House of Freaks: Monkey on a Chain Gang / Tantilla

House of Freaks
Monkey on a Chain Gang / Tantilla
Rhino Handmade

If there’s one place where hyperbole is guaranteed to run rampant, it’s in the liner notes of a reissued CD.

No matter how good or bad an album may be, it’s generally a labor of love when someone goes out of their way to keep it in print. As a result, the text within the CD booklet is usually going to go a bit over the top when describing the quality and importance of the disc’s contents. In the case of House of Freaks, most of the praise is warranted. But one has to question if every two-person group that’s come into existence since Bryan Harvey and Johnny Hott first emerged on the scene — the Flat Duo Jets, the Chickasaw Mud Puppies, the Raveonettes, even the White Stripes — truly owes them a debt, as Chris Morris of Billboard suggests in his essay.

Don’t get me wrong, House of Freaks are great. I’m just not confident that they’re namechecked by every duo in the music business as being an inspiration.

House of Freaks’ debut album, Monkey on a Chain Gang, was originally released by Rhino Records in 1987, at a time when the label was still best known for novelty releases and ’60s reissues. They were still struggling to achieve a foothold in the new music market, so they had high hopes for Harvey and Hott. They even financed a video for the first single, “40 Years”, which managed to achieve at least one showing on 120 Minutes (I still have it on tape). Now that Rhino has developed a side label to reissue lost classics from earlier decades (Rhino Handmade), it’s no surprise that they retain enough of a fondness for House of Freaks to put their first two albums back into print.

House of Freaks came from Richmond, Virginia to Los Angeles in the mid-’80s, quickly building a following with their unique drums-and-guitar sound (which sounded for all the world like a full band) and Harvey’s historically-inspired lyrics. They were often described as “southern gothic”, probably by out-of-work history and literature majors attending their concerts. Still, the description is accurate, particularly given lyrics like those in “Bottom of the Ocean”:

A slaver bound for the eastern shore
The lightning crashed and thunder roared
Threw his cargo overboard
Down at the bottom of the ocean
Down at the bottom of the sea
All the screaming left behind
He sailed into the open sky
But washed ashore by the ocean tide
Were the bones of men thrown in the ocean
Down at the bottom of the sea

“Long Black Train” follows the longstanding Southern tradition of train songs. The bluesy result could’ve been recorded by Johnny Cash with no trouble, offering as it does such mournful lines as: “I see her standing off on that distant shore / Won’t you carry me back to Virginia’s door / The rabbit run and the dove it moans / Long black train gonna take me home”. In fact, the title of one of the bonus tracks on this reissue, “Ten More Minutes to Live”, seems directly inspired by the Cash classic (and Shel Silverstein-composed) “25 Minutes to Go”. Some of the album’s lyrics have dated a bit, such as the reference on “My Backyard” to “looking for the gospel on MTV”, but even that song manages to namecheck Stonewall Jackson.

Tantilla, the band’s 1989 follow-up, showed the fruits of a more cohesive creative vision; as a result, it’s arguably the definitive House of Freaks record. Although keyboardist Marty McCavitt appears on the disc to flesh out some of the songs, the band’s heart unquestionably remains the duo of Harvey and Hott. Harvey’s lyrics are almost exclusively devoted to the South this time around. His anger at the slavery condoned by his ancestors is as strong as ever, as evidenced on “White Folk’s Blood”:

Dusting off their father’s guns
Words like worms crawl through their brains
Sermons fly from the preacher’s mouth
But the auction block still remains
Gagged and tied to a tree trunk
After a fox hunt chase with dogs and chains
In a field of white in the broad daylight
The earth was black, black with blood

These Handmade reissues are undeniably fabulous. They offer not only everything the band released on Rhino Records (including the All My Friends EP) but also a plethora of live performances, demos, and heretofore-unreleased material as well. Monkey on a Chain Gang has thirteen bonus tracks; Tantilla tacks on the six songs from the aforementioned All My Friends, then throws on seven more offerings.

Not everything that gets reissued on CD deserves the expanded treatment, but listening to these two House of Freaks albums, it’s evident that these guys never got the proper respect they deserved. There’s no reason to believe that they would’ve scored more attention or higher sales figures had they been on a larger label, given the musical climate in the late ’80s. Besides, how do you market a band that’s definitively Southern yet doesn’t sound even remotely country? Regardless, this material is strong enough — both musically and lyrically — to warrant reevaluation and reinvestigation.

House of Freaks might not have inspired every duo that’s emerged since 1987, but it’s hard to imagine that a handful of the folks who picked up Monkey on a Chain Gangand Tantilla didn’t become inspired to tell their own stories.