There is a strange, dank, ill-lighted corner of the popular music world where heavy metal, country, punk, traditional folk music, and various other forms of American outlaw music converge. It stinks like stale cigarettes and spilled beer, but it has some pretty cool old pinball games lurking in that squalid back area. When enjoying the ambiance of this metaphysical dive bar, one tends to feel both a sense of dread and a sense of comfort; as if almost anything can happen here, but almost any transgression might be forgiven too. Nick Cave use to hang out here a lot. Mark Lanegan, Hank Williams III, and the guys from EyeHateGod have been regulars for years. Nick Cave’s inclusion notwithstanding, this musical state of mind is a distinctly American zone; an amalgamation of all of the hard times and drunken stupors articulated by bikers and bluesmen from places like Sparks, Nevada or Knoxville, Tennessee.
King Dude appears to be making himself very comfortable in our skeezy little watering hole on his new record Fear. Borrowing a little bit of roaring metal here, a little bit of Johnny Cash style country there, and a healthy sprinkling of Reverend Horton Heat punked-up rockabilly throughout, King Dude’s use of styles and genres are all familiar, and very much in touch with the spirit of doomed, drunken, American outlaw music. What makes Fear stand out, both from the multitude of other people lined up at this particular bar and from much of King Dude’s other releases, is that he has crafted a host of memorable, catchy, sing-along songs that make Fear very hard to stop listening to.
Atmosphere and genre mining are all well and good. I have wallowing in that particular corner of the popular music landscape with folks like Greg Dulli, Robert Johnson, and Tom Waits many, many times, watching them shoot heroin in the bathroom and try unsuccessfully to pick up women. But what makes the abovementioned musicians great, and what makes King Dude’s new record feel so formidable, is that they craft distinctive, indelible songs with familiar materials.
What is perhaps most impressive about the songs on Fear is their diversity. The first proper track of the record “Fear Is All You Know” hits us with a delightfully nasty bit of countrified metal that sound like High on Fire covering “Ghost Riders in the Sky”. It’s a hard hitting, fist-pumper of an opening number that will likely go over big live. This is followed by a quiet, mournful, acoustic guitar driven number called “Maria” that almost sound like a Death in June song, except for the fact that it feels so painfully American. King Dude keeps pulling this trick off over and over again throughout the record; he shows you one side of his personality, and totally wins you over with it, and then abruptly switches gears and shows you another side of his sound, leaving you unable to decide which sound you like better.
King Dude has one of the lamest monikers in popular music, but it does stick in your memory, and maybe that is the point. The songs on Fear will stick in your memory too, especially ass-kicking, evil rockabilly numbers like “Lay Down in Bedlam” and “Devil Eyes”. Satan is never very far from the surface on any of these tracks; indeed, I am pretty sure he tends bar at the dive bar described above. King Dude sings about the devil, the open road, wild women, and hard times, and if that’s not the essence of rock ’n’ roll I don’t know what is. What is really important here, however, is the fact that he sings about these things with style and distinction.