[16 April 2009]
To fans of American punk and alt-country traditions, John Doe is legendary. He was the bassist and vocal counterpart to the inimitable Exene Cervenka in the influential ‘80s LA roots-punk band X. But it was in a 1986 X side project, a band called the Knitters and an album called Poor Little Critter on the Road, where his potential for a more stripped-down, raw but full country vocal style unveiled itself. That potential was perhaps clearest in his reprise of Merle Haggard’s heart-strumming ballad about airplanes, seen as symbols of love lost and omens of loneliness. Yet it wasn’t until four years later that Doe would set out on a mainly alt-country solo career with his well-received debut album Meet John Doe (Geffen). Eight consistently strong albums later, we find the mature Doe at home in the genre, while demonstrating his individuality.
Doe’s eighth release Country Club, with Toronto-based band the Sadies, hearkens back to the Knitters period and his budding love affair with country classics. It features hits by Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard and others. The result is impressive overall. For some, Doe’s voice is as recognizable as greats like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, or Hank Williams, or Nick Cave, Tom Waits or Neil Young. It’s often described as “leathery”. Indeed, there’s a rumor of Mike Ness scruff to it, but counterbalanced by a full, nearly crooner-like quality at times. That fullness is decidedly pronounced on tracks such as Hank Snow’s “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I”. In the more up-tempo songs, his voice can’t hang on half- and whole notes, yet that deep sometimes nasally quality gives these classics a refreshing twist. Indeed, his style across these songs seems to oscillate between models of Merle Haggard and a more sandpapered but equally full Johnny Cash, albeit with a dose of twang-remover applied.
Is there a fresh twist on the original? That’s always the challenge in covering a classic. The singer and backing musicians are often drawn to them like sailors to the sirens’ call. The result can be the musical equivalent of the shipwreck (or perhaps just as deadly, the yawn) if it’s not done right. Doe’s voice is partly the guarantor of success, but the insurance is fortified by the lively arrangements of the alt-country-garage-lounge-surf act the Sadies.
The Sadies have beguiled quite a few ears since they busted into the Bloodshot-led insurgent country scene with their bright hybrid sound on Precious Moments in 1998, putting a spell on Doe himself during a Toronto double bill a couple of years ago. It was then that Doe made a drunken promise to make a country album with them some day. Despite success in their own right, the Sadies have built a reputation as one of the most respected backing bands in the biz, collaborating with Mekons’ Jon Langford and R&B phenom Andre Williams, as well as Neko Case again and again. Here, the sound is often a cousin of Buck Owens’ bright and full Stratocaster-driven country pop of the ‘60s, immortalized in his upbeat numbers like “Act Naturally”, “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”, and, most Sadies-like, the instrumental “Buckaroo”. That sound comes through most beautifully in zingers like Jennings’ “Stop the World and Let Me Off” and Haggard’s “Are the Good Times Really Over?” Several other songs shift gears, to fiddles, mandolins, and pedal steel guitars, as in the Doe/Cervenka standout “It Just Dawned on Me”. On Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”, a reverberating Sadiesesque freight-train guitar style meets old-timey, sometimes syncopated fiddle plucking and zippy bowing, producing a kind of lyrics-tempo-melody irony worthy of a countrified version of the Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma.” The cover of “Night Life” succeeds as well,with Doe giving his fittingly bluesiest vocal efforts, met by what sounds like a slowed-down surf guitar.
In X and the Knitters, Doe was often forced to play backup vocalist to Cervenka. On Country Club he gets worthy female backup vocals from Veronica Jane Doe, Cindy Wasserman, Margaret Good, and Kathleen Edwards. Other guests include D.J. Bonebrake (X) on vibraphones, Eric Heywood (Son Volt, Alejandro Escovedo) and Bob Egan (Wilco, Blue Rodeo) on pedal steel, and Bruce Good (The Good Brothers) on autoharp..The result of all this is a tribute to country songs these artists love. But on close listen, these versions are less twangy, in voice and accompaniment than the originals. All the fiddles and pedal-steels in the world can’t erase the particular formations of Doe in vocal-friendly punk and the Sadies in a punk-garage-60s psychadelic gumbo. That should not be seen as a bad thing at all. Some listeners will no doubt find the Sadies’ two instrumentals, “The Sudbury Nickel” and the 54-second “Pink Mountain Rag”, a bit incoherent. Yet it is the same puckish punk spirit that infuses Sadies albums and Doe’s never-straight-up country. The band name The Knitters was partly tongue-in cheek, as here Country Club has absolutely un-country connotations.
But what about this particular set of selections? Youth, supposedly, can’t appreciate traditional country music. Nor can those who have fallen victim to the power of self-helping positive thinking. At its core, more than any other American music genre, traditional country (with, of course, its cross-fertilization with the racially, socially and historically situated origins of the blues) stresses betrayal, love lost, heartache, tears, eternal regret, remorse, and pain. In this tradition it isn’t always clear that “tis better to have loved and lost than ne’er to have loved at all. ” The selections here are consistent with Doe’s romantic appreciation for post-X traditional country sounds, but especially the music’s themes. “I’ve played the game of love and lost / stop the world and let me off.” “It’s sad to be alone.” “All my faith in you is gone / but these heartaches linger on.” “When you’re gone, yet I’ll dream a little dream as years go by.” “I wonder if she’s sorry for leaving what we begun.” Doe began this journey with the Knitters, when he sang songs about intimations of love lost and a life of loneliness. Now he is on the other side of those prophesies. Some part of his muse still misses someone. The consequence is sublime melancholia.