Settle down into a leather armchair, close your eyes, and visualize a sturdy oak bookshelf lined with Great Works of Literature. The magnificence of the Bard, the grand eloquence of Yeats, the prophetic density of Milton, the timeless human insight of Jane Austen—all sit proudly before you, resting inside gold-deckled leather, their intangible weight heavier than their physical weight. In these books, characters reveal themselves slowly, the humor requires a keen awareness of context and history, and the plots are nuanced and carefully crafted. Eloquent, innovative, refined, inspired, indispensable and decidedly high-brow—this is how one might describe Great Works.
Why do I mention all this? Because South Filthy’s Crackin’ Up is the unapologetically trashy, rough-around-the-edges, hit-you-over-the-head-with-meaning opposite.
Scrap the brass-studded armchair for a stool in smoky beerhall and tap your foot to this couplet from “A Brand New Way of Livin’”: “Drink Budweiser every day / Show the girls our peckers”. Absorbing the raunch n’ sleaze of Crackin’ Up doesn’t require a degree in English Literature. Or a degree of any kind. South Filthy is a crackpot blues bar band made up of friends who’ve served time in a motley assortment of garage bands and rock and roll outfits: the Gibson Brothers, ‘68 Comeback, Oblivians, Compulsive Gamblers, Doug Sahm, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Unpretentious rock and roll—with a decided emphasis on the earliest and blusiest ends of the genre—is the binding glue that holds this album together.
In Crackin’ Up, South Filthy mimeograph choice works from the canon of country, blues, and rock, covering the likes of Tom T. Hall, Doc Watson, Warren Zevon, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, and The Hickoids. The band translates these songs into the language of electric and acoustic blues, well-punctuated by Walter Daniels’ harmonica pronunciations. Sax, keyboards, mandolin and slide guitar round out the conventional bass-guitar-drums line-up. No plot twists here.
There are five core members of South Filthy, three of whom share vocal duties on Crackin’ Up. An additional nine (!) friends contribute to the album, including producer and mixer James Mathus (Buddy Guy, Elvis Costello), Eugene Chadbourne (John Zorn, Camper Van Beethoven), and Earl Pool Ball—a honky-tonk pianist who has played with Johnny Cash, The Byrds, and Buck Owens. While this ensemble does not contain as many characters as The Brothers Karamazov, one might worry that such a large number of contributors could lead to an inconsistent album—especially for an album made over the course of two years, including two studio sessions and one live date. However, a solid focus on none-too-polished production keeps the edges consistently raw, rough-hewn, and ramshackle. In fact, there’s not even much sonic difference between the studio and live-recorded tracks. The vocals are often ragged and laid to tape too hot, and the recording is often rickety—but the lack of a refined production contributes to the good-time feel of album.
As a matter of fact, the entire affair might just be alcohol influenced (or induced). The chorus of Tom T. Hall’s “I Like Beer” provides occasion for the backing band to holler the simple title, which is done with unsurprisingly convincing authority. No Cliff Notes are necessary to fully digest this song, or the rest of Crackin’ Up.
This album largely succeeds in its intention—solid yet sloppy dirty blues rock played loose, with respect for a good time. There’s rockabilly, swamp blues, folk blues, devil blues, talkin’ blues, walkin’ blues, and jukejoint blues. Perhaps due to the contributions of friends, this album is an improvement upon 2002’s less-inspired debut You Can Name It Your Mammy If You Wanna.
In the end, Crackin’ Up leaves you wanting more than it gives. Though the fierce Zeroes cover “You’re a Wimp” closes the album, it still doesn’t inspire you to give the record another spin. Instead, it may inspire you to queue up one of Fat Possum’s seminal Mississippi artists, an early Sun Records session, or a John Lee Hooker record. There’s just not enough weight to this release, and perhaps too much nonchalance.
If you admire blues and Budweiser more than booksmarts and would readily forgo lyrical prowess for rough and ready swagger… you might just classify Crackin’ Up in the category of Great Works. Then again, you just might file it with those old Playboy issues gathering dust bunnies underneath your bed.
// Notes from the Road
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