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Johnny Dowd

A Drunkard's Masterpiece

(Bongo Beat; US: 20 May 2008; UK: 28 Mar 2008)

Have you ever had one too man drinks and found yourself writing the best song you’ve ever heard? Or making the best sandwich you’ve ever eaten? Or outlining the plot to the next great American novel? Well, what happens when you wake up hungover the next morning? It turns out you were playing “No Woman, No Cry” on your roommate’s guitar, and that sandwich was pimento cheese and wilted lettuce, and that novel idea was the plot to Good Will Hunting. The harsh light of day has that the knack for showing us the senselessness and absurdity that comes from being too drunk too late into the night.

And in that way Johnny Dowd’s new album, A Drunkard’s Masterpiece, is perfectly named. The gap between Dowd’s perception of what he’s made and his execution isn’t as wide as the foolish examples above, but a gap exists. It might have sounded like a great idea to take eight days and record an album in three opuses, filling the studio with musicians and recording everything basically live.

But it is all just too much. The disc runs just under 70 minutes, and the only structural use for splitting it into three opuses, each of which is separated by Dowd growling a one-liner, is to provide intermissions in an overlong program. And it is really too bad that Dowd’s ideas wear out because glints of promise can be found in the album, plenty of ideas worth chasing down. These ideas often get ignored in favor of something more puffed up and all too bitter.

As with much of Dowd’s work, A Drunkard’s Masterpiece concerns itself with the battle of the sexes. In the beginning, it approaches the topic compellingly. Opener “Danger/Blind Painter Paints Black” is half amazing. Kim Sherwood-Caso, who does the bulk of the singing on the album, paints a portrait of a person in pain. The track starts sounding like a distorted lullaby before settling into its bluesy chug, and Sherwood-Caso sounds both accusing of her lover for their current, awful state and self-condemning. When she sings “I smell danger,” you can feel her blaming herself as much as her partner in crime, and the glowing embers of music behind her agree.

Unfortunately, Dowd interjects himself into the second hald of the song for some spoken-word grumbling, which happens all too often on A Drunkard’s Masterpiece. Dowd appears to be shooting for something close to Tom Waits’ crazy circus hawker, but he lacks the charm behind that sinister grin. Lines like, “When ... the gregarious bumble bee decides to live alone / That’s when I’ll forgive your infidelity,” sound less like observations on betrayal and more like flabby Beat poetry, and throughout the record, Dowd’s self-indulgent rambling takes away from some solid music. The band behind him sways seamlessly between roots-rock and soul, between blues and classic rock. While most of the songs go on too long, they usually get undone by leaden lyrics, not by a lack of energy.

In the end, A Drunkard’s Masterpiece is just too negative, too shielded from hope, for its own good. The characters who populate these songs are often too bitter we can’t see past their bitterness. Dowd constructs it like a high wall and leaves us no cracks with which to see through, so we’re left with unlikable, unsympathetic characters who become dull as the record wears on. It must have seemed like a good idea while Dowd was making it, this massing three-part treatise battle of the sexes in which, according to him, “There are no winners, only survivors.” But to listen to the album is to subject its flaws to the harsh light of day.


Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.

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