"Thou shalt not wield the harmonica carelessly, nor shall its tinny power be underestimated": so sayeth the harmonica rule.
A friend of mine once said of Ryan Adams's Heartbreaker, "Damn, that's some seriously offensive harmonica!" Had Langhorne Slim's The Electric Love Letter EP been available at the time, Adams's harmonica crimes would have seemed more like misdemeanors in comparison.
Langhorne Slim's offensive mouth harp tactics overwhelm only the first song on his debut EP, but a betrayal of the harmonica rule is definitely an omen of bad things to come.
Let's back up a moment: Langhorne Slim could be aptly described, in the appropriate vernacular, as a son-of-a-gun, a distinction he would probably wear with pride. Armed with a myriad of references to his "gal" and "pumpkin pie", Langhorne's homegrown style is a panic in the proverbial barnyard. His voice, quaking and uncompromisingly shrill, is that of a pre-pubescent Tom Waits aching to impress the folks at the local hoedown. While his nude appearance on the cover of The Electric Love Letter EP would suggest otherwise, he favors a slick physical visage -- a door-to-door salesman, straight out of a Flannery O'Connor story. I've got to hand it to him: his conviction is infallible and he really feels this persona whether or not it's true to life or merely fabricated (I'm guessing the latter, but more on that later).
If only I could believe in his songs with the same devout enthusiasm. What The Electric Love Letter EP offers is an artist feverishly trying to hit the mark and subsequently falling short.
Back to that harmonica offense: "My Future" opens the EP with its bluesy, talkin' swamp stomp carol. "I can't tell my future / I can't tell my past" Langhorne howls, as his band brews up a muddy mix of rhythmic support. There's that harmonica: piercing, vengeful, oblivious -- to paraphrase the Super Furry Animals, it don't give a fuck. Langhorne's slide guitar stumbles over itself again and again, like a kid trying to jaywalk across a city street. And then, a dog's bark breaks into the foreground, just about as musical as any other instrument in the song. The inclusion of that dog bark is ironically symbolic of all that's wrong with track, a calling-out of its deficiencies.
"Lord", which works either as a murder and/or suicide ballad, is equally disturbing and oblique. Langhorne, alone with his acoustic guitar, is infinitely more successful without the raucous backing band. "I've found my true love / Now she's buried away" he croaks to the sparse accompaniment, his voice on the verge of collapsing, and it's almost entirely convincing.
Other songs include "Loretta Lee Jones", an accordion and horns-fueled zydeco romp; "Electric Love Letter", a country-folk toe-tapper; and the acoustic ballad "One Sunday Morning", which after opening with a "You Can't Always Get What You Want"-inspired choir, inexplicably delves in bizarre imagery ("You licked your lips for a bit / And fingered yourself with the mayonnaise") over guitar and keyboards.
The Electric Love Letter EP closes with a live "hidden track" from the Bonaroo Music Festival. Once again, Langhorne roars out of the gate like gangbusters, but his zealous execution cannot support the weak material. The crowd seems to love him, but let's remember that they were probably a wee bit tipsy. A raucous country ramble called "Cut It Down" would surely fuel their willingness to get involved. (I have to remind myself that just because the crowd is into it doesn't make it worthy of similar praise; just look at William Hung.)
This all directly relates to my next issue with the EP: it all feels a bit gimmicky, like a kitschy impersonation of the real deal. Imagine Ween's 12 Golden Country Greats without the excessive humor or Skip Spence's Oar minus the fractured sanity; The Electric Love Letter EP hovers at an unfocused point where self-parody and self-adoration can be detected, but not defined. Langhorne's still young and full of endless energy, so perhaps he'll work out something a little more truthful and a little less bewildered one of these days.