Wednesday, December 12, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
Getting back to my roots...

John Hiatt: Mystic Pinball
"Wood Chipper"

The Hiatt thing runs in my blood, speaking to some deep middle-of-the-country blues-soul-rock nexus in my own heart. Beyond the musical quality and the raw intelligence of his lyrics, there is something flinty and uncompromising in his world view that really speaks to me. He is the real deal.

I'll admit that every album isn't equally good, and last year's Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns was such an astonishing achievement, I was ready to cut him some slack for this year's installment. But damn, he's done it again. Start to finish, that raspy voice, the visceral rhythms, the crunchy guitarwork, all come together to craft a sound so authentic and idiosyncratic, it fits like a glove. Like a work glove. Like a work glove with red clay soil caked into the creases.

I was tempted to write about "No Wicked Grin," but now I think I'll save that for my Week of Waltzes. Driving in my car the other day, this was the song that so riveted me, I nearly drove off the road.

Funny that, at the start of his career, Hiatt was marketed as the American Elvis Costello. In some ways that was so wrong, but lately -- long after the fact -- it's been making perverse sense to me, as Elvis explores Americana and John lets his wicked wit loose. The song I'd immediately compare this to is "Watching the Detectives" (early Costello, granted), with that memorable line "She's filing her nails as they're dragging the lake." That ironic contrast is at the heart of "Wood Chipper." Throw in a little bit of the Coen brothers' brilliant film Fargo and you're in known territory. 
First line, out of the box, he's got me: "Well I'm from the Midwest / I know enough to cut a path around a wood chipper." I'm out in the yard, hands in my parka pockets, waiting to see what comes next. "And be careful of any conversation a man starts calling you skipper," he adds, which seems baffling until he elucidates: "Cause there ain't no ocean round here / Though a lot of little lakes where you can disappear." I've been to those lakes. I'm listening. And when he closes out the verse with this cliffhanger line -- "I wonder what the fish are biting on today now, Jimmy" -- I am taking the bait.
We're in Infidelity Land, clearly: "He told me not to bother her down here, said he was crazy about her / I guess I didn't know what that meant, / Just knew I couldn't do without her." It's an old, old tale, soap opera material, or even better, film noir stuff. Dig this cinematic scene set-up: "And I seen him through the window sash / He had a 44 pistol and a bag of cash / She was folding some kind of pretty note paper into her breast pocket."
Now this is Songwriting, my friends -- the language is colloquial, never flowery or pretentious, but man, he slips in such arresting details, and the storytelling is so assured. He breaks the flow briefly for his chorus, a mournful wolf howl in the night: "What some people won't do / To break up a happy home." As the song goes on, he repeats those lines more and more often, never resolving the question -- because it CAN'T be resolved.
But he's still outside, looking in, and as he retreats, "I went to the yard and banged my knee on his woodchipper." There's an old playwriting truism, that if you introduce a gun in the first act, you have to use it in the second act. And John uses every gun in this verse -- first mentioning the woodchipper (if you've seen Fargo, you know where this is going), and a little dialog: "And when I looked up he said 'Skipper what you doing here for?'" And remember, the guy's got a 44 pistol? "One bullet to the head / Before I hit the ground, well, I was dead." Wait -- the narrator of the song is DEAD? Shades of Sunset Boulevard. And with an ironic wink he adds, "I guess I'm telling you this before you go fishing now Jimmy." Ah, yes -- the lakes. Perfect corpse disposal.

If it ended here it would already be a brilliant song. But John's got one last masterstroke. After the fleeing lovers are killed in a shootout the lawmen pull that paper out of her breast pocket (Gun in the first act. Use in second act. No wasted details.) And here's the poignance that really turns this tawdry thriller into a morality tale: "It was part of a letter set I got her for Christmas ten years ago I bet / She  used to just use the paper for a grocery list / And it read:" 

With Doug Lancio's brilliant guitar work snarling in the background, John recites the heart-breakingly mundane list: "Eggs / hamburger meat / bread / Fun Yuns / orange drink / toilet paper / Tidy Bowl / pickles / Little Debbie Snack Cakes." There's a life encapsulated in all its smallness and sorrow. Devastating.

Can this guy write a song or what?


NickS said...

I listened to the preview yesterday and I had two reactions. The first was, "this is great, I should get the album, thank you Holly for talking it up." The second was, "I love the sound, but on that song I'm a little worried that the rhyme of 'chipper' and skipper' would start to grate after four or five listens."

It looked good on the page, I do like the line, "be careful of any conversation a man starts calling you skipper." Which made me think of a nice observation in this recent post, "There’s a little disillusioned defiance with the interjected 'Mister,' letting you know that the tone of what follows is going to be a little belligerent. (You don’t 'Mister' someone unless dudgeon’s on the rise.)"

But hearing it sung, the rhyme feels just a little bit too clever. I wanted to hear more of the song but part of me was groaning a little bit. But perhaps in the full context it blends in more than it does when the song is cut off after that line.

This post reminds me, have you listened to Blood And Candlesmoke by Tom Russell? I thought of it because it's a very smart album with a nicely worn streak of aging machismo which works well. Take, for example, the first verse of "Nina Simone."

"The trains used to run, all across Mexico
Down through the Yucatán, wherever in hell, ya know?
It was down in San Cristóbal, that I first heard the sound
Nina's voice on the jukebox,
Spinning darkly around
And I was so lost down there,
Out of love and walking alone
But walking beside me was Nina Simone"

Nice, right?

(I admit, that was an album that I loved on first listen and then eventually decided was just not quite as good as I had thought on first listen. It has a sense of drama which does shade into melodrama, but still an album I'd recommend.)

Holly A Hughes said...

"Skipper" really does work in the context of the song I think, Nick. Listen to the whole thing -- you'll see.

Holly A Hughes said...

Sorry, didn't realize that the video I grabbed off of YouTube was only a clip. I've reposted with the full song. Now all shall become clear...

NickS said...

I really did love his voice on that track, I will listen to the full song this evening.

NickS said...

Thanks for posting the full song. I agree, it does work in context and, based on that track, I should get a copy of the album.

On top of the great songwriting and singing the sound is great. The drumming is really, really good, and I love the way the rhythm plays out through the verses.