Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Those Poor Bastards - "Songs of Desperation" (Gravewax Records 2005)

I pissed off a lot of people on for my brief review of this record. I don't really care. I stand by that review and will expand on it here.

Those Poor Bastards have been described as "old time Gothic Country", "sounding like they were recorded in the 1930's on broken equipment", "the background music for themes of sold souls, empty lives, and certain death", a "miserable, primitive duo", and as displaying "hints of Marilyn Manson to Nick Cave, Throwrag and maybe even a hint of a demented Adam Ant with a shot of pilled up Johnny Cash". In addition to the bands named above, they are also compared to Tom Waits, The Cramps, and The Louvin Brothers. I gathered all this from their website.

When I first heard of these guys I thought, "Wow! That sounds awesome!". I'm a huge fan of the darker side of country music, low-fi production when it makes sense, creepy rural American gothicism, apocalyptic themes, and an uncompromising anti-corporate stance. I'm so fucked in the head that I have to take three kinds of psychiatric medication or else the only reason I can find to get out of bed is to try and kill myself - I have a predilection for bleak, depressing music. I love (probably unhealthily so) music that focuses on loss, despair, hopelessness, and failed redemption. This band had everything in place for me to love 'em. So what went wrong?

Well, first of all, they don't sound like they "were recorded in the 1930's on broken down equipment". They sound like they were recorded in the 2000's and used a bunch of tricks to make them sound like they were recorded in the 1930's on broken down equipment. So much so that it's overbearing. Far be it from me to criticise low-fi studio trickery, but there's a point past which such production quits serving the material and starts sounding like a couple of guys fucking around with a 4-track to see how many weird sounds they can get out of it. That "old-timey" sound shouldn't be so distracting that it's easier to get annoyed than enjoy what's happening in the music. Those old Edison tubes don't sound like shit because the people who recorded them wanted them to. Aspiring to reproduce their sound is ridiculous. That's not to say low-fi and studio weirdness can't be used to remarkable effect. Once Lou Barlow got it down he became a master at it, particularly with Folk Implosion. Even with Sebadoh, who I never liked, the songs at least sound cool. The Grifters are another one that sounded great using this kind of production. Burying the songs in a bunch of clearly contrived tape hiss, distortion, muddiness, and other gimmicks makes me wonder what a band is trying to cover up. In this case, unfortunately, it's the songs themselves.

Let's look at the comparisons made:

Marilyn Manson sucks. Period. There's nothing musical going on there - it's all gimmick. There's a place for it, certainly, and Marilyn has an illustrious string of predecessors. All of whom, actually, had a lot more going on musically than Mr. Manson. The comparison works in that way - Those Poor Bastards seem to me to be more about the gimmick than the music also. Style over substance has been the norm in American culture for at least the last half century, so TPB are hardly breaking ground in that regard. Neither is Marilyn Manson.

Nick Cave. A fucking genius. While he may be Australian he certainly did his research into the kind of American back woods mythology that fascinates the listener while making them squirm. His voice alone wrings powerful emotion out of his bleak, existential lyrics causing us to identify with his twisted characters while simultaneously being repelled by them. Just listen to "Mercy Seat". He crafts moody, ominous music to reinforce this, and almost always succeeds in creating a song in which the music and vocals intertwine to paint a compelling, layered and emotional audial picture. Those Poor Bastards lyrics sound, frankly, like a bunch of Goth kids hanging around a graveyard trying to out-Goth one another. Or a couple of guys passing a bong back and forth asking each other, "What's the creepiest thing you can think of?". They're so over the top that they venture into self-parody. When placed in the context of the contrived, scratchy, "old-timey" production it just becomes ludicrous. Lefty Frizzell wrote a simple, creepy, honest to God death song that's ten times better than anything on "Songs of Desperation". It's called "The Long Black Veil". Somebody should give these guys a copy.

Throwrag - no idea. Never heard 'em so I can't comment. If they sound like Those Poor Bastards, though, I doubt I'd like 'em.

Adam Ant - ?!?

Pilled up Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash, pilled up or not, had infinitely better ideas about death, loss, pain, redemption, the unredeemable, and a myriad of other forces at work in the human condition than these guys. I don't recall a single Cash record, even from his pilled up days, that droned on song after song about a bunch of disingenuously freaky, morbid, self reflexively weird crap.

Tom Waits. Another fucking genius. His songs, largely created with unusual, old instruments and found items, carry on a tradition begun by Kurt Weill and The Threepenny Opera. It pulls in a healthy dose of Vaudeville through a Fellini-esque filter. Lyrically his songs span points of view from the down on his luck lounge lizard on the underside of skid row to the frantic, stream of conscious ramblings of a chain gang escapee making his way through some rural hell. He delivers all this with a voice that sounds like Louis Armstrong after a six month crawl through gin mills and heroin flops while smoking five packs of cigarettes a day. Waits admits that his persona is a character he invented, but he pulls it off so well that one never feels shammed or that Waits is delivering something contrived or insincere. This is a lesson Those Poor Bastards would be wise to take.

The Cramps. I love The Cramps. They're a cartoon band. There's nothing the least bit serious about them and they don't try to pretend there is. They're also a shitload of fun, both on record and live. The closest Those Poor Bastards come to The Cramps is Lonesome Wyatt's voice sounds a lot like Lux Interior's.

The Louvin Brothers. Ira and Charlie Louvin made country songs based in Appalachian folk and Gospel music. While they wrote songs of a secular nature also, their hearts were very much in redeeming people's souls through music. When they put out "Satan is Real" (as gimmicky as it looks today) it wasn't a gimmick. They meant it and they wanted to save your soul. Whatever you think of their message or how they presented it there's one thing for certain - the Louvins were very sincere about it. There is nothing on "Songs of Desperation" that sounds the least bit sincere to me. But I think I've covered that opinion quite thoroughly already.

It boils down to this - if I knew that this band was being ironic I might be more inclined to enjoy them. I hope to God they're chrortling at the idea of anybody taking this stuff seriously while they're recording it. It would make a lot more sense and might even make the music listenable.

If you're interested in intense, dark, apocalyptic, Appalachian gothic type stuff you should check out anything by David Eugene Edwards (16 Horsepower, Woven Hand). His music has all the elements that Those Poor Bastards seem to be striving for, but does it a hell of a lot better. It doesn't hurt that he's a true believer in the evangelical sense. If you don't work your ass off for salvation, boy, you ARE going to hell. I don't for one second entertain the idea that he's right about this, but he's deadly serious about it. That alone makes his music infinitely more entertaining than "Songs of Desperation".

Those Poor Bastards are playing with Hank III (one of their biggest supporters) here in Austin on Jan. 5th 2008. Maybe they'll somehow hear about this review and find me and kick my ass. There would certainly be something sincere in that.

Rating: 1 out of 4

1 comment:

missionair said...

Well done, interesting point of view and definitely nice read though I can't agree with you on this one. Always been a huge fan of their music since the very first listen, never took it seriously and had a lot of fun every time I heard them.
And all these comparisons (Manson, Cave, Waits, Cash etc) don't make much sense and are nothing more than just an advertising move. Lonesome Wyatt writes his songs with an incredibly good sense of black humor, this is completely different from David Eugene's way of songwriting. There's so much more of Slim Cessna's grimacing and mockery but with rather different attitude: darker, more desperate and sickening, kind of apocalyptic buffoonery.
It's just a question of perception so I still think "Wow! That sounds awesome!"
Cheers, Cyrill