Tony Joe White is to swamp rock what the Beatles were to the British Invasion and the Sex Pistols were to punk: the first and the best-known performers of the genre. While the Beatles changed dramatically over time and the Sex Pistols exploded into fragments, White has pretty much stayed the same. There really isn’t much stylistically different between his new release, Rain Crow and his 1968 debut Black and White. Normally, that might be a problem. But the consistency here is welcome. White does what he does so well that one sweats with the heat and humidity of the swampland, feels the dread of alligators and hidden dangers, and gets lost in the miasma of hoodoo, lawlessness, and spice. And that’s just through his singing and playing. White’s also a top-notch songwriter of dark, spooky, and romantic tales tinged with a black sense of humor. Remember, he’s the guy who once had a hit with the lines, “Gator got your granny / Chomp chomp”, which was so goddamn cool that it inspired the King (Elvis) to cover the song himself.
Rain Crow may not have any song equal to “Polk Salad Annie” in weirdness, but White has penned nine evocative tales that suggest the strangeness of the swamp inhabitants. The heat and isolation—not to mention the gators and the women—can drive a man wild. White knows how to laconically describe a person’s obsessive need for something just beyond one’s grasp. It’s the mania that’s the thing, not the thing itself, that can turn indifference into a fixation. And all of this is reinforced in the chug-chug-chugging of White’s guitar playing that gurgles with something deep under the surface.
Songs such as “Hoochie Woman”, “The Middle of Nowhere” and “Opening of the Box” bristle with equal amounts of hope and despair like an itch one can’t just reach to scratch. And White lets the beat pound faster than the human heart to stir up excitement. And when he slows things down, as on “Where Do They Go”, it makes things even spookier. White doesn’t have to reach for melodramatic conclusions. He lets the characters of his songs decide their own irrational fates rationally and vice versa. They are not afraid to ask more of themselves than they can give, and this can lead to complications.
White also provides a six-minute lesson on how to tell a swamp story on “Tell Me a Swamp Story”. He says it has to have a snake, an alligator or a mean woman, and make one shiver and pull the covers up over one’s head. It could be about a conjurer or a person driven mad. White doesn’t always follow his own instructions on Rain Crow. Some of the songs just simmer as the action takes place only inside of a person’s head.
And in terms of relevance, White knows as well as Alfred Hitchcock that Anton Checkov was wrong. Sometimes you can have a gun in the first chapter of a story and not have it go off before the narrative is over. Suspense can be its own reward, as on the superb tale of infidelity “The Bad Wind”. White understands defying expectations can be more exciting than overcoming them. After all, just surviving in the swamp is a positive act.
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