It takes more than music for a country artist in the ‘90s to earn Rolling Stone-style cred. It takes a gimmick, a hook.
You can vanish for years from the charts and then return with a stark Rick Rubin collaboration, as Johnny Cash did with American Recordings. You can make like Steve Earle on I Feel Alright and return to your punky roots-rock style of albums past after years of critical neglect. Or, as in the case of the alt-country gods of today, you can call your band country, as Wilco and the Old 97’s do, but release albums which are in fact Pet Sounds-styled pop. Whatever the case may be, simply being a country artist who regularly releases country albums isn’t going to work. You need a little more if you want that hipster cred.
Andre Williams has the hook, and thus is enjoying a sizeable amount of indie hype. After recording a handful of hits in the early ‘60s for both himself and other artists, Williams dropped off the map until the last two decades, where he’s worked with a plethora of cool names to drop. He’s played on albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Parliament, and the Make Up are one of a handful of today’s bands who claim Williams as an influence. No less a name than Jon Spencer tagged him as executive producer for JSBX’s 1997 album, Now I Got Worry.
So now Williams is recording albums of his own again, this time with Toronto’s Sadies, after last year’s Silky full-length which he did on his own. Unfortunately, Williams isn’t living up to the hype because, despite having that indie hook, he doesn’t have the songs.
This isn’t to say that Red Dirt is devoid of worthwhile listens. A handful of songs here—most notably the pro-murder covers “Psycho” and “Pardon Me (I’ve Got Someone to Kill)” and the hilarious “She’s a Bag of Potato Chips”—are terrific work. But too often Williams concentrates more on showing off his disturbing sense of humor than putting together a first-rate song. The Sadies’ playing is more than competent, and the band sounds comfortable backing Williams’ voice, but when Williams strays from the course and tries to show off his sense of humor more than his songwriting, as on the opener, “Hey Truckers,” and the closer, “My Sister Stole My Woman,” the album falls flat. While Red Dirt has a fair share of great stuff, there’s too much nonsense and filler to make it worth picking up.
If Williams can concentrate on making quality music rather than making his listeners laugh, he’ll deserve all the praise presently being thrown his way. Until then, however, he’s all goofy lyrics and no good songs, and he should stick to showing up on other cool albums rather than releasing mediocre ones of his own.
// Notes from the Road
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