When I’m crying over my beer, I don’t dig irony, or formal thievery, or a sledgehammer that says “No Depression”. I like authenticity, simplicity, a lived life. And sympathy, most of all. So when a slurry Will Oldham-type aesthete is whining and wheezing into his microphone with random banjos and drum machines toppling over behind him—well it just doesn’t sound like country music to me. It sounds like a ploy.
So I was surprised to enjoy the new album by Chitlin’ Fooks—a Dutch duo consisting of Pascal Deweze (Sukilove, Metal Molly) and Carol van Dyk (Bettie Serveert). It’s a trad country album of sorts, and the backing musicians are various luminaries of the Antwerp music scene. Antwerp? Country music from Belgium? Well obviously you never got to see Kitty Prins and her wonderful Melody Ranch Show of the late ‘50s—a Belgian show that responded to and broadened a cold-war European audience hungry for country music. I’m not sure if Carol and Pascal were raised on the show, but they may as well have been. There’s no questioning their authenticity here, despite the naysayers.
Most of the press releases and promo materials liken Chitlin’ Fooks to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. But this is silly. Carol van Dyk is a heart-stopping singer and Pascal Deweze sounds more like Jim Henson (think Kermit sitting on a log with a banjo) than Gram Parsons. His vocal anonymity occasionally hobbles the album, whereas Carol stops you in your tracks every time. And also the tunes written (or co-written) by Carol are the album’s standouts. Still, Pascal’s a good-looking, well-dressed guy. The clearest comparison, then, is Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner. And with Carol in the Dolly role—beauty, voice, and brains—Chitlin’ Fooks could even conquer Nashville if it weren’t for the Dutch accents that reappear when they talk.
The record kicks off with a competent, leisurely cover of the Kitty Wells/Webb Pierce ballad “One Week Later”. It’s not the most striking chestnut to yank out of Nashville’s back catalog, but with their voices intertwined and a sturdy reverent backing group laying on the retro-sheen, it works. And it makes you hunger for more.
There are three other covers on the album: Gram Parsons’ “Juanita”, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mississippi Delta Blues”, and Washington Phillips’ “Mother’s Last Words to Her Son”. All of them are pious takes on the originals—complete with yodeling and pedal steel. To their credit, the Fooks do not succumb to the temptation of speeding things up or rocking out. But the tunes are covers, and despite Carol’s beautiful voice and Pascal’s adenoidal sincerity, the duo hasn’t yet developed a distinctive personality, one that could reinterpret or recontextualize the originals in any meaningful way. Hum along and seek out the originals.
This album is rare in the growing collegiate-country canon in that the band’s originals are far better than their covers. Indeed, two of the van Dyk/Deweze originals are so wonderful that they could become standards. “How Many Times” and “Seen it All”—both co-written by Carol and Pascal, and with Carol singing lead—are songs that reaffirm your faith in the country genre as a bottomless well of new classics.
“How Many Times” is a speedy, beautiful honkytonk ballad about repeatedly and helplessly falling in love with someone over and over. “I was born as no one’s fool, and I have always tried to live by that rule”, Carol sings as she evokes her uncharacteristic vulnerability in the face of love: “how many times can I fall for you?” It’s a song that’s so striking and powerful that I had to check the liner notes to make sure it wasn’t a cover.
If Marcus Aurelius were reincarnated as a country singer, he’d be writing brilliant tunes like “Seen It All” rather than scribbling the new Meditations. “Though I’m shattered, I will not fall, I’ve seen it coming, I’ve seen it all”, goes the refrain. If you never thought that the stern principles of stoicism could bring you to tears, then you haven’t heard this song yet. No depression, indeed! It’s got a melody that’ll wake you up every morning and stick with you the rest of the day. Carol’s voice is so striking at times that presumably countless audiences will be swooning in her wake after hearing this song. Yes, it’s that good.
Though “Seen It All” and “How Many Times” are unstoppable classics, worth the price of the album if nothing else, the remaining five originals are also pretty good. “The Battle”, a sublime take on the “break up to make up” theme, features some beautiful humming from Carol. “Not Enough Tears” is a sad ballad whose title says it all. “Picture Book Memories”, a remarkable evocation of the Kitty Wells/Webb Pierce theme they introduced with “One Week Later”, makes the best use of a mandolin I’ve ever heard in a country tune. “You Dream of Him” is an instructive take on jealousy, with Pascal on lead vocals (“I was fundamentally wrong the day I kissed you”, goes the most memorable line). Finally, “Homework for Sale” is the album’s only true weak spot: a meandering ballad (Pascal on lead vox again) that’s not nearly as funny as the title suggests. Still, it’s not horrible by any means, and another singer (Carol, for instance) might even be able to do it justice.
In a world where authenticity is ironic, country thrushes are a dime a dozen, and rich grad students are digging country music, Chitlin’ Fooks are a singularity. They clearly put their hearts into this album, and the unpretentious sincerity and simplicity that suffuses their originals is surprising and generous. It’s not a perfect album, but it’s undeniably beautiful at every turn. And if “Seen It All” and “How Many Times” are any indication, we can all look forward to some more heart-stopping country classics coming out of Antwerp and Amsterdam. It’s not too often that globalism can actually be kinda cool.