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Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables fill the air! Can I get an amen?

As expected, Todd Snider‘s latest album – Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables (Aimless Records) – is full of surprises. I know that’s a bit of an oxymoron, but for years Todd Snider followers (lovingly referred to as Shitheads) have come to eagerly anticipate previously untouched subjects and style with each new release, and Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is no exception. Snider’s peerless perspective of the world and it’s cast of characters is his alter, and his songs carry his slightly skewed sermons.

What better place to begin our services than with “In The Beginning,” a tale that takes us back to the kickoff of the race we call human, where it’s suggested that the pedestals the rich so proudly plant their asses on were already taking shape. When the poor considered rising up in solidarity to even the score (possibly by murder), the rich offered up a distraction – a hint to the mystical secrets of religion, the possibility of reward in their (after)life – all a gift from a supreme being named God (who oddly only seemed to speak to the rich). And as the rich man told them all about how good people could go to Heaven, but the insolent would spend eternity in the fiery pits of Hell, the people believed him (since no one could prove him wrong) as he smiled and said, “Who are you going to trust if you can’t trust me?” He told them all they needed to do was humbly serve him and they would be rewarded… but not by the rich man, as he put it, – “Of course, I could pay you a little bit of money / but… more importantly God would see / And if he sees you working humbly / someday he may give you what he’s given me.” So began the empty promises from “The Haves” to “The Soon-to-Haves” that the prosperity of the rich shall blaze the trail for the plenteous of the poor. Not much has changed, has it?

Snider effortlessly ties this timeless tale into our present day setting – high unemployment, uncertainty, fear, the rise of the 99%, and the Don’t get the people all worked up with the notion of class warfare attitude of “The Haves” – where we watch a bunch of rich politicians proudly wave their faith flags as they promise, “Support me and I will lead you to a land filled with good fortune! After all, who are you going to trust if you can’t trust me?”

If that first song didn’t piss you off, then maybe you’re not paying attention. That’s alright though, maybe your blood will hit the boiling point as Snider keeps the heat on it with a story told by a southern teacher who was set to retire only to find out that their pension fund was unwisely invested by a “New York Banker” who promised, “This kind of thing was even safer than gold.” You know how this is going to end, and that should piss you off.

A couple of years back during an interview with Todd, I said,  “When you do a cover song, you really make it your own.” At the time we were talking about his haunting cover of Robert Earl Keen’s “Corpus Christi Bay.” Now he has taken on Jimmy Buffett’s “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown.” This tale about a girl escaping her former life and family was originally released by Buffett 38 years ago. Snider’s choices of instrumentation, dynamics, and phrasing have surpassingly rendered it into a composition with the texture and flavor of an Appalachian Folk classic; he made it his own.

Somehow Snider managed to tap into the vein of Rudy Vallée when he came up with the slow sweet jazz ballad “Precious Little Miracles,” a song that seemingly comes from the viewpoint of a well-to-do old-timer as he questions today’s youth. Why do they feel so entitled to luxuries that they didn’t earn or were born into? Why can’t they be satisfied being poor? There are so many other things they could be focused on – like entertaining the rich! And, in true Snider style, he delivers one of the most apropos questions – “Kids… their pants around their hipbones / Who wears their pants like that? / Come here kid, let me hitch up your britches / And while we’re at it, let’s fix that hat”. Kids… they’re a handful.

Remember back in 2006 when “Carla” left that guy that sang about her on The Devil You Know? Well, apparently the stupid shit took her back and she’s still kicking him square in the ol’ ball sack in “The Very Last Time” (co-written with Todd’s longtime friend Will Kimbrough). Come on pal, snap out of it! You obviously know what a bitch she is when you say, “I had a dream that you came to see me / You asked if I was okay / That’s how I knew that I was dreaming / You asked if I was okay.” That’s golden.

And speaking of sequels (were we?) the foreboding atmosphere of contempt and resentment that envelopes “In Between Jobs” (co-written with Todd’s loyal sidekick Elvis Hixx) along with its echoes of murderous thoughts (as contemplated in the opening track) are in stark contrast to the arrogant optimism of the ex-con narrator and his nothing-to-lose attitude in “Looking For a Job” from The Devil You Know. But six years ago Americans were more optimistic; time has changed all that. The abrasive structure and threatening tone of “In Between Jobs” rips at your skin, maybe in a desire to replicate the pain, desperation, and lack of self-worth felt by scores of  jobless and hopeless that cover our country.

