Canada’s Brock Zeman has steadily pursued his career over the course of 11 albums, several of which we’ve featured on Blabber’n’Smoke or over on Americana UK. While he’s ranged musically from dusty ballads to hard-bitten country from album to album his lyrics have consistently impressed proving him to be a fine storyteller with a firm handle on vivid sketches of hard living and lovelorn regret. Pulling Your Sword Out Of The Devil’s Back maintains this standard and shows Zeman continuing to grow in confidence with several of the songs benefiting from additional instrumentation and tight, almost poppy arrangements which has led to the album getting several radio plays from UK Roots music radio shows.
The album opens with the feverish spoken word title song as Zeman describes his songwriting process with a passion. “I live in a house full of ghosts that just won’t let me be. I let ‘em in myself, but now I can’t get ‘em to leave. I’m haunted by love” before stating “It’s just heart to tongue, tongue to hand, blah, blah, blah, and struggle.” Referencing the song itself he says “there’s no chorus in this one it’s ugly and it’s wrong, there’s no melody so you won’t be able to sing along. No pretty little voice like the angels singing low pushed through pretty little lips in a pretty package wrapped up in a pretty little bow” The irony here is that for the remainder of the album Zeman wraps the songs in melodies, keyboards, strings and synths and even some female harmonies while the song itself blossoms from its initial guitar and violin cushion into a full blown anthemic thrash.
Walking In The Dark which follows is a fine demonstration of Zeman’s new found melodic sensibility as the song uncurls like a Springsteen drama with some sparkling guitars bouncing off of the slick beat. Zeman half speaks and the lyrics are full of neon lit street life images on a rumination of the revelations available to late night dog walkers. Sweat is a funky low rider of a song that sounds like Johnny Dowd backed by The Ohio Players with Zeman getting down and dirty on the vocals. In contrast Don’t Think About You Anymore is a string driven threnody while Some Things Stay is almost power pop with its insistent beat. Towards the end of the album Zeman pulls out two crackers. Little Details harks back to 1980’s rolled up cuffs and big quiffs on brat pack movies but does so with an attractive and pulverising insistence that draws the listener in. Dead Man’s Shoes also seems to be trapped back in the eighties but the template here is Elvis Costello and his excavations of sixties pop on Get Happy.
Zeman winds the album up with the flipside of the opening song. Instead of the writing process he enquires of the listener what they are listening to on their radio on Everybody Loves Elvis.
Overall Pulling Your Sword Out of The Devil’s Back is less immediate (and less rootsy) than Zeman’s previous work but its layerings and variety grow on you after a while and deserve some delving into.
Blabber’n’Smoke liked Canadian Brock Zeman‘s last offering, Me Then You back in 2012 with its taut and sinewy rock with a hint of blue collar Steve Earle in the tales it told. We also noted his production and playing on the magnificently doomed Tom House released on Zeman’s label, Mud Records. Now he’s back with Rotten Tooth, an eleven song self penned collection which, while no great departure from its predecessor other than a hint of influence from the boho bawling of Tom Waits which colours a few of the numbers, Zeman himself says
“I learned an awful lot from recording Nashville singer/songwriter Tom House over the last few years and it’s led me to some unexpected places and given me some brand new eyes and ears.”
House’s album was a frank journey into a booze driven American underbelly and it may be that his words have spurred Zeman into being somewhat more visceral on some of his songs, most notably the opening title song which starts off with a sample of a dental instruction on how to extract a tooth. Pretty soon Zeman growls into view over a savage acoustic blues riff before the band hammers in. Gnarly as hell Zeman sings
“I’m the only rotten tooth in my family’s mouth/Take more than pliers just to pull me out/I’m on the shady side of my family tree/That crooked little branch that wouldn’t grow straight
The little grease fire that you can’t put out/Ya, I’m the only rotten tooth in my family’s mouth/Black clouds fill the sky wherever I travel/My footsteps sound like a judge’s gavel/
Hell spit me out and heaven don’t want me/Because I’m mean as a rattlesnake and twice as ugly/Won’t you write this on my stone before they lay me down/That I’m the only rotten tooth in my family’s mouth.”
OK, there’s a thousand songs out there about black sheep but Zeman delivers this with a ferocity that is breathtaking and it’s begging to be placed on the credits of some hillbilly murdering tale on HBO. Zeman runs with this bad blood throughout the album. Neighbour fights, murder, the Lord’s retribution all feature with Zeman and guitarist Blair Hogan playing some fine gutbucket blues. This grimness is leavened musically with some songs delivered in a lighter style with cello employed on occasion such as on the convoluted murder ballad Where Words Mean Nothing as the vaulting tune belies the blood stained lyrics. Overall we’re looking at Americana Noire.
The Waits influence is at its height on two songs. Dreamland Motel is a wordy squall describing the titular no star abode
“I ain’t ever stayed in a place like this before/The toilet is talking to the sink about the blood on the floor/And if I make it through the night I swear on my skin/That it’s Travel Lodge baby from now on in.”
Sending Strange Weather takes the Waits’ model and adds some Jim White to the mix as Zeman warns of the coming Apocalypse with hoodoo guitar and strangled voices. It’s a tremendous cut and with songs like these Zeman deserves to be better known. Suffice to say that if you think Robert Mitchum’s Rev. Harry Powell could strap on a guitar then this might be an album he would make.
