Tony Peyser's "Blue State Jukebox"
April 21, 2005
Elizabeth McQueen and The Firebrands' "Happy Doing What We're Doing"
Review by Tony Peyser
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Before we get started, I just want to pass along some new 411 about a song I never get tired of mentioning: Ray Wylie Hubbard's thumping, ironic anthem, "Screw You (We're From Texas.)" His wife, Judy, told me he's been asked by lots of Republican groups to sing the song at GOP events.
And he's turned them down every time because no amount of money could persuade him to do so.
For that reason alone, you should go pick up Growl or one of Hubbard's many other cool albums. If you need another reason, he's one of the true titans of Texas music.
Goodbye, Austin. Hello, London.
One chapter from British music history is a perfect example of when great bands and albums emerged from modest intentions, unlike today's mainstream domination by a corporate mentality. In the 1980s, London pubs played jazz, which the kids didn't think was alright. Eggs Over Easy, an American group who had trouble getting gigs anywhere, asked the folks in charge at the Tally Ho pub if they could play and were told yes. Their shows made such a splash that other local bands became fans and also wanted to perform there. That's how pub rock was born. It's still my favorite genre and it's still underappreciated.
The music itself is basic early rock and roll with a smart pop sensibility and no shortage of guitars. Nick Lowe --- my musical hero --- brought his band Brinsley Schwarz to Tally Ho. When pub rock gave way to punk, Lowe rode that wave, too, producing albums by Elvis Costello and Graham Parker and writing classic songs like "What's So Funny (About Peace, Love & Understanding?)"
Elizabeth McQueen and The Firebrands' second album takes its title from a song in the Brinsley Schwarz catalogue: Happy Doing What We're Doing. It's a thirteen-track shout-out to pub rock and it's deliriously entertaining. With her brainy, dark frame glasses and her white dancing shoes, McQueen turns back the clock and kicks up her heels.
The first three tracks are the strongest opening trio of songs I've heard on an album in a long time. "Love's Melody" is a Ducks Deluxe song and soars so swiftly that it practically has wings on it. The prime mover of Ducks Deluxe, Dave Edmunds, also did a stint with Lowe in another great pub rock band, Rockpile. Track two, very appropriately, is Rockpile's "When I Write The Book." It's a swoony little gem, with a jittery guitar riff, a spirited horn section and thumping bass line that would have worked for Berry Gordy in his salad days at Motown.
Even more pumped up is the cover of Squeeze's "Annie Get Your Gun." McQueen's shout and reply of the title with the band is criminally infectious. I borrowed one of my wife's Squeeze albums to compare the two versions of "Annie Get Your Gun." I love Squeeze but actually prefer what McQueen and her crew did here. The pull from the song is so inviting that career wallflowers may find themselves heading for the nearest dance floor.
McQueen cranks the pace down a little on "Dirty Little Secret." Led by a snarling, way- 1980s guitar lick, it's a wise look at the often-unwise practice of making fools of loved ones by fooling around. What's risky here is this isn't a cover; it's an original McQueen wrote with her pal Wendy Mitchell. It if it didn't work, critics would say, "Yeah, she can play pub rock but she can't write it." But McQueen's dirty little secret with "Dirty Little Secret" is her own song here is every bit as good as the ones she's interpreting. And she and Mitchell have come up with some especially knowing lyrics: "Everybody knows what they've both been talking about/Just because they ain't been caught don't they mean ain't been found out."
To coincide with last month's South By Southwest music festival in her adopted hometown of Austin, McQueen and her Firebrands corralled some other local bands into a pub rock night at a legendary dive, The Hole In The Wall. I gather it went over big time and a good time is guaranteed for anyone who picks up McQueen's sophomore release.
Another artist I'm a big fan of is Louisiana-born Mary Gauthier. The only thing I didn't like about her last album was the title: Filth and Fire. I would have preferred Camelot Motel, after her song on it about a terribly tacky place which catered to desperate clientele who were Gumping through life one, one-night-stand at a time. (Gauthier once astutely categorized her genre as country noir. If Janis Joplin had conquered drugs and alcohol and gone acoustic, she would have also fit in nicely under this heading.) Anyway, I contacted Gauthier over the last few years to find out what her fourth album was going to be called. I must have asked her at least three different times. It wasn't that I forgot --- I just loved hearing it. Gauthier's strong new record is memorably called Mercy Now.
The title track is a real lesson in songwriting. Gauthier brings up the notion of mercy as something we shouldn't just hold in our hearts but send into the world. In short order, Gauthier painfully shows how it's needed for her ailing father and troubled brother. It should help anyone flex some unused compassion muscles. But the power of the song keeps going as Gauthier then wishes --- in these difficult times --- for mercy also to be visited upon her church, her country and every living thing. The one time I saw Gauthier sing was several years ago at a secular gig at a church in Pasadena. That's appropriate since "Mercy Now" is nothing less than a prayer for planet earth in 2005.
Finally, I want to talk about a folk-rock album I really got a kick out of called Exploration. During Black History Month in 2006, I hope that "Dr. King" will be getting some serious airplay. In fact, it should be played during every Black History Month from now on. While the song is definitely modern, it also resonates with the top grade folk protest songs of the 1950s and 1960s. One could easily imagine Pete Seeger singing this in front of the Washington Monument where Martin Luther King made his "I Have A Dream" speech. The production on it reminded me of early albums by The Jayhawks, one of the first bands to break through during the alt-country scare of the mid-1990s.
This celebration in song of King is a four and half minute hootenanny of hope. It was adapted by Johnny Irion, who's partnered on this major label debut album with his wife, Sarah Lee. The source material Irion worked with is a never-performed song by Seeger himself, which may explain why it has an old school feel to it. One of the producers of Exploration is Gary Louris, who was a co-founder of The Jayhawks. If you listen and look carefully enough, there are connections everywhere.
The harmonizing between the South Carolina-based Irion and Sarah Lee is as welcoming as walking into a house where somebody is just taking homemade bread out of the oven. On her own, Sarah Lee's vocals made me think of a combination of Joan Baez, Carole King and Stevie Nix. I should also probably point out that Lee isn't Sarah's last name; it's Guthrie. She's one of Arlo's daughters and one of Woody's granddaughters.
Here's to apples --- and albums --- that don't fall far from family trees.
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Tony Peyser writes political
poems every day for
and draws editorial cartoons twice weekly. His new music column,
The Blue State Jukebox, is now a monthly feature for BuzzFlash.
Mr. Peyser (who loves referring to himself in the third person) is