CD and Book Reviews
CDs by Daniel Johnston, Don Walser, and Willie Nelson; BOOKS by Tom Grimes and Joe R. Lansdale.
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ALT SOMETHING—The return of an icon.
WITH HIS CULT-FIGURE STATUS and his well-documented psychological struggles, Daniel Johnston is easily lumped in with the likes of Syd Barrett, Skip Spence, and fellow Texan Roky Erickson. But while Johnston fits all the criteria of the warped genius—straightforward musical talents set against a surreal, childlike viewpoint; periods of creativity followed by frightening freak-outs; unresolvable debates over the relationship between creativity and craziness—he has had a more prolific career than the legends cited above.
The path leading up to Rejected Unknown, Johnston’s eighteenth album, was typically tricky. After his deal with Atlantic Records (which released 1994’s Fun) fell apart, he wasn’t even writing songs. But within the past couple of years he began to play live again, treating fans around Texas to some of his most seamless (and incident-free) performances. Around the same time, producer Brian Beattie hauled a port-a-studio from Austin to Johnston’s parents’ place in Waller. Rejected Unknown is the happy result. After a few false starts, it is now available in Austin on Beattie’s own label as a gorgeous limited-edition foldout digipack. A national release will follow in a couple of months.
Johnston’s quavering voice and unusual sensibility are an acquired taste, but his sheer songwriting ability-for both catchy pop melodies and delightful twists of word and imagery—is as easy to enjoy as that of his heroes, the Beatles. Rejected Unknown is appropriately split between jaunty beauty and jarring oddities; what’s most striking about it is Johnston’s seemingly unprocessed emotionalism, which makes for a listening experience that is both highly moving and highly unsettling. One such song, “Funeral Girl,” takes a familiar trope of his-Johnston’s longtime muse and crush object is a girl he met at a funeral years ago in West Virginia—and grinds it up by setting the action at Johnston’s own burial. Naturally, the song is narrated by his corpse. Jason Cohen
Here’s to Country Music
THOSE WHO CRINGED WHEN they heard that Don Walser was cutting his new album in Nashville can relax. Don may have gone there to record, but Music City came to him conceptually; the result is a winning blend of Tennessee precision and Texas earthiness. That’s most evident on “We Could,” a duet with Crystal Gayle. At the end the two voices—hers polished glass and his pure grit—soar together spectacularly. Though the rhythm section can be shaky on swing and boogie tunes, it helps to have soloists like fiddler Buddy Spicher and steelman Buddy Emmons, who slink and strut, respectively, on “Tennessee Saturday Night.” Walser is pie-eyed romantic on “At the End of a Long, Lonely Day” and tear-jerking on “Paper Rosie.” He invests Jimmie Rodgers’ “Polka Dot Blues” with a knowing mixture of admonition and verve, and his only original, “My Ride With Jimmie,” is a tribute to the Singing Brakeman, complete with spine-tingling yodel. For once, Texas and Nashville both win. John Morthland
FOR ALL THE HYPE SURROUNDING the pop mainstreaming of Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez, it’s Short Stories, the genre-jumping debut of a Texas duo known as Aztex—accordionist Joel Guzman, of Los Super Seven fame, and vocalist Sarah Fox—that actually delivers on the promise of something new and completely different in Latin music. Starting with the first track, “Why Don’t You Love Me?” a botana platter of jazzy soul and sultry sizzle that proclaims both musical maturity and a sense of adventure, Guzman’s fiery button accordion stylings, somewhere between the Jiménez brothers’ rootsiness and Steve Jordan’s penchant for experimentation, is the perfect complement to Fox’s passionately assertive bilingual vocals. But Guzman doesn’t get to stretch and riff nearly enough, which is why this Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos) production strikes me as a bit uneven at best. But I’ll take the throwaways like Joe Ely’s “Maybe, Maybe” as long as originals like “Amorique” and “It’s a Mystery” and revitalized takes on classics such as the polka “Pajarillo Barranqueño” are sandwiched between them. I can’t wait till the next one. Joe Nick Patoski
Pictures from Life’s Other Side
