[3 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
What more needs to be said about John Doe, the legendary bassist and co-singer of Los Angeles punk group X (not to mention being a film and television actor)? Not a whole lot. His music does most of the talking, and, now, nearly 25 years into a solo career side-track, we get a Best Of compilation. However, this is a unique Best Of compilation. It doesn’t necessarily have the “hits” or songs from albums that have been critically acclaimed (of note, there’s nothing from his 2012 collaboration with the Sadies, Country Club), just songs that Doe likes. And, to wit, the entire album has been handpicked and sequenced by Doe himself, and sequenced non-chronologically at that, which makes this play like a bonafide album and just a random smattering of songs. That’s both The Best of John Doe: This Far’s greatest asset and greatest liability, for while the album is focused and plays like a double album, it is also dominated by quiet and reflective tracks, in keeping with the solo Doe’s tradition of mining Americana and roots rock music. Particularly what Doe himself calls “Side Three”. Still, this is a pretty good testament of an artist in song, and is welcome for any newbies to Doe’s sound, although how many of those are out there, I’m not sure. Still, The Best of John Doe: This Far shows that there’s a semi-broad range to the artist as a whole, and that his output didn’t really change too much since he released his first album on his own in 1990.
There are actually two versions of this album floating out there in the ether. The standard CD version features 21 whopping songs, while the digital download and vinyl editions feature an even more generous 24 songs. The review copies were for the former, so I can’t say what the additional three songs add to the collection. Still, as suggested, this is a very long and meandering platter, and one could probably carp that some of it could be pared down somewhat into a more manageable length. Still, that sounds churlish, for The Best of John Doe: This Far is a largely stellar collection of material, and only the sequencing of its third act really bogs things down. The album actually gets off to a ferocious start with the rocking threesome of “Telephone By the Bed”, “A Step Outside”, and “The Golden State”. It’s on these three tracks that Doe showcases his heavier side. “Telephone By the Bed”, particularly, is an enthusiastic piece of jangle rock that fires on all cylinders. And I love the fuzzbox vocals of “A Step Outside”, which gives the compilation its most punk-like edge. And “The Golden State” is a countrified number with joyous female vocals. These three songs form a triptych of sound that is refreshing to listen to.
But the rest of the compilation is peppered with gems. “Never Enough” has a jazzy groove to it with saxophones creating a lurching feeling. An acoustic reading of “Take #52”, which is one of two new tracks on the album (the other is a guitar-and-vocal take on X’s “Poor Girl”), is quiet and plaintive. “This Far”, from which part of the record’s title is borrowed, has a very Byrds meets Tom Petty feel to it. “Dying to Get Home”, meanwhile, is the most rockabilly moment on the disc. “Faraway (From the North Country)”, on the other hand, has a folksy strum. As you can probably tell, there’s a great deal of variety to this album, which ultimately works in its favour. Granted, as noted earlier, the record does nudge into quieter territory in its middle third, and it might have been better if some of those cuts were exchanging for more bracing material, or perhaps repositioned so that it didn’t overwhelm the listener. Still, that’s a fairly minor complain when the songwriting is as good as this.
So, when all is said and done, The Best of John Doe: This Far is a varied and appealing record. The interesting thing about John Doe is that he has a very plain spoken voice that suits much of the material. In view of the numerous labels that he`s been associated with in past years, this is a pretty good one-stop shop for listeners interested in diving into the Doe catalogue. Long time listeners might want to give this a pass, unless you’re an absolute completist, as there are only those two “new” songs to be had here. There’s much to enjoy on this album, though, from pointed lyricism to deft songwriting. It’s clear that John Doe is a man of many talents – whether it be acting or in a songwriting role – and this compilation is a pretty decent encapsulation of his work outside of X. There’s a whole ‘nother world waiting for listeners who may have worn out their copies of Los Angeles, and there’s proof in the pudding that Doe is a singer-songwriter of quite a bit of excellence. You couldn’t do much more that is wrong than by picking up this album, even if it’s the only thing you listen to this month. The Best of John Doe: This Far showcases a man nearly at the top of his form, and we can only hope he’s got more goodies in his grab bag of music from here on out.