Just so there’s no confusion: For the Best of Us is not the proper follow-up to John Doe’s lovely 2005 album, Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet. No, it’s a reissue of Doe’s 1998 EP,For the Rest of Us, released under the banner of the John Doe Thing, but with five unreleased tracks and a more optimistic album title. At the risk of presumption, odds are pretty good that you didn’t hear the original incarnation of this EP when Kill Rock Stars put it out, so the fine folks at Yep Roc — Doe’s current label home — have rescued the album from the cut-out bin of history, providing the opportunity for a wider audience to enjoy a very good album from one of the American Rock Scene’s most enduring figures.
(Quick aside: Between the way-cool roster (Doe, Dave Alvin, Marah, the Minus 5, the Forty-Fives) and fan-friendly moves like reviving For the Best of Us, kudos is deserved for Yep Roc, a label that grows in stature and esteem on a nearly weekly basis.)
For those of us who’ve followed Doe’s evolution from heady punker to roots rocker, For the Best of Us makes for an interesting snapshot of Doe’s development from the former to the latter. With Doe working with members of Beck’s backing band — guitarist Smokey Hormel and drummer Joey Waronker — as well as bassists Tony Marsico (Matthew Sweet) and Steve McDonald (Redd Kross), the album could have been his version of Mike Watt’s Ball-hog or Tugboat?, the case of a musical icon finding the next path after the early ’90s dissolution of his previous band (X and fIREHOSE, respectively), with the help of some well-known and respected musician friends. And heck, Dave Grohl has a hand in both records, drumming for Watt and co-writing the spare “This Loving Thing” with Doe. But where Watt was content to share the spotlight, For the Best of Us places Doe front and center.
As for the point about For the Best of Us being a career-bridger, the album really is a fine mix of hard rockers and singer/songwriter material, a mix that would come to full-flower on Doe’s subsequent solo albums. That said, the album gets off to an odd start with “A Step Outside”. It’s a rocker, to be sure, but also aptly-titled, as Doe employs filtered vocals and a dark, slick ’90s alt-rock sound. It really is outside his wheelhouse, but there’s enough anthemic roots flavor to prove that it is Doe. Meanwhile, “Let’s Get Lost” boasts another apropos title: it’s spooky, atmospheric and un-Doe-like.
From there, though, Doe seems to find himself… and he’s grouchy. “The Unhappy Song” is much spryer-sounding than its title would suggest, and is a great breakup/road song. One can picture Doe hurtling down the highway, punching the steering wheel over lyrics like, “How can it be I fucked it up so totally?” So many of Doe’s breakup songs are more ennui than anger — think X’s “4th of July” (penned by Dave Alvin, but still) or the Knitters’ “Try Anymore (Why Don’t We Even)” — so it’s good to hear Doe get his dander up over a bad relationship. He stays in that vein with the clanging “Bad, Bad Feeling”. Truer words have never been sung then when Doe snarls, “Sometimes feeling like shit is all you got,” and for good measure tosses in a handful of “Fuck it!”s. Folks who find Doe circa 2006 a little too somber will surely appreciate the fury with which these tunes are delivered. The original EP closes with the aforementioned “This Loving Thing”, co-written by Dave Grohl. Anyone expecting a rocker will be disappointed, as the tune is a quiet ballad, but it’s a great reminder that both men are as good at the introspective tunes as they are with the fist pumpers.
The five previously unreleased tunes were recorded at the same time as those that appeared on the EP; needless to say, they’re cut from the same cloth, and if anything, rock a little harder than the original five. The bluesy “Criminal” hangs thick with smoke, while “Broken Smile” surfs on a fat bass line and offers some of Doe’s best aching lyrics: “She’s got a smile that could break 1000 hearts / and she’s breaking her own right now.” “Come Home” is the disc’s “punkest” song, with Doe tearing ass over a squalling guitar, fearing that “by the time I make it home, there might be nothing to come home to.” Call it the flipside to early X tunes like “House That I Call Home” or “We’re Desperate”. The disc closes with a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man”, which Doe may have recorded a decade ago, but it’s unfortunately apropos in 2006’s war-torn times. On the happy side, it’s got a great, soulful, bluesy solo.
From the vantage point of 2006, it’s easy (and helpful shorthand) to mark For the Best of Us as one of Doe’s liminal records, one that illustrates the facility with which he straddles punk and roots, to say nothing of the fact that it shows how close those genres are in spirit. After all, when you’re an artist who’s been on the scene for 25 years, as Doe has, it’s important to have a few signpost records along the way, even if in retrospect, for those fans who are new to your work. That said, For the Best of Us is hardly the place for Doe newbies to start — go get the first four X albums, at the very least — but folks who’ve enjoyed all the facets of Doe’s career will want to pick up For the Best of Us and fill in one of the missing puzzle pieces in Doe’s illustrious career.