Ike Reilly is probably the best songwriter in America but I don’t want him to know it; the last time I did that, the artist in question made a boring record, then stopped making them altogether. That sucked. I blame myself.
But it would be very surprising if anything like that happened to Reilly, because he has a healthy sense of low self-esteem. That’s been his whole shtick since his surprising debut, Salesmen and Racists: scrappy Illinois underdog howling out weird beatnik hip-hop poetry, putting himself down, casting aspersions on his own sexual prowess, funny and serious and surprising stuff. I love his second record, Sparkle in the Finish, the most; I was saddened that he didn’t include any actual rapping on Junkie Faithful, and probably let that color my judgment of it. I’m over that now—it sounded pretty damn good in my car the other day, “Kara Dean” and “Farm Girl” and “I Will Let You Down” rippling out my open windows and scaring the cows of Wisconsin.
But this new one is just a straight-up killer. Again, no overt hip-hop stylings here, but a lot of rap-influenced cadences informing his folk-punk-blues-Celtic-rock songs. Some people don’t like his voice but those people don’t understand that not everyone is a hero, and anti-heroes need love too. Reilly has a lot of Dylan on his mind here and a major case of Springsteen-itis, but—unlike those two titans—Reilly isn’t interested in the home run ball. He’s a scrappy situational hitter who just happens to hit a lot of triples into the gap. He doesn’t even try for home, figuring he’d get gunned down at the plate anyway.
Check out the opening single, “When Irish Eyes Are Burning”; its momentum burns along perfectly, only to be interrupted by a weird chorus that brings Gaelic drunkenness and violence into things before they seem to fit, only to justify it in the last verse. This story-song doesn’t really go anywhere, but it ends up going everywhere—not only does Reilly befriend a tough 6’10” lesbian named Tank at a Violent Femmes show, but he then gets the crap kicked out of him at a different show by a bunch of guys with the Irish-est names in history. Hilarious, unsettling, raw… but mostly just rocking, with feedbacky guitars and whip-crack drums.
What else happens here? Well, there’s a talking blues about a corporate mole named Jackson who ends up doing working people a good turn in the eerie ominous dance tune “Fish Plant Uprising”; we get an instrumental called “Bugsy Salcido Has Fled the Desert” that doesn’t really do anything but set the mood for the soft-hearted folkie closer “The Nighttime Is a Liar”; random slams of religious zealots in “I Hear the Train” (with the excellent kicker “Fuck the train!”).
But that doesn’t even get close to the best stuff here. Opener “8 More Days Till the Fourth of July” goes like 75 in a 35 zone, with Reilly chronicling the cold war between Jesus and Satan for his soul—not only is this classic conflict played out in rockabilly style, but it ends with him burning his house down. On the Fourth of July. Perfect, and strangely patriotic, or anti-patriotic, or something. (He tends to shun the heroic gesture.)
But the centerpieces are the two songs at the heart of this record. “Broken Parakeet Blues” is a mournful waltzy dirge about soldiers going off to Iraq; Reilly has enough class and smarts to give these possibly-doomed young people the respect they deserve, while still mentioning the war’s futility and the economic realities that lead people into the military. It hits like a punch in the gut.
The next song brings it all home. *SPOILER ALERT, DON’T READ THIS IF YOU DON’T WANT A SONG SURPRISE TO KICK YOUR BUTT.* “It’s Hard to Make Love to an American” is a jug-band march that sounds like a take on “Maggie’s Farm”: our narrator can’t get any intimacy with his girlfriend because of all her freeloading family, each of whom he has to dis individually, before saying “It’s hard to make love in this American town.” He lists a whole bunch of great American towns (Pittsburgh! Portland Oregon! Sturgeon Bay!) Later, he invites his girl to “Put your junk up on my bunk / Keep one foot on my trunk”—suddenly, one realizes that Reilly has turned into a soldier and is shipping out. The city list turns into a list of Army camps, and when the chorus turns into a chant of “It’s hard to make love to an American now!”, you realize you’ve been hoodwinked…it’s another war song, and hits all the harder because you don’t even see it coming. *END SPOILERS.*
And then there’s the Phil Spector/Shadow Morton epic sound of “You’re So Plain”, and the Stones bash of “Let’s Get Friendly”, and the drugged-out “Valentine’s Day in Juarez”, and—well, I’ll shut up now. Awesome record by an awesome songwriter, almost as good as Sparkle in the Finish which is high praise coming from me. Not just a best-of-year record, but maybe an all-timer.
Just don’t tell Ike Reilly I said so. Let him struggle, keep him humble; support him, but let him keep being an underdog. There’s a lot at stake here.