De eerste prachtige uitgave van en voor 2018 is een feit. Twinkle, Twinkle van Johnny Dowd is een release waarbij de mond meerdere malen van verbazing openvalt. Op zijn site vertelt hij in zijn eigen woorden over zijn nieuwe langspeler:“Howdy all. I have finished tracking my new record, tentatively titled Twinkle, Twinkle. All the songs are in the public domain — ‘Tom Dooley’, ‘St. James Infirmary’, ‘Red River Valley’, ‘Rock of Ages’… you get the picture. It features Anna Coogan and Mike Edmondson on vocals. If you ever wondered what folk music would sound like in an electronic setting, this is it. I’ll release it on my own label, Mother Jinx Records. Not sure when. I’ll keep you posted.” Twinkle, Twinkle staat in januari 2018. Zoveel is nu duidelijk, in de schappen van de winkels.
Dowd heeft een paar eigen composities aangevuld met Amerikaanse liedjes uit een ver en muzikaal verleden. ‘The Cuckoo’, ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’, ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ en ‘John The Revelator’ zijn overbekende traditionals. Dowd haalt elk nummer door zijn elektronische studio en stopt de nummers vol afwijkende, vreemde en verrassende klanken.
Na een eerste beluistering ligt een conclusie voor de hand. Dowd heeft zijn hand overspeeld. De nummers zijn slechts in de verte te herkennen en spatten uiteen door de wens te verbazen en misschien wel te choqueren. Precies op dat punt is er ook de oprechte verbazing. Dowd heeft de nummers aangepakt, gegeseld bijna én met respect behandeld. De glimlach op de lippen van de luisteraar om zoveel gekte, verandert af en toe in een sardonische grijns. Het verleden verdient respect, maar mag ook dienen als basis voor muzikale gekte en brille.
‘Execute American Folklore, Again’ opent en is een nummer dat Dowd bij optredens in 2016 al speelde. Hij voegt op deze release het woord Again toe. Het is bekend dat Dowd de Amerikaanse muziekgeschiedenis graag op zijn geheel eigen manier vertolkt. Op Twinkle, Twinklle gaat hij ‘again’, opnieuw de Amerikaanse folklore te lijf.
Na vele luisterbeurten is er vooral de verbazing gebleven. ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ loopt al na ruim twee minuten moeiteloos over in ‘Oh, My Darling, Clementine’. De solo tussen de coupletten is typisch Dowd, simpel en schurend. De Amerikaanse bard melkt de nummers niet uit. Zoals altijd heeft hij lak aan conventies en schakelt bijna verveeld naar een volgend liedje.
Twinkle, Twinkle is een unieke plaat. Het is een release die te denken geeft en telkens om aandacht vraagt. De luisteraar draait nummers om gedachtes tijdens eerdere draaibeurten te bevestigen. Dowd zet iedereen continue op het verkeerde been.
Afsluitend nummer is ‘Job 17: 11 – 17’. “Thank God it’s Friday. I’m gonna have a party. Gonna have a funky, funky good time,” zingt Dowd. En dat is uiteindelijk precies wat Twinkle, Twinkle is. Een feest voor de oren van iedereen die avontuur zoekt in folklore. (Mother Jinx Records)
Zaterdag 27 Januari 2018 in Paradiso. Zaal open 21:30, Aanvang 22:00
Johnny Dowd first caught my ear in 1999 with, Pictures From Life’s Other Side.Wherein he demonically skewered a maudlin Hank Williams ditty. As for the rest, it was the musical equivalent of Sam Shepherd’s, Buried Child. To this day, it remains one of my favorite albums. On Other Side’s ‘God Created Woman’ there’s the ominous line, “Meet me in the parking lot, up on level three. There’s something I gotta show you. There’s something you just gotta see.” Dowd’s latest, Twinkle Twinkle might just be that something.
His last album, Execute American Folklore, pretty much was a statement of intent. Twinkle Twinkle, takes its cue from there and then proceeds to wreak unholy carnage on what have become the standards of American Folklore. By the time he’s done, you won’t recognize them. They’re beyond redemption. Like Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, Twinkle Twinkle is an ornery, willfully perverse work of Art.
