Released just prior to Johnny Dowd’s upcoming European tour, Family Picnic has been touted as a slight return to the sound and themes of his earliest albums with less of the tortured electronic skronking which informed his last couple of releases. Certainly Dowd’s idea of family values is not the same as someone like Thatcher or Reagan would have espoused as his families are composed of folk who are like rabbits caught in a headlight, catastrophe rushing towards them. And while the album continues to sound as if it’s been washed in an acid bath, the drums and vocals scarified into the songs, the guitars and keyboards misshaped by the process, by Dowd’s standards it does go some way back to that weird American Gothic which was celebrated in Jim White’s film, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. As Dowd sings on the closing number, “I sing songs of lust and depravity, that’s the only kinda songs come out of me,” and that just about sums it up.
Much of the album pursues a kind of mutant gutbucket blues with snarly guitar to the fore although it also dips into kaleidoscopic and frightful carney funway music and primitive country jaunts. The opening instrumental, Hoodoo, buzzes with hot guitar and exotic xylorimba summoning up thoughts of mondo type exploitation movies of the sixties. However, it’s like a frog in a blender as it gets increasingly twisted out of shape ending in a wonderfully demented organ solo. Next up, Dowd comes across like a Lou Reed revenant as he sings The Man Of Your Dreams over a ramshackle backing and owes up to having something missing from his psychological makeup, a hollow man indeed. Here he’s got a vocal foil in the shape of Kim Sherwood-Caso whose deadpan contributions to several of the songs add to the bathos. There’s a bit of a side step as Dowd examines the psychological makeup of the south in the maggot infested blues of Vicksburg before he launches into the flickering neon flash of Shameless, a song which demolishes anything The Stones have ever done when they tried to get down and funky and dirty. Again, Dowd’s hero is falling apart, dependent on his “baby” to pull him up while the music is as insistent as a dentist’s drill pile driving into a cavity.
Dowd screws with your mind throughout the album. The melodious chorus to Walking Floor has Sherwood-Caso repeating the words, “Big fucking mess,” while on The Stuttering Wind the harbinger of love is a “shiny black crow” who has a sideline in scavenging the souls of the recently buried. Four Grey Walls is twice as demented at least as the most demented of Tom Waits’ cracked fairground waltzes and on Back End Of Spring Dowd unleashes some scabrous guitar as he lays down a beat version of the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. Closer to home, the title song is a litany of the broken and diseased participants of a hellish family gathering and then there’s the tale of Little Jimmy, a threnody for a man who, as Dowd sings, “Was not evil, just a fuck up.” Anyhows, Jimmy gets his comeuppance when his wife, “Cuts his throat because his bullshit she would not take.”
Listening to Conway Twitty is somewhat akin to being inside the brain of any aspiring country star when they’re experiencing an epileptic fit. The ambition sparking but zapped by rogue neurons firing off in all directions, eventually ending in a fugue induced and plaintive plea, “I wanna be a star.” Dowd closes the album with the supremely engaging heaven and hell battle themed Thomas Dorsey where he compares himself to this giant of gospel song and admits that he can’t sing of salvation, only hell and damnation. For what it’s worth, we’d say that Dowd’s trips into the underworld are as glorious as any hallelujah.
Johnny Dowd kicks off his European tour this week with several UK dates included, all details here.