Ike Reilly has been compared to Jack Kerouac, Philip Marlowe, and Bob Dylan. Such comparisons are not only hyperbole, they’re flat-out inaccurate, for Reilly is wholly original, occasionally to a fault. His songs are populated with drunks, lowlifes, and fuck-ups. And like the drifters and indigents he embodies, said songs are full of unexpected left turns, curveballs, and offbeat asides, both musical and lyrical. Reilly inspires not curiosity, but bona fide suspense over just what he’ll pull next. He’s an acid-tongued folkie with a pitch-black sense of humor, often seeking jubilation in the face of death. Look no further than the ubiquity of assassination in his lyrics, or the mere fact that his backup band is called the Assassination.
Thanks to these traits, Reilly has garnered substantial critical acclaim, but not much of a critical following. His releases are typically praised, then quickly forgotten by critics who prefer to peddle inferior singer-songwriters (Conor Oberst, Jens Lekman) in every other review. With a few exceptions, the media perception of Reilly is merely an above-average roots rocker, a slacker yarn-spinner whose talent far exceeds his ambition.
Poison the Hit Parade is not about to convert the unconverted. A collection of demos, EP tracks, and alternate versions, it’s an odds-and-ends holdover for Reilly devotees eagerly awaiting his next official move. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of rhyme or reason behind the song selection. There’s too many omissions for this to be a makeshift best-of, and too few rarities to be a useful catch-up disc. And the non-chronological running order (and the lack of annotated liner notes a la Fountains of Wayne’s similar but grander Out of State Plates) minimizes Reilly’s evolution as both a songwriter and vocalist. Since this is clearly geared toward fans, details on these recordings and their gestations would have been immensely appreciated. Without such amenities, Poison’s purpose is even more questionable.
The music, however, is reliably impressive and often remarkable. Much of the album conveys Reilly’s formidable talents. His gift for an ear-grabbing turn-of-phrase that catches the listener off guard is mesmerizing. The triad of demos from Reilly’s 2001 debut Salesmen and Racists (currently out of print) benefit from more spare, intimate arrangements, free of the major label gloss that once enveloped them. In this looser setting, “Hip Hop Thighs #16”, with its vast musical iconography referencing Cash, Cline, and Strummer, and “Duty Free” are proven chestnuts, even potential standards. The latter song, which Cracker covered in 2003 (a fact slyly noted in the silly “Cracker’s Big Break” interlude), remains among Reilly’s catchiest and most cohesive compositions, and the Cracker connection calls attention to David Lowery’s influence. Like Lowery, Reilly can be a riot, but can sometimes undermine his brilliance with an overly self-satisfied, even smug air, seeming contemptuous of his characters and his own music.
Unfortunately, the previously released songs overshadow the new material, i.e. the stuff that will hook die-hards. The title track is a fairly rote rocker that has little to say and not much melody to say it with. “Dragonflies” is a lively song about death that manages to be optimistic without growing sentimental, but it still falls short of Reilly’s best work. The collection’s nature renders it inherently uneven, and the unfinished, tossed-off quality to many of these tracks won’t exactly diminish Reilly’s slacker reputation. Even on his proper albums, Reilly can be frustratingly inconsistent, and highlighting that trait, as Poison does, is a disservice to him.
Reilly fans are used to his flaws, though, and when he brings his A-game, which he often does, those flaws are excusable. Poison will satiate those gunning for new material, or eager to hear some old faves in a new light. But it’s unlikely to eclipse Salesmen or We Belong to the Staggering Evening on their playlists. Newcomers will see frequent potential for a great singer-songwriter, but will have to scout out his proper albums for that greatness’s full manifestation.