“The coo coo is a pretty bird,” Clarence Ashley once crooned on a scratchy bit of shellac sometime in early 20th Century. Well, Dowd’s version is just plain cuckoo. Here this well-worn standard sounds like it joined up with Devo after a 5th of Jim Beam. This bird is so mean, it will rip your heart out like a buzzard if you so much as tip toe around it. And you not only won’t recognize this ‘St. James Infirmary’, you’ll need directions home after sliding all over the guts spilled on the floor. In Dowd’s hands, Son House’s ‘John The Revelator’ reads more like a Dear John letter to Nietzsche’s lost, dead God. ‘Tom Dooley’ gets a make- over with a pair of brass knuckles. And God help you if you’re caught snoozing in this ‘House of The Rising Sun’. If that weren’t enough, Dowd has cut the most unsettling and terrifying version of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ you’ll ever hear. Mozart must be laughing in his grave.
In terms of Dowd’s song choices, nothing on this album is arbitrary. Titles like, ‘Trouble In Mind’ and ‘Going Down The Road Feeling Bad’ have resonance in regards to what’s currently going on in the ol’ Red White and Blue. Forgive me for getting political here, but in its entirety Twinkle Twinkle can be viewed as a biting commentary on the America so many bigots like to “God bless” all the time. This album is undeniably a crooked middle finger to our political culture and times. It doesn’t take a stable genius to see that. What Dowd has laid down here, is no accident. If one’s followed Dowd’s career, he’s been moving in this direction for years. In fact, he’s always dealt these cards out. But with Twinkle Twinkle he goes for the jugular with all the gusto and surgical precision of Jack the Ripper. In fact, this little opus could have just as easily be entitled, Jack The Ripper Sings American Folk Songs.
In any event, Twinkle Twinkle is the perfect soundtrack to the madness under the surface of our affable myths of melting pots, baseball, apple pie and fireworks on the 4th of July. Here Dowd is ripping the band aid off and staring that ugly beast right in the face. And doing it with brains, heart and moral outrage. Not to mention one hell of a twisted sense of humor.
Woody Guthrie wrote, “This Machine Kill Fascists” on his guitar for a damn good reason. Despite Pete Seeger and the Civil Rights movement, a lot of these songs were watered down by the white bread likes of the Kingston Trio. Glossed over as coffee house clap a-longs for entitled college students. Then later, came O Brother Where Art Thou and the shallow hipster Alt Country/Americana revival. By comparison, Twinkle Twinkle isn’t easy or pretty listening. But it sure has balls. Not to mention, vision. If you despised what the likes of Kingston Trio did to American Folk Music, you’ll take pure delight in this. Revenge is sweet.
TERRELL’S TUNE-UP: Johnny Dowd’s Twinkle Twinkle
A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
I love great old American folk songs and other hoary tunes from past centuries. And I love radical reinterpretations of great American folk songs, ancient murder ballads, epic love ballads, supernatural weirdness, field hollers, proto-Tin Pan Alley standards, Stephen Foster classics, and spirituals.
Neil Young’s Americana, with its fearsome take on “She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain” (retitled “Jesus’ Chariot” and recast as an appeal to our space-alien forefathers), is a prime example of this. Lesser known is Snakefarm’s Songs From My Funeral, in which singer Anna Domino puts a funky, electronic, atmospheric twist on spooky old tunes like “St. James Infirmary Blues,” “Banks of the Ohio,” and “House of the Rising Sun.”
If stodgy old purists balked at these efforts, Johnny Dowd’s new album Twinkle, Twinkle should give them all heart attacks. Dowd doesn’t bring these songs into the present. He doesn’t take them to the future. He takes them straight to hell — and listeners not only will feel the heat, they’ll smell the devil’s breath.
With Dowd on vocals, guitar (torturing the poor thing), keyboards, and other instruments, plus backing vocals by Anna Coogan and Michael Edmondson, most of the songs here will take on different shades, spotlight hidden corners, and reveal strange new meanings. It’s like a dream in which familiar things — in this case, the lyrics of the songs — melt into menacing new forms. The closest comparison I can come up with is The Residents, those mysterious masked mutants who have applied their strange craft to the works of Elvis, Hank Williams Sr., James Brown, and others. Dowd sounds downright Residential on this album.
