New Albums, Old Sounds (Music Review)

This article continues my review of Alt Country CDs I bought in a recent Bloodshot Records sale. This time, I look at three albums that all call back to styles of the past in different ways.

Fool For Love

Paul Burch - Fool For Love

I just can’t bring myself to call Paul Burch a revivalist. His music may owe everything to the honky-tonk of the early 20th century, but there is never a single wink of the self-awareness that would be expected from someone who is intentionally revisiting a past style. There is no question that Burch is playing his music, with the focus of someone caught up in a current movement.

That isn’t to say that Burch doesn’t innovate on the style he has borrowed from. Had country evolved in a different direction, it may have reached something like Burch’s sound after a decade or so. He plays sparse, minimalist music that strips out most of the twang and energy usually associated with country. Forget “country western”; This barely even sounds southern. It’s unmistakably country nonetheless, and keeping such a traditional feel in his experimental sound is a great accomplishment.

Fool For Love is a series of loosely-connected songs that fit the title theme. The characters in the songs aren’t in love with another person so much as with the idea of being in love. The album offers glimpses of lives punctuated by moments of happiness and even contentedness, but also of the string of broken hearts and personal pain that go along with it. From the excitement of “Sparks Fly Out” to the sorrow in “Time to Cry”, these songs work with standard pop themes on the surface, but in the greater context of Fool For Love, the listener can easily see how the singer’s current situation will be different in a matter of weeks. It’s an interesting example of how an album can add context to its songs.

While no tracks disappoint, a few stand out immediately: “Lovesick Blues Boy” opens the album by plainly laying out its themes and warning an unnamed woman that she would be best off treating him as casually as he will her. “Life of a Fool” restores a little of the energy that Burch normally removes, letting the listener vicariously enjoy a life the narrator is coming to regret. Other songs have a genius that will be appreciated after several listens: “Like Railroad Steel” is a perfect, understated metaphor, describing a heart that was “forged to bend and bow, so it won’t break the same place twice”.

It’s always a pleasure to find someone who can innovate so effectively without losing touch with his influences.

Girl Of The Century cover

Rosie Flores - Girl Of The Century

Rosie Flores has a less satisfying call back to classic styles on Girl of the Century. Aside from the lackluster title track, she has no songwriting credits here.  Her covers hew very closely to the originals – the most significant change she makes is to namedrop Mojo Nixon on the blues standard “I Ain’t Got You”. With no innovation to make the songs her own, the only way to judge them is by noting that they don’t quite stand up to the originals. I could enjoy her a lot if she had her own music to present, or if I ran across her performing in a small bar, but there is a reason that earnest bar bands don’t get record deals.

I’m not necessarily against covers, and a well-done rendition of a traditional song can often flesh out an album. However, as Burch’s Fool For Love showed, the context of an album can add a lot to its individual songs. What gives traditional songs their power is seeing them interpreted through a variety of people, and re-considering them in the context of such different people’s output. In this case, I have no context for Flores’ music other than that she is regularly associated with Bloodshot Records and that she really loves classic country and rockabilly.

It’s a shame, because there have never been enough female rockabilly singers. Flores is carving out a territory that I should immediately be drawn to. But when most of her rockabilly songs are ones that other women have already done better, it still doesn’t justify the album. (“Get Rhythm” is one exception, as it was originally performed by Johnny Cash instead of another woman. But that song says nothing gender-specific, so her performance still fails to recontextualize it.)

Several of Flores’ covers are recent, including ones written by fellow Bloodshot artists Burch and Jon Langford. (Langford even joins her for a duet on “Whose Gonna Take Your Garbage Out?”, which, of course, results in a fine song that never achieves the charisma of Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb.)

In a few cases (such as “This Cat’s In the Doghouse” and “Dark Enough at Midnight”), calling the songs covers may be unfair: I was unfamiliar with those songs before, and as far as I can tell, no one else has recorded versions of them. So even though they were written by others, Flores’ version arguably is the original. Unfortunately for her, my remarks about the context of an album work against her: Once the narrative sets in that she is doing good-but-unremarkable remakes of other people’s work, it’s hard to shake the awareness that those few “originals” don’t hold up to what her influences could have done with the song.

I’ve appreciated Flores for years as a reliable contributor to Bloodshot compilation discs. Though she never performs the standout tracks, she always delivers a good cover that adds to the overall value of the compilation. In the future, though, I’ll remember that she is best in those small doses.

Viper Of Melody cover

Wayne Hancock - Viper of Melody

There’s no question about who has inspired Wayne Hancock’s music. The front of his CD comes with a sticker proclaiming him to be this generation’s Hank Williams. I would disagree with that claim; While Hancock can do a pitch-perfect Hank impression, Williams’ impact came from developing a style that is still being copied. No matter how excellent those copies are, they can’t have the cultural significance of the original.  (Not that it’s relevant to this review, but I would argue that “this generation’s Hank Williams” is, in fact, Hank Williams III. His reverence for his grandfather’s sound was only the starting point in a trailblazing career.)

Hancock isn’t exactly the same as Hank Williams. He lacks Williams’ gift for a clever turn of phrase, but has arguably a stronger voice and more confident delivery. And while his style may not be as original, his songwriting is undeniably excellent. Not everyone needs to break new ground.

In fact, Hancock does an amazing service to Hank Williams’ sound by revisiting it. These days, it is difficult to appreciate what Williams’ songs were like at the time. Phrases such as “your cheatin’ heart” are such a cliché now that it’s a shock to remember that they were once clever and original. If I were recommending music to someone newly interested in country, I might very well point them to Wayne Hancock before Hank Williams.

The songs on The Viper of Melody are consistently good, though there is some tension between the modern day and the past. For the most part, the songs seem to come from a vaguely-defined era, but it is easy to accept them as part of the present day. However, when Hancock breaks out a yodel or says he needs to find a job to “pay his dues” (a phrase used on two different songs), the listener’s mindset is jolted back to past times. The songs are still good, but they have that “revivalist wink” that Paul Burch’s album deftly avoids.

All that said, I do prefer Wayne Hancock to Paul Burch. His energetic songs feel like instant classics, and Hancock sounds so comfortable in his style that it’s hard for the listener to focus for long about influences. The ties he makes with the past never feel inappropriate (in fact, both “Jump the Blues” and “Working at Working” intentionally draw on Depression-era imagery to describe our current time), and the memorable, original songwriting gives the impression that Hancock is busy looking towards the future. The Viper of Melody is a guidebook for anyone who wants to pay tribute to the classics without being derivative themselves.

Paul Burch: Fool For Love: B

Rosie Flores: Girl of the Century: C-

Wayne Hancock: Viper of Melody: A-

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