There are reviews out there spouting Snider’s upbeat love-song  “Brenda” – about an unlikely couple who “met on a train going somewhere fast” and hit it off right away. She was driven, him not so much. But together they built an empire that conquered the world with each new endeavor. Their tumultuous relationship eventually scarred and they went their separate ways, only to return to their destiny… each other – as being all about the musical duo of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Seriously? What makes you think that? I hope it’s not just because of those lines Todd threw in near the end of the song – “Mick Jagger was born on a Monday morning / Keith Richards was born on a Saturday night / It was true love.” Isn’t it possible he may have tossed those lines in just to fuck with us? I mean, shit, we’re talking about Todd “The Grand Imagineer” Snider here! He loves to play with the lyrics and mess with our heads!

Listen to “Brenda”

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Okay, after listening to it again… I’ll admit, there are some vague similarities between Jagger and Richards and this couple. Mick and Keith were childhood friends back in the early 1950s until their families moved apart. They didn’t cross paths again until 1960 at a Dartford, Kent train station… just a coincidence. Mick had some Muddy Waters records on him that day which revealed their shared taste in music, and they formed a band. From there on, they shook up the world. You couldn’t stop the flow of songs that poured out of them. Okay, but their relationship was good, right? Wrong. They were more brothers-of-different-mothers than friends. Eventually, they got away from each other – Mick into the jet-setter’s life; Keith fell deeper into drugs. They found their way back to each other. Have you read Keith’s book – Life? Turns out one of Keith’s nicknames for Jagger was Brenda. I’ll be damned. See, what did I tell you? Snider likes to mess with our heads.

Sometimes a man can only take so much of deceit and lies. They’re pushed to the edge of a cliff where all that’s within their grasp – to keep them from falling off – is revenge. This is where we find the narrator of the jaggedly driven song “Too Soon to Tell.” A dark cloud hangs over him and he’s headed to a place he doesn’t really want to go, but knows he has no choice. His disconnected thoughts, desires, and regrets seem to fly past us like so many pages ripped from the spine of a book and fed to the wind.

Digger Dave and Todd Snider

Todd & Digger Dave back in the day

If you’ve been to a Todd Snider concert lately then you’ve probably heard some of Todd’s damn-near-unbelievable stories about his old Alaskan pal, Digger Dave. If you haven’t been to one of his shows… what the hell are you waiting for? Anyway, “Digger Dave’s Crazy Woman Blues” tells one of those tales about, well… the title pretty much says it all. If there’s trouble, there’s a woman somewhere close by watching the shit she stirred up hit the fan. And Todd swears that this is the truest story he’s ever told, and we know that almost all of the stories he tells are true.

That brings us to – one of my favorites – the final track “Big Finish” (How does he come up with these catchy song titles?), a churning bluesy number that has reflective lines like “If I could do all this all over / I wouldn’t do nothin’ the same” and “I try to remember / It helps me forget.” The soulful instrumentation of “Big Finish” has Amanda Shire’s violin, along with Chad Staehly’s B3, weaving their way around Todd’s grinding guitar, and over the solid rhythm of Paul Griffith’s drums and Eric McConnell’s bass. My favorite moment in this tune is one of ponder – “The older I get, the more I worry that the more I worry, the older I’ll get… and yet I still worry. Ain’t that about a son-of-a-bitch, I tell ya.”

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Tommy Womack Video Interview – Now What!

Photo by Gregg Roth

Back in 2007, when Tommy Womack released his solo CD There, I Said It! he had pretty much given up on his dream of making it in music. He recorded There, I Said It! without the intention of even releasing it. He didn’t think that people would want to listen to him whine. He was surprised to find that things were quite the opposite – people related to his tales of middle age stress, self-doubt and disappointment.

I got the chance to sit down and talk with Tommy (via Skype) about his latest release Now What! that picks up where There, I Said It! left off only with a more optimistic feel to it. Oh yeah, Tommy’s still singing about cigarettes, sex, pot, and life on the road, but he seems more at peace with it all.

Before you watch the following video, I feel obligated to tell you the story behind this little technological adventure…

I had made arrangements through Tommy’s publicist and manager to interview Tommy on the morning of January 31, 2012. I was ready for it; I’d been testing some software that seemed to work good for recording and editing Skype video calls. Sometimes things aren’t always as they seem…

The interview itself went great. Tommy and I covered a variety of subjects and talked for about 15 minutes. Later that day I converted the video so I could start doing the post-production work on it. When I opened the file, I couldn’t believe it… There was no video captured at all from Tommy’s end. All the audio was there (thank God), but just video of me. And I thought, well shit, who in the hell would want to watch this? They’d be stuck looking at my ugly mug the whole time they listened to Tommy talk.

I got in touch with the software developer in Australia – which in itself was kind of weird because they’re in the future – anyway, they sent me an update insuring me that it should work. I tested it some more and all seemed cool. Now, I’m not a religious person, but I really prayed that Tommy’s publicist and agent would give me a second shot at the video interview. They did. We appropriately conducted take two of the interview on Groundhog Day. I called Tommy up, fired up the recording software, and all was cool… for about eight minutes, then, well… you’ll see.