Dowd’s prominent drawl is not affected. He was raised in Texas and Oklahoma. But for the last few decades he has resided in Ithaca, New York, where he has earned his daily bread operating a moving company. He didn’t start recording until he was nearly fifty, when he released his 1998 debut, Wrong Side of Memphis, full of off-kilter original murder ballads and other tales of the underbelly.
Starting off Twinkle, Twinkle with an original song called “Execute American Folklore, Again” (an obvious reference to the title of his previous album), Dowd lays out his purpose. And while you’re still scratching your head over that one, he goes into the title song, a version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with industrial percussion, Coogan singing a surreal soprano, and a demonic electronic voice that seems to be mocking Dowd’s earnest recitation.
That’s followed by a Dada-like take on one of my favorite folk songs. Even before Dowd got his hands on it, “The Cuckoo” was filled with mystery, with its seemingly unconnected references to Independence Day (“She never hollers cuckoo ’til the fourth day of July”) and the Jack of Diamonds robbing you of your silver and your gold. It’s an old British ballad that I suspect has evolved into a patchwork of two or three songs. It became a folk-scene standard in the ’50s when Harry Smith put Clarence Ashley’s version of it on his Anthology of American Folk Music.There are great versions by Doc Watson, The Holy Modal Rounders, Taj Mahal, Dave Alvin, and — perhaps my favorite — by Big Brother & The Holding Company. But Dowd does the most cuckoo “Cuckoo.” He makes this bird holler louder than anyone (and several months before the fourth of July).Dowd’s take on the New Orleans classic “St. James Infirmary Blues” sounds even more ominous than a song about viewing your sweetheart’s corpse in a hospital morgue is supposed to sound. He includes an opening-verse framing device that Cab Calloway and others omitted:
“… Old Joe’s barroom, it was on the corner of the square./The usual crowd was assembled, and Big Joe McKinney was there./He was standing by my shoulder. His eyes were bloodshot red/He turned to the crowd around him and these are the words he said.”
When Dowd sings the part in which the narrator fantasizes about his own funeral, he changes a line, perhaps to add cosmic significance: “Put a $20 gold piece on my watch chain/So that God will know I died standing pat.”
Other highlights of Twinkle, Twinkle include what sounds like a Martian hip-hop interpretation of “Rock of Ages.” Dowd punctuates the versions saying “Rock! I said Rock!” with a crazy guitar twang coming in behind him. On “John the Revelator,” Dowd delivers each line as if he’s relaying information that could get him killed. “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” sounds like a road trip into another dimension. Yes, it’s strange, but I bet Woody Guthrie would have gotten a kick out of it.
And there’s “Tom Dooley,” in which Dowd ends the song by singing a verse of “Jesus Loves Me.” And on “Oh, My Darling, Clementine,” Dowd actually sings the melody, backed up by Coogan on the choruses. This is about as straight as he plays it, at least until the last minute or so of the song — in which the music gets stranger and “Jesus Loves Me” makes a return.
He ends the album with some Bible verse — “Job 17: 11-17” — taking about as many liberties with the Good Book as he does with the folk songs. The Bible says, “If I wait, the grave is my house: I have made my bed in the darkness. I have said to corruption, `You are my father’: to the worm, `You are my mother, and my sister.’” Dowd adds words you never heard in the Bible: “TGIF, thank God it’s Friday, gonna have a party. … Hey everybody, come on over to my house.”
When my kids were growing up, I warned them not to accept party invitations from strangers spouting Bible verses full of worms and death. But Dowd’s crazy party is pretty hard to resist.
Well Hell’s bells, I couldn’t find any videos of Twinkle Twinkle songs to post here. But here are a few of my favorites from the past.
Here’s an ode to Nancy Sinatra:
To this next song, I pledged my eternal love .
And going way way back to 1999, this one from Dowd’s second album, Pictures from Life’s Other Side this one still haunts my nightmares.
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