[14 February 2005]
Michigan native Ethan Daniel Davidson returns on this album to the same turf he’s been rolling around on previous records, namely the hallowed ground that people like John Prine and the late Woody Guthrie have walked before. Other people, including publications like The Village Voice, have seen him as a “cross between Willie Nelson and Arlo Guthrie.” And they’re not too far off the mark. Davidson might have a bit of satire or tongue-in-cheek throughout some of his lyrics and rather oddball song times, but he is more than capable of creating pensive, thoughtful music time and time again. This is evident on the rather light pop of “Conquered Beneath a Box-Car Moon”, which has him singing and yet somewhat crooning at the same time. The tune glides along in a dreamy, Petty-like psychedelic haze, but it definitely seems to work. It also contains a sprinkling of alt.country for good measure before veering into a quasi-Southern-fried, Skynyrd-lite rock.
Davidson doesn’t like to keep perfecting the same genre or format, so his adventurous side often takes over. “Woman/Ladder = You’ll Get What You Deserve” is more up-tempo and rougher around the edges. Again, there’s a nice melody steering the effort, but Jason Charboneau and Davidson wind some nice licks off of each other, sort of like Sloan circa Motor City Maniacs or Petty’s right hand man Mike Campbell. The first true highlight, though, is the meandering and rather infectious “I Need You Like a House on Fire”, resembling Wilco and Neil Young to a lesser extent. Counting the song in, Davidson sings lines like, “The moon will moon / Sky will crack / Before they stand the day that I take you back”. The effect is one where you’ll be swaying back and forth in your chair immediately. The subtle ivory tickles from Charles Hughes complement the slow, world-weary guitar lines accenting the end of several lines.
If there’s one drawback, however, it’s that some of these songs sag compared to others, particularly the murky, Delta blues touches of “Situationist National Commercial” which sounds like Richard Ashcroft fronting the Black Crowes. Fans of latter day Page and Plant collaborations might seek comfort in it, but few others will. This miscue is forgettable after a lovely folksy-meets-dreamy-meets-roots “Semi-Literate Cowboy Poem”, a song that could’ve come straight from Jeff Tweedy’s latest lyric scribbler. Meanwhile, the hokey honky-tonk of John Prine’s “I Can’t Drink You Pretty” sounds like a sleeper pick, as Davidson talks about how alcohol cannot improve beauty regardless of the beverage imbibed. It’s the type of song few can cover well, perhaps only gals like Neko Case, Kelly Hogan, or Carolyn Mark, along with Davidson. And from there he pulls out another swampy, groove-filled, ‘70s Southern rocker, “Drive-By Diplomacy Blues”, which hits its groove roughly two minutes in, sort of like Fleetwood Mac if they were inspired by Supertramp before going full throttle three minutes in. It’s one of the album’s better tracks.
One important aspect to the record is how the mood seems to change in terms of content and tone, with “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”, a fine punkish rocker that starts off with the energy of Steve Earle’s “F the CC” or “The Revolution Starts ”. Government isn’t the only target, as big business gets its fair share on the swinging “King Coal Made a Mess of My Old Kentucky Home”. Then Davidson flings arrows at Music Row and the corporate mentality with “Support the War on Nashville”: “To maximize your music profit / Let downloaders push your product”, he sings.
Perhaps if these homestretch songs weren’t so close in the track listing they would fare better. Instead, it comes off a bit like these were tacked on at the last minute. The lone exception is the galloping, Johnny Cash-cum-Spaghetti Western “Carry Me Back to San Juan Hill”. Davidson manages to keep the listener’s ear throughout, from song one to the closing “A German Woman, an Irish Junkie, Their Three-Year-Old Daughter, nnd Me”. Wordy titles? Yes. Adventurous? Yes. Damn good? Oh yes.