Johnny Dowd. Family Picnic. Mother Jinx Records

johnnydowd_familypicnicReleased 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.

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Blabber’n’Smoke Signals: Harry & The Hendersons, The Dead South, Johnny Dowd

Harry & The Hendersons. The Method of Matchstick Men

matchstickmethodcover1005pm-1Listening to the seven piece Glasgow band Harry and The Hendersons is a bit like time travelling back to the early seventies when the bands had groovy clothes, long hair and were interested in Eastern mysticism. Taking elements of LA hipness (CSN&Y and such) and Notting Hill squats (Quintessence, East of Eden) they conjure up a fine pot pouri of sounds on their debut album. A string section introduces the opening number Transcendental Meditation with the band’s excellent harmonies well to the fore before the song  settles  into a guitar based groove with echoes of Dave Crosby’s work woven into it. Meanwhile Matchstick Men, the second song, is more baroque in its delivery, the harmonies again one of the main features here while the strings dance around a gritty guitar figure ending in a guitar/fiddle duel of sorts and the addition of flute to the fluttering freak folk of Chromophobia harks back to the seventies while also challenging the work of peers such as Trembling Bells.  There’s even a five piece suite, Apollo’s Vision, which allows the band to wander hither and thither with willowy flute, Crosby like scatting and Tolkien imbued fantasy. There’s a wonderful moment in the segue between the sections, Medieval Weather Report and The Milkman, where they perform an audacious handbrake turn from prog folk to a Grateful Dead guitar noodle. Had this album been released on Vertigo or Deram back in ’72 it would be a collector’s item but it’s here and now and, having seen The Hendersons live, we can confirm that they can carry off this time travelling lark excellently on stage. Website

 

The Dead South. Illusion & Doubt

14676493_1665812647012609_4563089150667915264_nThe Canadian four piece punky bluegrass outfit’s 2016 album gets a UK release to tie in with dates coming up in April. A frenetic collection of songs peopled with some ghastly characters knee deep in mud and blood and gore this is a tremendous listen. While songs such as Dead Dog Isle rattle along with a grim fury reminiscent of The Violent Femmes there are also numbers such as Smoochin’ In The Ditch and Time For Crawlin’ which are almost pure bluegrass while Miss Mary vamps along like a jug band on amphetamines (along with some particularly gruesome lyrics).  There are some epic tales on show here. The Massacre of El Kuroke adds a Morricone touch to their sound with some sly slide guitar adding to this very cinematic song while Gunslinger’s Glory, the closing song, weaves between a bone rattling gallop and a woozy funereal waltz with strings adding a macabre touch. It’s all great fun with the band firing on all barrels and one suspects that these songs will fly from the stage with fire and fury.  Website

 

Johnny Dowd. Twinkle Twinkle.

twinklecoverforsite460wJohnny Dowd continues to eviscerate Americana on this wonderful collection of popular songs from the past which are chewed up and spat out by Dowd in his unmistakable style.  The album opens with a manifesto of sorts on the updated Execute American Folklore (Again) and it’s hard not to express a chuckle when this Residents like  caustic surge of electronica mutates into  Dowd’s delivery of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. We all know this lullaby but here it’s a bad dream vividly reimagined, more akin to Der Struwwelpeter than Disney with Anna Coogan’s operatic voice adding to the disquiet. Like a mad scientist let loose in a laboratory of steam punk synths Dowd plays all the instruments on the album; farts, parps, clangs and ominous hisses permeate the disc sounding like Krautrock meets the Clangers at times. Songs such as Going Down The Road Feeling Bad, Red River Valley and Tom Dooley are punched into submission. St. James Infirmary Blues is spoken like a beat poet suffering from a benzo famine and John The Revelator is full on biblical fury as the synthesized sounds beep and warble while there’s more biblical darkness on Job 17:11-17 with Dowd coming across like a Manson type prophesiser although the song morphs from its biblical origins into an electro funk invitation to a Friday night funky party.  Dowd’s reworkings of these songs are bizarre and challenging but  he’s  continuing in the tradition of others, taking the songs and adding his own distinctive twist. I challenge anyone not to listen to his take on My Darling Clementine without a smile appearing. Website

Anna Coogan. The Lonely Cry Of Time & Space

a4200116745_16Last time we looked Anna Coogan was a wandering minstrel of the singer/songwriter variety as evidenced by albums such as The Wasted Ocean and The Nowhere Rome Sessions. There was a hint of things to come when her versatile voice was added to the freaky world of Johnny Dowd’s last two albums and on The Lonely Cry Of Time & Space she breaks through to an alien universe of sound that’s somewhat akin to PJ Harvey working with Angelo Badalamenti.

