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Butch Hancock

War and Peace

(Two Roads Records; US: 17 Oct 2006; UK: Available as import)

Got those Zimmerman blues

It’s been nine years since the once prolific Texas singer songwriter Butch Hancock recorded a solo album, and it seems it took a Lone Star burr in his butt to get him jump started. That pain in the ass was President George Bush. Hancock’s latest album is a diatribe against Bush and the war. Unlike the Texas troubadour’s previous efforts, this disc offers no tales of Southwestern romance, desert waltzes, or small town vignettes. War and Peace essentially functions as a political weapon.


The record operates in the vein of those by topical folk rockers of the past whose songs came right from the headlines. While many of the song titles may seem reminiscent of Neil Young (i.e., “Damage Done,” “Old Man, Old Man,” who himself has recently issued an album-length screed about the same topic, Living with War), the sound of the music more closely resembles that of Bob Dylan.  Much of this is due to the fact the two men share the same tweedy vocal timbre—think Dylan circa 1969 rather than the low-frog vocal range he currently possesses. Hancock twists the way he expresses the words in the same way the Great White Wonder did back in the day, so when the Texan squeals lines like “How many soldiers sent to go and going not come back,” “Come all ye mad and ragin’ fearless friends of war and peace,” or “Living on forever’s edges etched on tombstones of the dead,” both the sound and the lyrics recall Dylan.


While this gives the album a traditional feel, Hancock directly criticizes the present evil in the White House. He equates Bush with Satan on the bitter “The Devil in Us All” and “Cast the Devils Out”. Hancock explicitly states the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are about oil (“They never found a single weapon of mass destruction / But they all smell oil got to get it in production”), mentions Saddam and the World Trade Center attack by name, and offers other specific details about modern times. The roots of the Bush administration’s contemporary sins can be found in an old fashioned problem. “Money, money, money, money, money, money, money,” Hancock warns on the Gospel style, “When the Good and the Bad Get Ugly”. He uses Biblical style references on almost every song to make his moralizing points.


Musically, Hancock delivers the goods almost completely by himself. He credits himself for lead vocals, harmonies, harmonica, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, bass, drums, djemba, percussion, keyboards, banjo, and as producer. He mentions that Rob Gjersoe plays some electric guitar, but it’s not clear on what tracks, and that fellow Flatlanders Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore join on harmony vocals on two cuts. But unless one listens very carefully, one would never know. The others are minimally present. The disc seems to be completely a Hancock solo venture.


War and Peace probably won’t please anyone who is looking for something beyond a political protest record. The songs here don’t really ever transcend the genre. He’s strictly preaching to the choir. That doesn’t make this a bad record, but Hancock’s sermonizing gets wearying to hear. While there’s the pleasant shock value of listening to the Texan get right to the point, naming names and casting blame, the overall effect becomes tiresome.


That said, Hancock ends the record on a more hopeful note. Hancock croons the last song, “Great Election Day” in a cheerful voice and with an upbeat tempo He professes positive faith in democracy to change the nation’s direction, although Hancock warns of the potential problems caused by those in power tabulating the votes. The album was recorded and released before November 2006, which makes Hancock’s guarded optimism more credible. He hails the “Great Election Day” when “the man or woman who has a plan for peace” wins the election. That may not be exactly what happened in November, but no doubt Hancock was gladdened by the results. His warning against voting on a “man-made machine” versus a pencil and paper seems prescient too in light of the potential for fraud (or actual deceptions) that have occurred during the last two presidential campaigns. This tune should be the theme song for those currently lobbying their state legislatures and Congress for more secure balloting. This is a very active issue here in Iowa, where candidates like Rudolph Giuliani, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and John McCain III have already made promotional appearances. No doubt this matter will continue to be a national concern in the future.

Rating:

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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