Much as Blabber’n’Smoke digs all sorts of Americana related music there’s a special corner reserved for those artists who , mindless of fashions or tends, have a connection to the mother lode, the feel , the spirit and the essence of what has been called old weird Americana. Essentially cult artists they may be lone pickers or surround themselves with all sorts of stringed and banged instruments but their one common factor is generally their invisibility, at least to the general public. The mavericks, the misfits, hiding under a stone, it’s a joy to discover yet another one. I’m sure that this hidden status is not their preferred choice (at least for some, others will scurry away from the spotlight) and a few more dollars in their pockets wouldn’t go amiss so it’s almost a public service announcement to try and wise up folk to the likes of Michael Hurley, Peter Stampfel, Baby Gramps and others we’ve mentioned on Blabber’n’Smoke.
Tom House strikes us as mining the same vein as the above trio. Despite being championed by the likes of Greil Marcus he has flown under our radar until Winding Down The Road opened our eyes and ears. A sixty something Nashville musician House’s first recordings were on a Bloodshot Records compilation called “Nashville, The other Side of the Alley Insurgent Country Vol. 3” (which actually resides on the Blabber’n’Smoke shelves) released back in 1996 before releasing seven albums of what Marcus has called “folk music made for ordinary people by devils, a cruel recasting of country music as an extraordinary collection of warnings and threats.” However, as a creative force he has been going at it since the seventies, composing songs and writing poetry while holding down a day job and apparently fighting his battles with the bottle.
Somehow, House has fallen in with the good folk at Mud Records, in particular Brock Zeman who produces and plays all over the album along with a very simpatico band providing an authentic sounding dirt trodden and at times spooky backdrop for House’s song poems which he delivers in a gnarled and wizened voice. The band can be spare and old timey minstrel sounding or deliver a stone solid groove but ultimately Zeman has set up a magnificent canvas for House to paint his words on. And what words. His battle with the booze and his poetic past might lead to comparisons with the likes of Bukowksi and strangely enough some of this album recalls Tom Russell’s album Hotwalker which paid tribute in part to the old postman. Another lost soul recalled is Vic Chesnutt particularly in the gloriously unhinged title song which closes the album, a wracked solo delivery eventually metamorphoses into a brief guitar laden epiphany. It’s not all doom and gloom as House occasionally comes across like Roger Miller’s sly contributions to the Disney cartoon of Robin Hood. However even when he deceptively commences a song with Miller’s laid back country scat as on the jaunty Pappy Closed the Book the content is bloody as a psychopathic cop shrugs off the death of his squeeze. Throughout the album House casts a spotlight on a dark and dank underbelly, forensically and poetically examining the state of the nation. The spoken word Paradox With Suitcase is elliptic and sounds fantastic. Willie MacBroom crackles like a pre-war song as House tells the tale of a drifter who casually kills but for the most part House eschews stories and paints impressionistic pictures of folk lost, seeking a meaning to life, salvation. Jericho touches on the religious wars being waged currently and could be seen as a plea from the damaged men and women with post traumatic stress disorder retuning from foreign field, nevertheless it’s a tour de force, like an ancient blues holler it shivers with dread and gloom as Zeman recreates the past perfectly. All of the songs here are worth hearing and hearing again and House stakes his claim to be considered a worthy portal to the essence of American folklore.
Canadian Zeman’s last album, Ya Ain’t Crazy Henny Penny was a fine dust blown collection of songs that were like snapshots of hard lives lived in hard times. On Me Then You he continues in this vein with all of the songs well written vignettes, intriguing tales, a collection of short stories almost. However he’s all but abandoned the acoustic based ballads that featured heavily on Henny Penny. Instead a full-blooded band sound rings throughout with clanging guitars and driving rhythms pushing the songs.
Pushing The Stones which opens the album is a frantic pacesetter. Blair Hogan provides a big fat guitar riff as Zeman hollers. Until It Bleeds settles into a more relaxed groove but still packs a punch as Zeman delivers a Steve Earle like tale of an abandoned fool thinking about his departed lover. It’s delivered in a tender yet muscular style, Zeman sounds tough but hurt, the sound is almost country with pedal steel decoration but it swells mightily at times with a tough rock feel. The lyrics capture the bitter regret of the protagonist
“I put a hole in my wall on the day that you left
Just stood there watching blood falling from my fingertips
I still don’t know what I thought it might do
A hole in the wall don’t do nothing but stare back at a fool.”
Triple Crown maintains this quality with a portrait of a tough Texas beerhall. The band deliver another solid example of Earle styled rock and Zeman’s pen delivers expert sketches of the bar’s denizens
“He’s got hair to his elbows and snake skin boots
A rebel flag t-shirt and a jailhouse tattoo
He’s sucking on a Camel, blowing smoke rings around the moon
He’s way south of trendy but man, he’s Texas cool”
“The guitar player’s got a Stetson and a smoke dangling from his lips
And he looks just as greasy as his guitar licks
The prettiest girl in the whole bar asked me what my name was
But the band was so goddamn loud that I never caught hers
But I got her hair in my mouth from screaming in her ear
And it smelled just like cigarettes and her breath smelled like beer”
This hard driving melodic rock continues with Someone For You and Light in the Attic although the latter is sweetened somewhat by the stately piano and very fine pedal steel playing. On Claws they return to the clangorous sound of the opening song with some magnificent guitar soloing featuring along with some neat percussion from Steve Foley.
Zeman does feature some acoustic balladry on the apocalyptic End of The World while the pair of songs, Rain On the Roof #1 and #2 that end the album feature strings and a mellower sound. Rain On The Roof #1 is a great song. Gathering many of the tropes that feature throughout, loneliness, the elements and the desire to stop time it is simply superb. The extended ending of Rain On The Roof #2 with rain sounds and a string section draws out the sense of time wasting away. A fine album indeed.
Rain On The Roof #1