Regular readers will know that at Blabber’n’Smoke we’re suckers for good old fashioned, dust blown, gulch dry twangy Americana. Throw in some mariachi horns and we’re salivating. Maybe it stems from formative years and time spent watching cowboys and Indians on the screen while John Wayne ruled the roost as far as my old man was concerned. So when an all star remake of Hollywood cowboy Lee Hazlewood’s first album, Trouble Is A Lonely Town popped into the mailbox we mosied along to the stereo and with two fingers of red eye in hand hunkered down.
Hazlewood’s original album was a stripped down narrative affair, a series of vignettes of small town life in some undisclosed past time featuring characters with names such as Orville Dobkins and Emory Zickfoose Brown, all linked by Hazlewood’s gravelled introductions. Recorded in 1963 it predated his glory years with Nancy Sinatra and aside from some cult collectors had faded into obscurity when Charles Normal, a Portland based musician found a used copy in a thrift store (or charity shop as we would call it) in Oslo. Homesick, he listened to it constantly for several months. Several years later while he was touring as a member of Frank Black’s band he started recording his versions of the songs and asked the Pixie main man to join in. The idea of a homage to the album grew and he enlisted the assistance of his brother Larry Norman on vocals. The project bit the dust when Larry passed away following a heart attack in 2008 but eventually Normal regrouped and finished the album with a little help from his friends.
Aside from Black those friends included Pete Yorn, Courtney Taylor-Taylor (Dandy Warhols), Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse)and Kristin Blix and they all contribute vocals to one of more of the songs here while the late Larry Norman features on two selections. Normal arranges the music expanding on the original, mainly acoustic versions using horns and additional instrumentation. Finally and serendipitously Normal found his narrator when he answered his door one day and his postman drawled that he had a package for him. Sure enough, Jerry Albertini, U.S. postman, connects the songs with a voice that is not too far removed from Hazlewood’s.
All of the songs have had a major refit and storm out of the gate firing on all cylinders. Long Black Train belts along fuelled by twang guitar and mariachi horns as Frank Black inhabits Dan Stuart’s soul for the duration. Ugly Brown with Larry Norman on vocals is a nice’n’sleazy New Orleans horn ridden lament that swings like hell. Black returns for Son of a Gun sharing vocals with his young son Julian. Singing with kids should be a no no but here it works and the sinuous Latin rhythms are undeniably hip shaking. Kristin Blix takes us back to the Mexican border on the superb We All Make The Flowers Grow which celebrates the town’s undertaker who’s secure in his knowledge that sooner or later all of the inhabitants will swell his coffers. Run Boy Run is a Frank Black fronted ramshackle country romp with screwy guitar while Pete Yorn’s Six Feet of Chain inhabits the same feel. The Railroad (featuring Isaac Brock) harks back to the groovy sixties with a stone solid horn groove that could have graced a pilled up Mod’s Blue Note collection. Courtney Taylor-Taylor’s Look At That Woman is the weakest link here as the song is too ponderous compared to its siblings but Eddie Argos (of Art Brut) picks up the baton and runs ahead with Peculiar Guy which weirdly enough sounds like the Pixies rearranging a song from The Rocky Horror Show. The honour of closing the album is offered to Normal’s late brother Larry Norman who sounds as if he’s lived in this town called Trouble all of his life. While he harbours a desire to leave his inertia and habit defeats him and this is reflected in the music which has a lazy lope along vibe where he can clip clop out of town or remain for the for the occasional bursts of excitement characterised by the dizzy waltz time middle eight.
All in all this is a blast of an album, perhaps more fun for those acquainted with the original but well recommended for anyone who digs American music mythology. Normal appears to have been so satisfied by the project that he is inviting folk to recommend his next project and if you are so inclined you can do so here. In the meantime sit back and enjoy this one.