Zoom in close to a rose bush and all you see is thorns. Although twisted and hidden beauty still exists within the plant. Welcome to the music of Johnny Dowd in all its thorny beauty. For over thirty years Dowd has been taken the unexpected path, an iconoclast with few mates.
Family Picnic, Dowd’s 2019 release, out on Mother Jinx Records finds Johnny tilling the soil of unrequited love, murder, and characters struggling to live a twisted American dream. As Dowd sings album closer Thomas Dorsey, “I sing songs of lust and depravity, that’s the only kind of songs come out of me.” Electronic beats, keyboard flourish, and what Johnny deems “ice-cream chords” drive a record composed of waltzes, shuffles, and boom-chuck rhythms. Dowd shifts between his bent-but-not-broke singing voice and a spoken word approach that succeeds where lesser artist would be chastised for “trying to rap.”
The instrumental “Hoodoo” preps the listener for an unusual experience as electronic beats, carny organ, and electric guitar collide with a xylorimba. Dowd leans on reliable past collaborators on this release including Michael Edmondson (backing vocals, guitar, xylorimba) and Kim Sherwood-Caso (backing vocals), while he covers vocal, guitar, and keyboard duties himself.
“The Man of Your Dreams” follows, “I’m not the man of your dreams, that is obvious to all,” Dowd sings. “If you must go, go slowly,” he duets with Kim Sherwood-Caso. The two voices grate against one another initially, but like sandpaper they smooth and blend together, hypnotizing your ears. Vicksburg dives into a world that, “was live by the sword, die by the gun.”
Dark tales abound on much of the record; the darkness deepens in the loneliness of “Walking the Floor,” “people around me are so computerized, I see the fear in their eyes, I look at them, they look away, it’s just another horrible day”, he continues, “I’m sad and lonely, nervous and depressed, my life without you is a big f*%#ing mess.”
Family Picnic is a survey of characters that would be at home in a Harry Crews or Larry Brown novel. Four Gray Walls dark um-pa-pa like folk polka dirge is almost fun until the lyrical punch lands, “a doctor can fix a damaged heart, replace what’s been broken with artificial parts, but the damage you cause only God can repair, whether I live or die I no longer care.”
Before the record risks becoming too depressing, a goofiness slips into the mix on Conway Twitty. “I wanna make some noise, I don’t want no peace and quiet, I’m here tonight to start a mother f#$*ing riot, I love the bright lights of New York City and I want to be a star like Conway Twitty,” Dowd sings. Let’s Have a Party keeps the party going with 80’s era keyboard driven electronic beats and synthesized tones while Dowd sings, “let’s have a party, just you and me, weekend is here, now I’m free…life is so hard, working class, work week is long, money don’t last.”
While songs about longing, loneliness, missteps, and murder are nothing new to the Americana songbook or Johnny Dowd’s work, Dowd continually reinvents his approach to these topics in a way that finds renewed energy and purpose. http://www.johnnydowd.com
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