Played in the main by Coogan on voice and guitar with Willie B on drums, Moog bass and synthesiser the album is a helter skelter ride into avant-garde mutations of surf music, twang and arid desert ruminations with a dash of astrophysics added for good measure. With some songs written to accompany vintage French and Russian movies while others rail against the recent Trumpdon of America and the threat to the environment that it entails, Coogan achieves a huge sound that swirls throughout. At times almost hypnagogic, elsewhere like a trepanning as she drills into your head, it’s a challenging listen but there are enough hooks to drag the listener on board. A song like If You Were The Sun with its operatic vocals, alien synthesized ambience and closing heavy metal guitar riffs is balanced by the following chimes of Wedding Vow which, had it been available back then, would have been perfect for the soundtrack for Kill Bill with its Morricone like menace.

At their simplest Coogan and Willie B conjure up a wonderful dark stew of menace on the apocalyptic  Wishing Well (a riposte to anti immigration hysteria)  while Burn For You broods mightily as Coogan wanders into the miasma of Middle East calamities. Sylvia (an ode to Sylvia Plath) has its roots in folk which is apparent at the beginning of the song but it soon takes wings as shards of guitar splinter over rushed drums. There’s a Kate Bush like ebullience to the Telstar rock of Meteor and the title song is inspired by the recent discovery of gravitational waves (as prophesied by Einstein) with the song sounding like a mash up of Brian Eno’s Apollo Atmospheres and the aforementioned PJ Harvey. Meanwhile the robotic pulse of Collateral is Coogan’s response to the US election fiasco as she sings, make me invisible, make me expendable, her guitar here as American as the stars and stripes as it twangs with a fury.

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Johnny Dowd

The Dark Bard. That’s what one of the comments on our review of Johnny Dowd’s splendid album That’s Your Wife On The Back Of My Horse called the man. The commentator seems deeply immersed in Dowd’s music, witness his website here so  the Dark Bard it is. Anyhow, the DB himself was kind enough to take some time out from his preparations for his UK and European dates later this month to answer a few questions we winged over to him.

The new album, That’s Your Wife On The Back Of My Horse is pretty much a solo effort with you recording all of the instruments yourself, something you haven’t done since your debut, Wrong Side Of Memphis. Was there any particular reason for this?

There were reasons for this–financial and artistic–but mostly it just happened that way—one thing lead to another and presto chango the album was done—might have sounded better with a real drummer who wasn’t a machine-I hope this answers your question

I read that the title is lifted from a line in Johnny Guitar Watson’s Gangster of Love song where he’s baiting the sheriff. Is this a favourite song of yours?

I love that song, I even like the Steve Miller version–Johnny Guitar Watson is MONSTER talent, better than The Beatles

A lot of the album sounds electronic but the sleeve only credits guitar bass and keyboards. I presume a lot of the sounds came from a synthesizer or some such keyboard, can you tell us a bit about the equipment?

What you say is true. Matt Saccuccimorano mixed the record and put voodoo on the basic tracks–thus a guitar might end up sounding synth like–and of course I ran the bass, guitar and drum thru various mind altering pedals –so what might have begun as a Howling Wolfish tune became more King Crimsonish

White Dolemite is a fine and funky piece of braggadocio with references to hot pants and spanking. I take it it’s a tribute of sorts to the Blaxploitation movie Dolemite.

Absolutely —Rudy Ray Moore is a genius

Although you’ve stamped your authority on all of the songs it seems to me that at times you’re almost blatantly referencing influences, sixties TV themes in Cadillac Hearse, Iggy Pop on The Devil Don’t Bother Me for example. Am I making this up or do you have specific sounds, songs or genres in mind when you wrote these?

Now Paul, I’m not sure if blatantly is the way I would describe it but anyway–maybe I am being too sensitive —I don’t have anything much in mind when I am writing the songs but it’s true when I listen back the ghosts of all my influences is there—I don’t really hear the Iggy thang on Devil but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there–it’s not really important what my intention was because I don’t know or have forgotten–the train left the station without me
Why? is a glorious song that sounds cosmic and cornball at the same time. With some great absurdist lyrics ” somewhere in Oklahoma, just a few miles from the beach, stood a cowboy with a surfboard and unto me he began to preach…..” and with Anna Coogan’s lovely refrains it’s like The Man who Fell To Earth remade by David Lynch. Can you describe how a song like this comes together, where you get the idea and lyrics from?

Yea–Anna is killing on that song–she was a real important cog [along with Matt] in the machine–that song is probably as close to an autobiographical song as I will ever write–the last verse [about the spaceman] is a feeling that has haunted me whole life–I can’t describe any better than I did in the song

Can I ask about the hero of your last album, Do The Gargon. Is he still around or have you laid him to rest?

