A scrofulous screaming desert storm of guitar noise and a forlorn saloon bar piano are the first sounds you will encounter on That’s Your Wife On The Back Of My Horse, the latest album from Ithaca’s Johnny Dowd. Amid this maelstrom he gravely intones
“That’s your wife on the back of my horse. That’s my hand in your pocket. Around my neck is your mother’s locket. Your sisters will dance at my wake. Your brother will blow out the candles on my birthday cake. That’s your wife on the back of my horse.”
Sounding like the late William Burroughs howling in an electric dust storm Dowd immediately stakes his claim to be one of the most left field candidates in the field of Americana with this opening gambit. It might scare some folk away but for those who stay the course the album is a hell of a ride.
Dowd recorded most of the album himself playing guitar, bass and keyboards with an electronic drum kit and the whole was then mixed and produced by “voodooman” Matt Saccuccimorano. The end result is a gripping kaleidoscope of thrills that mixes Southern Gothic with synth sounds that fart and burp. Tales of the devil bump up against gangster braggadocio and cosmic weirdness. Listening to the album cinema references kept coming to mind, Repo Man, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Wise Blood, all mutated and mashed in Dowd’s leering imagination. As on his last Album, Do The Gargon, Dowd adopts various musical styles, sixties TV cop themes in Cadillac Hearse and Iggy Pop’s The Passenger on The Devil Don’t Bother Me while Words are Birds is reminiscent of Snakefinger’s work with the Residents. This might all sound on paper a bit of a mess but Dowd has a firm hand on the tiller, his voice and drawl, deranged, modified, discombobulated throughout, cuts through and is immediately recognisable.
The lyrics for the title song are inspired by the boasting of Johnny Guitar Watson on Gangster of Love where he baits a sheriff saying, by the way, that’s your wife on the back of my horse. This cocksure bravado is revisited on the buzzed up funk of White Dolemite, a nod to a Blaxploitation movie from the seventies which gets down and dirty with Anna Coogan singing hot pants, he needs a spanking throughout as Dowd lists his love powers and is then updated on the rap of My Old Flame. Coogan turns up again on Poor, But Proud, a defiant rail against poverty and aging. Delving into the South The Devil Don’t Bother Me is an awesome mix of Teutonic synth discipline and Baptist hell fearing belief while Empty Purse is a nightmarish whirligig fairground ride of a song that again reminds one of a cinematic equivalent, in black and white, the carousel out of control in Hitchcock’s Stranger On A Train or the scenes where Janet Leigh is drugged in Welles’ Touch Of Evil. Whatever, it is scary. Akin to this is the voodoo soaked tale of Female Jesus who makes her living on her back and who used to play in a punk rock band, a succubus to avoid surely but the song sucks one in.
In the midst of all of this musical mayhem there’s an absolute nugget of a song that encapsulates the album. Why is, on the face of it, a lonesome love story that is played relatively straight as far as the rest of the songs go with a regular rhythm, country guitar stylings and a male female call and response. However the routine breakup stuff soon swoops into alien territory with the lyrics and the music climbing into cosmic consciousness. Ana Coogan appears again and her vocals are sublime as she pits her disembodied self against Dowd’s cowboy spaceman on what is the best song I’ve heard this year.
That’s Your Wife On The Back Of My Horse is available now and Dowd has a short tour in April and May, dates here.