Ter­rell’s Tune-Up Sharp shooter Johnny Dowd

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Steve Ter­rell

Sharp shoot­ers Johnny Dowd writes his songs like a sniper aims his gun. Some­times his songs are like a cap­tured se­rial killer’s con­fes­sion. They’re full of re­gret, shame, venom, hor­ri­fy­ing hu­mor, and un­com­fort­able truths.

Dowd’s new al­bum, That’s Your Wife on the Back of My Horse , has a ti­tle based on one of the most cocky, swag­ger­ing lines in the his­tory of the blues, from Johnny “Gui­tar” Wat­son’s “Gang­ster of Love”: “The Sher­iff says, ‘Is you Gui­tar Wat­son?’ in a very deep voice/I say, ‘Yes sir, brother Sher­iff, and that’s your wife on the back of my horse.’ ”

This time out, Dowd played vir­tu­ally all the in­stru­ments him­self — ex­cep­tions are vo­cal con­tri­bu­tions from Anna Coogan, who sounds so much like Dowd’s old band­mate Kim Sher­wood-Caso it’s spooky; a gui­tar solo on “Words Are Birds” from Mike Cook; and a brief ap­pear­ance by Dowd’s regular band on the end of “Teardrops.” Dowd him­self has com­pared the record to his first one, Wrong Side of Mem­phis . That late1990s al­bum is also mostly just Dowd on a va­ri­ety of in­stru­ments. But it is more acous­tic and rootsy, based in coun­try and blues. On this new one, the mu­sic be­hind the lyrics is cra­zier than ever: low-tech elec­tron­ica; rasty, dis­torted gui­tar licks; in­sane beats from an an­cient drum ma­chine over Dowd’s growl­ing drawl and Coogan’s an­gelic melodies. It’s “New Year’s Eve in the nut­house,” as Archie Bunker would say.

The al­bum kicks off with the ti­tle song, Dowd recit­ing the lyrics that serve as a taunt­ing in­vo­ca­tion: “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.”

This is fol­lowed by a funky, boast­ful rap, “White Dolemite,” a salute to the heroic per­sona of “party” record artist and blax­ploita­tion star Rudy Ray Moore. “I live the life men dream about/Stand up, peo­ple, give me a shout,” Dowd de­clares, as Coogan re­sponds, “Hot pants! He needs a spank­ing.” On “The Devil Don’t Bother Me,” Dowd sounds like a death-row in­mate con­tem­plat­ing the­ol­ogy while await­ing in­jec­tion. “An an­gel on one shoul­der and the devil on the other/Je­sus, He’s my sav­ior, but the devil is my brother.” And this is just one of Dowd’s char­ac­ters who seem like a coiled snake about to strike. On “Nasty Mouth,” Dowd’s nar­ra­tor spews harsh judg­ment about a woman, who, I would guess, re­jected him. “I’m just try­ing to for­get the words that came out of your nasty mouth,” he spits over am­bi­ent blips and bleeps and a danger­ous fuzz gui­tar.

Other fa­vorites in­clude “Fe­male Je­sus,” which has a bluesy, swampy groove and is about a ru­ral Okie pros­ti­tute who, Dowd says, “sat­is­fied my body/She pu­ri­fied my brain/Then she called the un­der­taker and put my cas­ket on a train.” Eas­ily the al­bum’s most melodic track, “Why?” sounds like a ’60s soul bal­lad left in the for­est to be eaten by wolves, while the up­beat “Sun­glasses” could have been a sum­mer­time pop hit … on the planet Nep­tune. (“Boys who wear sun­glasses get laid,” Coogan in­forms us.)

At the end of the last song, “Teardrops,” a slow, dreamy (well, night­mar­ish) dirge about the fall of a pow­er­ful man (“In a world of lit­tle men, I walked like a gi­ant/If I’d have been a lawyer, God would’ve been my client”), Dowd thanks his au­di­ence and an an­nouncer says, “The ul­tra­scary trou­ba­dour has left the build­ing. With your wife. On the back of his horse.”

Left the build­ing? Well, maybe. But I bet he ac­tu­ally just went to the dark al­ley be­hind the build­ing. Where he’s wait­ing. Ex­plore the won­der­ful world of Dowd at www.john­ny­dowd.com.

Also rec­om­mended ▼ Giv­ing My Bones to the West­ern Lands by Slack­eye Slim. Joe Fran­k­land is an­other singer-song­writer who likes to ex­plore the shad­ows, though his mu­sic is rooted in the coun­try, folk, and spaghetti-west­ern realms. Un­der the name Slack­eye Slim, Fran­k­land’s songs fre­quently are cast in an Old West set­ting, though his themes of sin, re­demp­tion, lone­li­ness, des­per­a­tion, and free­dom are uni­ver­sal.

It’s been four years since his pre­vi­ous al­bum, El Santo Grial: La Pistola Pi­a­dosa , which I com­pared to Wil­lie Nel­son’s Red

Headed Stranger . Since then, he’s moved from Mon­tana to a ranch near Mesa, Colorado. He says he recorded this al­bum in “di­lap­i­dated build­ings” as well as on his front porch, “as hun­dreds of cat­tle grazed qui­etly just a few yards away.”

The body count on Giv­ing My Bones isn’t nearly as high as it was on El Santo

Grial , even though the sec­ond song, “Don Hous­ton,” is about a guy who, for no ap­par­ent rea­son, shoots a stranger in the face. “Ev­ery time he pulled the trig­ger, it was the most beau­ti­ful thing you ever saw,” the nar­ra­tor ex­plains. “It was an art. His brush was a bul­let, his paint was blood, his can­vas was the earth, the rocks, the trees, and the dirt.” Don Hous­ton and El Santo Grial ’s an­ti­hero, Drake Sav­age, would have a lot to talk about. As­sum­ing they didn’t kill each other first.

But not ev­ery song on the new Slack­eye al­bum deals with crazy vi­o­lence. One re­cur­ring theme here is psy­cho­log­i­cal heal­ing. Take the sadly beau­ti­ful “I’m Go­ing Home.” (I’ll be ex­tremely sur­prised if any­one comes up with a pret­tier song than this one this year — or in the next decade.) Ac­com­pa­nied only by a banjo, a har­mon­ica, and his stomp­ing foot, Slack­eye’s foghorn voice is per­fectly suited to this tale of a lone­some jour­ney to the nadir of his life. Riff­ing on lines from the old song “Hes­i­ta­tion Blues,” he sings, “Whiskey was the river and me, I was the duck/I lived down at the bot­tom and I could not get up/At first I thought I’d found it, a place where I be­longed/But I had no home.” Then, on “Cow­boy Song” — a herky-jerky waltz that, with a few Balkan em­bel­lish­ments, could al­most be a Beirut song — rid­ing the range is the pre­scrip­tion that re­builds a bro­ken soul: “A man alone in the wilder­ness/That’s where his soul is born/As long as he’s singing his cow­boy song.”

Keep singing, Slack­eye. You can lis­ten to and/or name your own buy­ing price for Giv­ing My Bones to

the West­ern Lands at www.slack­eyeslim.band­camp.com. But even though you can snag it for free, pay him some­thing. Don’t be a jerk!

Some­times Johnny Dowd’s songs are like a cap­tured se­rial killer’s con­fes­sion. They’re full of re­gret, shame, venom, hor­ri­fy­ing hu­mor, and un­com­fort­able truths.

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