Very occasionally an album comes along that stops you dead in your tracks, knocks the wind out of your sails and demands that you pay attention. Marvin Country! is one such album. The work of Marvin Etzioni, one time member of Lone Justice and producer of the likes of Counting Crows, Peter Case and Toad The Wet Sprocket (remember them?)it’s a double disc CD with various “star” names guesting which had our antenna twitching. After all aren’t such beasts often a recipe for disaster? All doubts were dispelled as soon as the virtual needle hit the grooves (and there is a vinyl release which I presume will be magnificent in its own grooviness) and as song after song tumbled out of the speakers, each and every one great in its own unique way we realised we were in the presence of an album which in its ramshackle and splattergun approach pretty much approaches the pinnacle of current Americana music.
While Etzioni plays much of the music himself including various keyboards, mandolin, mandocello, casio, bass, drums, porchboard, synthesiser, mellotron and some scintillating electric guitar he opens the borders of Marvin Country to the likes of John Doe, Steve Earle, Maria McKee, Buddy Miller, Richard Thompson, Gurf Morlix, Greg Leisz and Lucinda Williams. While it’s fair to report that they all add something special to the mix even without their presence the album would stand up on its own.
With his songwriting credentials pretty much confirmed via his tenure with Lone Justice Etzioni has at least one stone cold bona fide classic here with Lay It On The Table. A tear jerking duet with Lucinda Williams and weeping pedal steel from Greg Leisz you should be hearing it over any decent airwaves very soon. You Possess Me, the opening song and another duet (with Maria McKee this time) is almost as good. However any notion gained from the curtain raiser that we’re in for some sweet modern country is dispelled by the following song, The Grapes of Wrath. John Doe takes the vocal duties here on a turbo charged rocker that sounds like vintage Dylan delivered by a souped up Chuck Prophet with a great big fat guitar sound that humbbucks like hell. Speaking of Dylan Etzioni proclaims Bob Dylan Is Dead on a tremendous acoustic thrash that is exhilarating in its iconoclasm and clever in the allusions within the lyrics. Etzioni throws up several other tremendous songs throughout the album such as the Cash like A Man Without A Country and the country punk Living Like a Hobo while You are The Light with vocal accompaniment from The Dixie Hummingbirds is simply superb. If all of the above were to constitute the album then it would be highly recommended but there is more, so much more, to hear on the second disc. Much of the delight in listening to this is in the rollercoaster feel of lurching from thrash to country to gospel to folk but on disc two (or side three if you do get the vinyl) Etzioni throws a fine curveball with a suite of what might be best called “oddball” songs. Where’s Your Analog Spirit? is a synth drenched protest song reminiscent of Roger McGuinn’s space rock. Etzioni plays around with sound samples on Gram Revisited, a primitive sounding tribute to Parsons and the goofy sounding What’s Patsy Cline Doing these Days? He then slips in anther cracking song with Hard to Build a Home which could not only end up as a country classic but also refers back to a song on the first disc, Son of a Carpenter. Aside from any biblical possibilities this is just more evidence of the very keen mind that made this album. The run up to the end of the album is packed with gems. The guitar solo in the bluesy Trouble Holding Back (by Trevor Meanor) is audacious and ridiculously spellbinding while the mournful horns of There’s A Train is one of the album’s highlights. The simple God’s Little mansion could be an old Carter Family homily.
We haven’t even mentioned the fine lazy cajun Richard Thompson vehicle It Don’t Cost Much and Gurf Morlix’s turn on Son of a Carpenter but if we were to go on this review would never end. Suffice to say that this album sits up there with the likes of Terry Allen’s superb Lubbock (On Everything) as a great example of left field maverick Americana. In order to try and offer a sense of its reach there are two samples below which demonstrate the breadth of the album.
The Grapes of Wrath
What’s Patsy Cline Doing These Days? Pt. 1