Go Lightly and Carry a Big Stick
Singer-songwriter Holly Golightly has always had a love affair with American roots music, especially rockabilly and Northwest ‘60s garage. She became known to many fans first in her association with Billy Childish, the female group Thee Headcoatees, and started recording around 1992, while her first solo project debuted in 1995.
Over 20 albums later, Golightly continues more recent explorations of country blues. But about one-half of Medicine County is more clearly influenced by the progeny of Cash at his blackest—Nick Cave, the Handsome Family, and the Louvin Brothers of “Knoxville Girl”. It makes for a strong contribution to the creative re-interpretations of genres and their expectations, without a radical departure from them.
Parts of Medicine County, like “Escalator”, are downright goofy, but that is right at home in the genre she’s embracing, one which ranges from Lil’ Jimmy Dickens’s puckish “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” to C.W. McCall’s grinner “Convoy”. Such songs serve as comic relief from the stock repertoire of murder, cheatin’, drinkin’, love, heartache, and work songs that have come to give the classic country genre an identity slightly darker and to the side of its rock ‘n’ roll offshoots, and closer to its Blues cousin (admittedly an incestuous one at that).
Golightly and co. take on classics like “Jack O Diamonds” and “Blood on the Saddle”, covered by scores of other artists. However, she is backed by Lawyer Dave, whose vocals both complement and support Golightly’s in near perfect measure, and besides which have an effortless twang well-suited to their experiments in the country-blues genre. In addition, these standards are animated by spare but competent musicianship, such as the banjo and tambourines on “Jack O Diamonds”.
On the one hand, she serves up country blues. “Eyes in the Back of My Head”, unsurprisingly on the subject of paranoid love, falls into this category, but other blues-inflected numbers are trashier, harmonica-driven, recruiting amplified guitars, shakers, and washboards for the job. This style is exemplified especially by “When He Comes”. “Two Left Feet”‘s slow, sliding blues guitar is like a slower, tamer Jon Spencer Blues Explosion . The song’s lyrics are also a hilarious way to say “I love you”: “I don’t mind if you can’t keep time with me / I don’t mind if you’ve got two left feet”. “When He Comes” also has a strong trash blues riff, but is a stomper reminiscent of Scott H. Biram.
On the other half you get a dark departure in musical style and lyrics. “Dearly Departed” is a melancholic lullaby with an ethereal echo of Golightly’s own voice, while an acoustic guitar and funeral-worthy organ rock-a-bye baby the song in a vein reminiscent of Mazzy Star. “Forget It” also features Golightly’s own voice in an eerie backing track, while the organ and slo-mo surf guitar twang are right out of the Nick Cave, uh, cave. The lyrics are standard country fare. The singer addresses the thief of her heart, advising that he better be sure he knows what he’s doing, since a heart-stolen woman’s mind can’t be “relied upon to forgive, forget”. “Don’t Fail Me Now” has similar Cave black circus overtones, with heavy cymbals and a creepier cowboy crawl about it. It’s more of a departure from blues and country, and is the kind of fare often associated with the Bloodshot label more than any other.
Track five, “Murder in My Mind”, is a Crampsy slow groover, in a kind of dialogue from verse to verse between Golightly and Lawyer Dave. “I’ve got love in my heart / I don’t mean to sound unkind / Know from the start I’ve got murder in my mind”, she warbles as if in a gothic singles bar where two magnetic souls do a shot of tequila and then pull revolvers on each other. There’s a tongue-in-cheekness to it, a la a lot of alt.country—while its sound quotes Cave and Cash, in the end those influences are far too earnest for them. Consider more evidence from the same song: “One day they’ll find you hangin’ from a beam / Or lyin’ in an alley with a knife stickin’ out of your spleen”.
This is album is accomplished and fun. However, it begs the question: Does this irony suggest a complicated relationship with the genre and its themes, though not a necessarily superficial or short-term one, or is it rather a sign of an artist’s almost routine and fleeting affair with a genre in which she is, at the end of the day, just not totally comfortable? Put differently, is this mere flirtation or true love? Does the name say it all?