To most who were conscious of the New Wave, or even those who listen to lots of ‘80s radio now, Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” is somewhat inescapable, even if it’s still about as odd and off-kilter now as it was twenty years ago. And while that song may have relegated Wall of Voodoo to one-hit wonder status, those who were paying attention knew that there was more to the band than a seemingly (though not, really) goofy hit single.
In fact, a big part of the Wall of Voodoo story was in one of their other hit singles, a very synthy cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”. That dark, tense, pulsing version was a minor hit, and it served as a link between Wall of Voodoo frontman Stan Ridgway and his influences, many of which were rough country-rockers, including the legendary Cash.
When Stan Ridgway went solo in the early ‘80s, his career began to emulate those influences even further. Pushing away some of the synthesizers of Wall of Voodoo (though not completely, by any means), Ridgway began to create creepy, almost sci-fi soundscapes that were as indebted to the more rough-and-tumble country as they were to dark New Wave.
Stan Ridgway’s new album, Holiday in Dirt, is actually a collection of rare material, outtakes, and some new songs, all cobbled together to play as an actual album. And it plays fairly well as an actual album, maintaining sonic and thematic unity despite the fact that the songs were recorded at vastly different times. While these songs are all basically orphans, the thread tying them all together is that each is a vignette of an individual: for example the starry-eyed, fame-struck kid in “Beloved Movie Star”, or the paranoid loner in “Operator Help Me”. The focus is especially trained on Los Angeles and its inhabitants, as well as the vast expanse of desert to the east of town.
And if there’s a sustained emotion, it’s that of paranoia or claustrophobia, as this series of songs is anything but a relaxed and easy listen. Ridgway still relies fairly heavily on synthesizers, and he uses them in some of the most unsettling ways possible. On “Bing Can’t Walk”, one of the album’s highlights, he sets a tale of betrayal to a throbbing, dark, bassy track that features producer Mitchell Froom on bass. In the album’s informative liner notes, Ridgway notes that this particular track was based on some horrific outtakes of Bing Crosby falling into an orchestra pit and breaking his legs. It’s truly creepy.
But the problem that Holiday in Dirt suffers from is a lack of variance. These songs are pretty easy to admire for their ambition, but they’re hard to love, and the album as a whole is a difficult listen because nearly all of the thirteen tracks present a musical riff or hook but then merely repeat that idea for around five minutes. It makes the album feel significantly longer than the hour it runs, and robs it of variety or a convenient entry point. That’s not to say that Ridgway should’ve artificially added radio singles, but, as he admits in his liner notes, he tends to record songs longer and sometimes cuts them down later. Most of these songs would’ve benefited from a little more of that editing. Plus, because Ridgway’s focus is often on storytelling, his stories tend to run longer than his music can sustain. The end result sounds less like Johnny Cash and more like Ric Ocasek’s more indulgent solo material, without its pop sensibility.
But to an audience like Ridgway’s, which is about as cult as cult can be, Holiday in Dirt will be a welcome package of rare and unreleased material that will tie up some of the loose ends of Ridgway’s now 20-year-old solo career. And those fans who have followed Ridgway’s deeper and darker excursions and are not likely to be scared off by Ridgway’s uncompromising nature are those for whom Holiday in Dirt is truly intended.