Friday, February 24, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: DESERT ROCK, GRUMP ROCK

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 24, 2006


Boris McCutcheon, the self-described “singer/songwriter/farmer,” actually comes from New England. But his music always has shown a Southwestern sensibility. To borrow one of his song titles, both the words and the music seem singed by volcanic winds. McCutcheon’s first album, inspired by a stay in NambĂ©, was called Mother Ditch. His second release, When We Were Big, recorded in Tucson, had song titles like “Diablo Waltz” and “Fine Suede.”

That Southwestern sensibility is even more pronounced in his latest album, Cactusman Versus the Blue Demon, recently released on Frogville Records under the name of Boris & The Saltlicks.

It’s acoustic-based desert-rat music, celebrating the harsh beauty but warning of the cruelty of the desert and its denizens. “I pity this poor place,” McCutcheon sings in “Volcanic Wind,” the album’s first song, “All these creatures have God on their face.” The tune starts out with a “crazy woman” on the side of the road feeding Alpo to the coyotes.

McCutcheon’s songs are sometimes somber, sometimes exuberant, sometimes sardonic. And often inscrutable, like the concept behind the title. (According to McCutcheon’s Web site, Cactusman and the Blue Demon were characters in a series of dreams he had in the early ’90s. And here I thought the Blue Demon was the old lucha libre star.)

He can be a straightforward storyteller. For instance, “Seeds & Candy” is a harrowing tale of a city couple who freeze to death in the mountains of Utah, sung over an irresistible Celt-rock backdrop, with McCutcheon himself on mandolin.

There’s lighter-hearted fare here, too. “Don’t Get Weird” is a bluesy number (Kevin Zoernig slinking in with some nice Jimmy Smith organ riffs) that starts out romantically. “The moon is rising and you delight me.” But trouble, not hot romance, seems to be ahead. By the end of the first verse, he’s pleading, “Don’t get weird, don’t get weird ...”

But the real masterpiece on Cactusman is “Caves of Burgundy.” With a melody that suggests some long-lost Steve Young tune, the lyrics suggest a supernatural encounter, like those spooky old British ballads Steeleye Span used to be so fond of, where malevolent beings seduce unsuspecting humans to follow them to Elfland, which ultimately turns out to be hell.

What I like best about this song, though, is the insane interplay between Zoernig’s tinkly-winkly toy piano and Brett Davis’ strangled, screaming guitar during the final fadeout.

It would be impossible to talk about this CD without mentioning the wonderful artwork on the front and back covers. A series of cartoons by artist Neal Cadogan depicts the cosmic showdown in the desert between the two title characters. Buy this album so McCutcheon can afford to pay Cadogan to make a Cactusman video.

McCutcheon is playing at 9 p.m. today, Feb. 24, at the Cowgirl, 319 S. Guadalupe St. (admission $5), and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Mine Shaft Tavern, 2846 N.M. 14, Madrid.

Also recommended

*Songs of No Consequence by Graham Parker & The Figgs. “Has rock ’n’ roll just died/Or does it just smell bad?”

Graham Parker on his latest album has a few bones to pick. He’s never been Little Mary Sunshine, but I haven’t heard him so pissed off in years.

In fact, Songs of No Consequence could be the grump-rock album of the decade. It is a virtual bouquet of splendid grouchiness.

Who invented grump rock? Was it Lou Reed, who perfected the form in his 1989 classic New York? Or was it nearly 20 years earlier when John Lennon, whose album Imagine balanced his weepy politically correct title song with blistering put-downs like “Give Me Some Truth” and “How Do You Sleep?” And surely, Randy Newman and Elvis Costello fit into the grump-rock pantheon.

And so does Costello’s contemporary, Parker. He gleefully rips into the entertainment media on the opening cut, “Vanity Press,” but before long, it is obvious he’s talking about the American press in general. “It’s got to be a puff piece/That only shows the best/About the war next door/And it’s a great success,” he snarls in the song.

Parker turns his ire to radio in “There’s Nothing on the Radio,” singing “I don’t want no ’60s junk/Or that ’90s cartoon punk ... I don’t want those whiny chicks/Or those cardboard country hicks ...” He concludes, “The future looks like toast/We’d better burn it.”

His fellow rockers are at the end of Parker’s ugly stick on “Did Everybody Just Get Old?” “That stranger who used to live for danger/is now acting like he never was a teenager,” he sings. “Those rockers with dirty pictures in their lockers/Now have ’em on their computer screens.”

Parker waxes acerbic on a traditional grump-rock target: life on the road. “Well, I can play a guitar just like wringing a neck,” he starts out in “Suck ’n’ Blow,” which is full of imagery of breaking down equipment and screeching air brakes. But I think this old grouch has a soft spot.

“Go Little Jimmy” is about a young blues harpist touring small clubs and wowing the girls. In a rare break in the mood of this album, Parker seems almost excited for the kid.

Of course, he seems to take more pleasure in putting down small-minded, small-town dolts who try to persuade a young woman not to pursue her crazy dreams in “Local Boys”: “Don’t leave here all alone/Don’t go to Paris, don’t go to Rome/Stay in town just like your sister Joyce/And don’t look any further than the local boys.”


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