THE CREEPY AFFECTATIONS that tend to permeate Johnny Dowd’s sophomore release create confusion. Is “No Woman’s Flesh But Hers” intended as a tragedy of a pathetic soul whose drunken driving put his wife in a coma, or something even more horrific? For the Fort Worth native, whose work careens wildly in the space between Tom Waits and Alice Cooper, the answer is anybody’s guess. At age 49, Dowd mailed out his stark, murder-obsessed debut and got back raves and record deals. A crack band fleshes out his croaking on the new album, and their woe-begotten arrangements evoke a carnival atmosphere. The effect is stunning on Dowd’s better songs, which center on love and marriage. But this is no Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! Stalkers and sycophants populate Dowd’s side of the tracks. Ultimately hit-or-miss, it’s hard to pinpoint the album’s appeal. Still, for those who find “If love is a disease, you’re the one who made me sick” to be a paramount declaration of romance, this could prove to be the make-out record of the year. Jeff McCord
WHY IS WILLIE NELSON A LIVING LEGEND? Purists will point to his life-or-death climb over the Nashville prison walls and the albums that accompanied it: Yesterday’s Wine, Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages, and Red Headed Stranger. More recent converts cite his collaborations with Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, and the Highwaymen, among many, many, many others. But the hinge on which these eras swing is the 1978 classic Stardust. Taking no small advantage of the cachet established as country music’s leading outlaw, Willie rode against the wishes of his label to make this collection of Tin Pan Alley standards, which includes “Moonlight in Vermont” and “All of Me.” But even more surprising than seeing his name next to the likes of Irving Berlin and Hoagy Carmichael was his choice of producer, Booker T. Jones (of “and the MGs” fame). Together they traded the twang of a steel guitar for the easy lilt of Jones’s Hammond organ, and the sterility of the recording studio for Emmylou Harris’ living room, where Stardust was recorded. It was his first multiplatinum album, and its reissue this month is the perfect primer for that last Yankee holdout in your life who still doesn’t believe in Willie. John Spong
WRITE AWAY—Reading the program.
IOWA IS BEST KNOWN FOR TWO THINGS: producing corn and founding the first creative writing program in the country. The goods from the latter, however, are definitely corn-free, as Tom Grimes shows in this retrospective of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Grimes, a graduate of the program, is also a novelist and the director of creative writing at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos; his compendium includes a bumper crop of fine short stories by other workshop veterans, from Raymond Carver to El Paso physician Abraham Verghese. Almost as pleasing are the reminiscences, from sweet to sarcastic, of fellow graduates, including Texas writers Karen Stolz, Miriam Kuznets, and James Hynes (who reveals, “I once witnessed a fistfight at a party over—I ask you—Theodore Dreiser.”). And don’t flip past Grimes’s introduction, a concise rundown of literary crazes and clichés, from Byron’s rating on “the brooding poet scale” (a 10) to a psychological assessment of workshoppers (“We’re writers. Whoever claimed we were a tightly wrapped bunch?”). In fact, despite the Iowa program’s reputation, the only thing heavy about Grimes’s book is its size.
THE L.A. MUSIC-SCENE SETTING of Say Goodbye (St. Martin’s) will likely cause the book’s exile to the rock-and-roll-novel ghetto. But that would be a tragedy, because Austin expat Lewis Shiner’s tale of almost-star Laurie Moss is a spare and remarkable book resonating with heart and bittersweet reality.…
Joe R. Lansdale embraces the bizarre and kisses it on both cheeks. Witness Freezer Burn (Mysterious), wherein Bill Roberts bungles his prospects so awfully that life in a freak-show trailer with a frozen corpse represents progress. Unmistakably Lansdalian, this is stellar campfire storytelling gone terribly wrong…
Just a West Texas boy at heart (with an outsized ego and a handy way with words), Larry L. King has walked the earth with giants in his seventy years. Larry L. King: A Writer’s Life in Letters, Or, Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye (TCU Press) measures the shadow he casts—from rawboned House aide to Harper’s writer (under Willie Morris) and Broadway phenom (Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). King’s hilarious and prickly correspondence is surprisingly self-effacing reportage from a realm where stories were born to be told and whiskey was made to be drunk. Mike Shea