Gargon is retired and living in Key West Fla
You’re coming to Europe in April. What can we expect to hear and see?

I will be touring with Mic Edmondson on guitar and his wife [and my sister] will be doing the tour managing–Mic and i have been playing on and off for about 25 years so we have some good chemistry–I’ll have my drum machines, synths, and guitars–we will be playing mostly new arrangements of songs off the new record pus a bunch of golden oldies. A few covers [Louie Louie etc]—poems, stories—pretty much a free form wtf kinda show–plus my friend Mark Lotterman will doing the opening slot and there is not a finer singer-songwriter performer out there–! Hope to see you soon Paul—thanks -Johnny

Tour dates.

2015.04.09 Krefeld (DE) @ Kulturrampe
2015.04.10 Eeklo (BE) @ N9
2015.04.11 Nottingham (UK) @ Guitar Bar
2015.04.12 London (UK) @ The Islington
2015.04.13 Eye (UK) @ The Bank Eye
2015.04.14 Brighton (UK) @ Prince Albert
2015.04.15 Leicester (UK) @ The Musician
2015.04.16 Lille (FR) @ La Peniche
2015.04.17 Eindhoven (NL) @ Blue Collar Hotel
2015.04.18 Rotterdam (NL) @ V11
2015.04.20 Zurich (CH) @ El Lokal
2015.04.21 Frankfurt (DE) @ Dreikoningskeller
2015.04.22 Norderstedt (DE) @ Harksheide
2015.04.23 Amsterdam (NL) @ Paradiso Upstairs
2015.04.24 Zeist (NL) @ De Peppel
2015.04.25 Hengelo (NL) @ Heartland Festival

And here’s an oldie that is too good not to revisit.

Johnny Dowd. That’s Your Wife On The Back Of My Horse. Mother Jinx Records


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.

Johnny Dowd. Do The Gargon

Never one to be filed under “easy listening” Johnny Dowd’s latest album is a blistering power trio fuelled blast. Do The Gargon features Dowd on guitar and vocals along with Michael Stark on keyboards and Willie B. on drums and bass pedals. The twelve songs all relate to Gargon, in Dowd’s words “Who the hell is Gargon? All I can say is: look around, look in the mirror, look at me. He is the beast within who got his feelings hurt (boo hoo). The recurring theme of my new record is an incident in my (or was it Gargon’s?) past. A young boy is abandoned at a filling station in 1953. Did this happen? Is it a memory, a dream, or a lie he told himself to justify all the nonsense that followed?”

Gargon is like a rock’n’roll Zelig as he (or Dowd) propels the band through ZZ Top styled blues burners, ersatz disco, dance crazes, funk and guitar heroics. Dowd’s unique vocal delivery unites the songs sounding robotic at times as he forensically dissects moments in Gargon’s life. While this might sound, on paper at least, as if we have a po faced concept album on our hands Dowd’s customary dark humour is never far from the surface whether it be in the lyrics or the deconstruction of familiar musical types. This is probably best realised on the title song which Dowd says was inspired by The Monster Mash. Dowd kick-starts the song “Alright kids, this is Johnny Dowd , I got a brand new dance for you, it’s called Do The Gargon” and indeed he offers instructions on the dance moves in between relating a tale of an abandoned kid who delivers death to those who take him in. You could dance to this I suppose but zombie makeup would be a requisite. While several of the songs strain to maintain this level with Butterflies and Unicorns in particular collapsing into a parodic prog rock black hole Dowd hits more than he misses. Nancy Sinatra is a fuzz fuelled miniature gem where Gargon sashays down the strip in a dress and Go Go Boots borrowed from the lady while Gargon’s Disco Balls has a funky keyboard intro and a ferocious riff as Dowd again recounts the 1953 abandonment. Pretty Boy is the most direct reference to ZZ Top as Gargon hangs out with Billy while waiting for the bus and declares himself prettier than his mother over a mutant blues boogie. Girl In A Suitcase is the one song that doesn’t bludgeon the listener into submission as Dowd and band slip into freaky nightclub territory (a David Lynch type nightclub) as Gargon falls in love with disastrous results. However the highlight here has to be the eight minute opening song, Gargon Gets All Biblical. It’s as if ZZ Top were fronted by a psychotic charismatic preacher ( who sounds like Bill Burroughs) with the guitar transformed into writhing venomous snakes before morphing into a Black Sabbath leaden riff.
So not an easy listen but there are moments here that are quite thrilling and one wonders how this material will translate into the live experience. Dowd is penned in for UK dates in September so there may be an opportunity to find out.

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