band can rock out successfully as evidenced on Holy Hell. The best moments however are the limpid swoons of Make It Rain and Living Ghosts, two songs that are delicate and beautiful with superb playing from all involved, they sound and feel as if the listener is looking at starlight on a clear night.
Next up is a great slice of swedish Americana in the form of Mack Johhansson’s New Sweden.
Mack Johansson was the vocalist in the superb Swedish band Hyacinth House who despite two fine albums failed to gather much attention and eventually split up. Their first album in particular was a spectacular piece of Americana conjuring up visions of deep running rivers and green valleys with a sinister undercurrent, a bit like watching Deliverance actually. On his debut solo album Johansson digs deeper into that dark underbelly of Americana with a harder edged, blues, gospel and occasional rockabilly sound that has already paid dividends with one of his songs landing a slot in the American Gothic vampire drama True Blood.
Ranging from the driving acoustic swagger of Foot stompin’ Blues to the pumping and almost electronica sounds of Coyote Indian Blues Johansson rarely puts a foot wrong. There are elements of the elemental David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand here and there but ultimately Mack sounds fairly unique and closes the album with perhaps his best song Ulrike. Dark and doomladen with sinister slide guitar it oozes menace before building to a great climax. Anyone who knows Hyacinth House will dig the inclusion of a new version of New Day Rising, the song that opened their first album. In addition there is a hidden song Northern Highway that pops up after the album proper is ended. A cover of a David Childers song it just about sums up the album with its Americana imagery and the wailing guitars snaking all over it although it is the only song recorded in the USA and with a different set of musicians.
The album title stakes a claim for Swedish singers to sing Americana as it and the cover art refer to a 17th Century Swedish colony along the Delaware River that despite being annexed by the English has left a lasting and present American-Swedish connection.
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