A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Sept. 23, 2016
* Execute American Folklore by Johnny Dowd. You might not hear any obvious similarities between The Handsome Family and Dowd, but both appeared in a wonderful 2003 documentary by musician Jim White called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.
Dowd, in fact, was touted as “alternative country” when his first album was released in the late ’90s. The first time I saw him live was at a party for No Depression magazine at the famed Austin honky-tonk the Broken Spoke.
But the only thing that sounds remotely country about Dowd on his last several albums is his Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, drawl.
This new album is much closer to hip-hop or electronica — though commercial radio stations devoted to those formats are no more likely to play this album than is your basic hot new country station. And some songs are infused with Latin touches (what might be described as a Martian mambo) or even metal. Truth be told, Johnny Dowd doesn’t really sound much like anyone but Johnny Dowd.
And I happen to love that sound. Here Dowd himself plays all the instruments — except the instrument named Anna Coogan, who sings background vocals on several songs and lead vocals on one. Dowd mostly speaks rather than sings his lyrics.
There are some doozies on Execute American Folklore. He dedicates the ultra funky “Last Laugh” to his mother, “a union maid if ever there was one.” In the song, however, his mom is a call girl. But the story, laced with Biblical imagery, actually deals with some bitter loser — lots of Dowd protagonists fall into this category — plotting unspecified revenge against those who have wronged him.
“Sexual Revolution” is not about the joy of sex. Dowd recites a tale of a frustrated man whose cheating wife leaves him in a sad world where “pornographic fantasies infect my brain, filling me up with guilt and shame.”
Then in the deceptively upbeat “Whiskey Ate My Brain,” the singer catalogs his physical and mental deterioration. “Cancer ate my liver, God’s an Indian giver … Cocaine ate my nose, I can’t smell the roses.”
Coogan steps out front in “Brains-a-flame,” which sounds like Dowd has been listening to the old Brazilian psychedelic Tropicália band Os Mutantes. She sings about her dream man who “chain-smokes my heart three packs a day/He’s like a bad habit who won’t go away.”
In the closing track, “A World Without Me,” built on the classic “Louie Louie”/”Hang on Sloopy” hook, Dowd muses about the fact that memories of his life will quickly fade.
But the song only makes me fantasize about archaeologists in a future century stumbling across a cache of Dowd albums, prompting them to write surreal theories about life in the early 21st century.
Some videos for yas
Here’s “Gold” from The Handsome Family. This one has some nice footage of East Central in Albuquerque.
Another favorite from Unseen
Here’s some live Johnny Dowd with his latest band The Sex Robots. (You might want to skip the first 20 seconds or so. Weird buzz before the song starts.) Despite what the YoutTube title says, this is “Whisky Ate My Brain.”
Anna Coogan steps out front with “Brains A Flame.”
And just for the heck of it, here’s the trailer for Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.
Steve called it right-It’s Whiskey Ate My Brain on the Execute CD. But in our defense:
On the other hand, poor editing of the video has no excuse but ignorance. Any one want to lend a hand?