Damn it! Just when we were getting into the new album! That’s when I think a solar flare blanketed North America… that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

My next post will have a more in depth review of Now What!

 

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That Classic Country Sound Lives On…

It’s encouraging to hear young acoustic performers out there that are still strongly influenced by some of the greats of country music. Crooked River band mates Teri Jacobs (guitar/vocals/harmonica), Lana Dishner (guitar/vocals) and Rob Jacobs (mandolin/guitar/vocals) are old friends who, over the years, have shared laughs, food and their love of the classics – Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Marty Robbins to name a few. Less than a year after Rob taught Lana to play guitar, the three of them (with Teri on harmonica), were performing their treasured classics for friends and at summer garden parties.

Once bitten by that performance bug, Teri learned guitar, began writing songs like a woman possessed while Rob and Lana continued to polish their musical skills and also write songs. Rob also picked up mandolin, adding a crisp fresh layer to their already true-to-the-classics sound. Soon they had an impressive assortment of original songs.

The collection became their debut album – My Troubled Heart – which is filled with tales of anguish that a broken heart holds from the title track’s lonely story of betrayal, to the blithe account of loss (but just leave the beer) in “6-Pack,” closing with the tranquil journey of “I’m Home.” Staying true to their inspirations – Crooked River recorded My Troubled Heart in mono, giving it the warmth of a candle-lit living room performance. Join Crooked River as they celebrate the release of My Troubled Heart.

This article was originally published in Eugene Weekly, November 11, 2010

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A Voice All Her Own

After spending ten years as the “sultry” voice of the Canadian female trio The Be Good Tanyas, Frazey Ford launched her voice to the forefront on her debut solo album Obadiah, released earlier this year. Proving that Ford is capable of delivering a solid album on her own, the smoldering Obadiah sounds more ambitious than any of her work with The Tanyas. Her palette expanded, Ford’s comforting voice – weaving easily from soothing jazz, smoky soul and somber country – brings new colors to light.

Obadiah has the spontaneous feel of a live performance full of honesty and heart, rich with stories about love, loss and life that unravel at their own colorful pace. Ford’s writing has matured, touching on subjects that come with experience of life’s ups and downs. Her long list of influences are an eclectic collection – Joni Mitchell, Bessie Smith, Al Green, Sean Hayes, Pauline Lamb, Prince, Ann Peebles and Joan Armatrading just to name a few.

A true teller of tales with an incomparable voice, Ford’s finest talent is her skill to take on the embodiment of her song’s characters. This is evident on the opening track “Firecracker,” where she’s a hard-drinker that talks to angels with an artful grin. On “Gospel Song,” she looks back on her family life through the eyes of country preacher. In a nod to one of her early inspirations, she covers Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” and makes it her own.

This article was originally published in Eugene Weekly, December 2, 2010

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I Owe You All…

…The Lost Snider Tapes

Photo by Todd Purifoy

Over a year ago I conducted two interviews with Todd Snider – one in January, 2009, and one more in May, 2009. I intended to write a interview/CD review article – based around the interviews – with hopes of getting it published in a national magazine. I sent query letters (sans the article) to a bunch of national publications, trying to get my foot in the big door only to find it locked (or maybe there were other writers leaning on the door from the inside). Then I got busy with other projects and pushed the Snider article to the back-burner – a couple months later my laptop crashed and the audio files of the interview were among the things lost.

BUT – guess what I just found on a flash drive buried at the back of my desk drawer? Apparently, at some time before the crash, I had a moment of clarity and good sense, and backed the audio files onto the flash drive – and then forgot I had backed them up.

So, my resolution to you all is that I’ll get them transcribed and up on my blog. That is, if you are still interested in reading them. The May, 2009 interview – that I’ll post first – has some very cool conversation about the (then) soon-to-be-released The Excitement Plan, Don Was, jail-time, wine, relationships, and some personal subjects that I promised Todd would be kept off the record – and they will stay that way. Since we talked for damn near an hour, that interview will have to be broken up into three or four parts (like I did with the Will Kimbrough interview).

The interview done in January, 2009 – that I’ll post after the May interview –  was a lot of fun too; We talked about his tour, living on the road, and his (then) upcoming Eugene, Oregon show. I’ll also share my experiences on the Todd Snider tour bus here in Eugene…

BUT FIRST – My wife, our dog Zack, and I have to pack up and move again at the end of January. You see, I got laid-off from my full-time job at OBEC Consulting Engineers in Eugene, Oregon over eight months ago and have had no luck finding full-time work here. I know that there’s a lot of that going around, I’m not the only one, so I won’t whine about it.

So I PROMISE, once we get settled in, sometime in February, I’ll get busy transcribing those Once-Lost Snider Tapes. Thanks for understanding. I hope your 2011 is better than your 2010!

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