I guess it all depends on how you feel about poetry. If you hate it, if you like your lyrics straightforward and easily understandable, if you feel like life is crazy and inexplicable enough without throwing poetry into the mix, then this ain’t your album and godspeed to you. Me, I dig it.
But then I would. Twelve years ago, before he released his first CD or anything, I heard him wreck shop at the National Poetry Slam in Asheville, North Carolina, and none of us could stop talking about the dude with the bare feet and the basso profundo voice who kind of crooned and kind of chanted and kind of rapped his funny wise smart angry poems. Later, he turned up at the bar where we were hanging out, right after dude stopped serving. It was about 85 at 1 a.m., and he looked disappointed, so I gave him my beer—he deserved it more than I did.
Were I to run into him again, I’d give him another beer for this album. It’s jazz (check the label, he’s rolling with Thirsty Ear) but there’s nothing improvised here; it’s too funky for indie rock but too introspective and fancily-arranged for funk; it contains rap elements but he’s not even trying to rap; it’s haunting but strangely accessible; I don’t know what it is, really. Except kick-ass.
“Lies” is about as easy as it gets, so let’s start with that. It’s a little song driven by Chris Eddleston’s boom-boom-boom-boom-BAP-boom-BAP-BAP drumline and twin lines from piano and organ (shades of E Street) and hushed “oooh yeah” backing vocals, so it doesn’t sound anything but listener-friendly. In it, Rux talks and grunts and coos and wails about how he just didn’t understand how to tell the truth: “The lie grew thick and the lie got old / People got tired and the story’s told”. It’s strange but not-strange, it’s out-there but not very far, it’s sublime and enigmatic but you might be able to seduce someone to it on a warm night.
Some tunes sound like they’re this easy to get, only to throw a sneaky breaking ball right past you. “Living Room” could be a Motown tune covered by Love as Laughter or some other beflanneled act, at least until Rux comes in and starts spitting syllables right and left and center and wow. (It’s craziness to try to summarize any of these songs; they’re all over the place by design. That’s poetry, Jack and/or Jacqueline.) The opening of “Thadius Star” is all cascading piano ripples and portentous psych-rock: “Thadius Star, where are you now / How dare you wear your hair that way / On the last day?” It’s an extremely effective early-Funkadelic pastiche, but there’s a vulnerability here that George Clinton rarely allowed himself to express. Plus, there’s no lengthy overdriven Jimi Hazel solo. (That’s not a good thing, necessarily. I’m just reporting.)
For most poets-who-sing or singers-who-poet, the blues is a shirt to be worn instead of a whole wardrobe. But Rux is rooted in the blues, both musically and philosophically. “Geneva” features Dave Tronzo’s slinky slide guitar and Marcelle Lashey’s heroic testifying, both of which play perfectly against Rux’ tale of a hairdresser who somehow seems like the legendary Greek heroine Atalanta. Even during the Eno/Fripp/Bowie atmospheric cloud of “My Brother’s Hands (Union Song)”, collaborator Jaco van Schalkwyk starts to add congas and backup layers until everything simmers, and then Rux pours his vocabulary all over everything like gravy.
Is it pretentious? Oh, you better believe it, at least sometimes. That’s what you get with poetry, sometimes. You’ll just have to trust me that lyrics like “And may all the listeners know their place / In the race of war / Before the politicians commission to proselytize the baptized believer” sound better on disc than they read on your computer screen. But Rux is the least pretentious of pretentious poets—he even has the courtesy to introduce the protest song “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” with a brief spoken intro giving props to composer Bill Withers, right before he sings the holy living shit out of the song. Just listening to it makes my eyes fill up, especially since it seems like this god damned war in Iraq is never going to end.
So yeah, this is one of my favorite things I have heard in many a moon. I’m really glad there’s a Carl Hancock Rux out there, making things weird and lovely and furious and deep. It might not be your cup of tea, but maybe you need to drink something besides tea for a change.