(Northern Spy, 2013)
At first I was like, c’mon, wtf. What is this. Seriously.
Those were rhetorical questions, though. (Note the lack of question marks? Er, that question wasn’t rhetorical. The first partial sentences are questions without question marks, denoting with sarcasm that I’m pretty much rolling my eyes at the idea of this album. In fact, maybe I’ll just continue to write parenthetical asides instead of provide any meaningful insight. I can go on for a while.) I’ve gotten past the rhetorical questions, and decided that this album is worth considering. In fact, after I finally gave it a real listen, I was pretty floored with how good these songs, classics written by a classic dude, sounded in the hands of musicians who pull and twist the originals into funky and weird approximations. Nobody’s gonna dispute the genius of Merle Haggard. But I wonder how many shared my initial reaction upon the realization that this album wasn’t a straight cover fest. How are a bunch of outsider jazz artists and a country singer gonna pull off a skronky jazz take on a country legend?
The one-artist full-cover-album doesn’t happen often, and results can be unmistakenly mixed. (I can point to Aaron Freeman’s Marvelous Clouds, a take on Rod McKuen songs, as a success. Xiu Xiu’s forthcoming Nina Simone cover album, Nina, will likely succeed in this way as well.) [Ed. note: Xiu Xiu flopped.] But Bryan and the Haggards – a jazz quintet led by saxophonist Bryan Murray – featuring “Dr.” Eugene Chadbourne – former Shockabilly frontman and eclectic banjoist and guitarist who has played with everyone from John Zorn to They Might Be Giants – can lay claim to success in this arena as well with (*ahem, snicker*) Merles Just Want to Have Fun – OK, LOL! I know this is kinda bouncing around a little bit on the attention scale, but that’s a great freaking album title (and the cover up there is pretty fantastic as well), let’s just agree on that right now.
Let’s also agree that the musical competency on display here is simply top notch. The Haggards and Chadbourne rip headlong through the songs like Elvis’s Vegas backing band, but with enough NYC attitude to avoid the clichés. You can really hear this on tunes like “Old Man from the Mountain” and “Working Man Medley,” with the saxophone splattering all over the breakneck honky tonk, flashing images across your imagination of rhinestones and fringe and TV specials and revues. The artists revel in the period and embrace the silliness, valuing the true entertainment of Haggard’s songs in a genuine rather than tongue-in-cheek way. It’s fun music, and damned if the Haggards and Chadbourne care what you think. It’s a reminder that country music, in the hands of someone other than pop songwriters, can actually be worth listening to. (Let’s NOT get started on what I think of popular country music – I’m liable to start a class war or something. Let’s just say there’s a distinct lack of intelligence hovering over the whole scene and leave it at that.)
But this album probably wouldn’t have come to my attention if it hadn’t arrived via Northern Spy Records, a New York–based label specializing in the fabulously unusual. (See my reviews of their releases by Foot Village and Diamond Terrifier for a taste of their stylistic breadth.) I mention in the last paragraph the Haggards’ “NYC attitude,” and it manifests itself with the 1970s jazz and no wave touches sprinkled throughout Merles. It’s that saxophone – James Chance ain’t got nothing on Bryan Murray. Sometimes it takes on that “Yackety Sax” persona on the more standard cuts, but more often than not it flits throughout a song as sinister accompaniment, a reminder that it ain’t family-round-the-TV prime-time hour. It’s a raucous, alcohol-drenched hilarity, and you should put your hands over your kids’ ears to shield them from the language used by the barflies I can only imagine inhabit the juke joints Chadbourne and the Haggards probably play. Murray counterbalances the entrancing and pitch-perfect country authenticity of the other players, such as on “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am” where his runs crazily mock Chadbourne as he sings. (Let’s also mention that “I Take a Lot of Pride” pretty much sounds like two different songs played by the band at the same time – it’s probably the most “experimental” arrangement here.) The familiar “Okie from Muskogee” gets reworked to the tune of atonal brass and crazy picking. Sometimes Murray bridges the gap between convention and experimentation like on “Mama Tried,” and sometimes all hell breaks loose for everybody, like on the last minute or so of “Fightin’ Side of Me.”
So it’s clear that the title of this album – a stupid, inane, obvious pun that somehow manages to be totally endearing – is really the manifesto of the musicians, that their take on Merle Haggard’s catalog is meant to be a crazy joyride. But their reverence of the source material is also quite clear, and their takes on these classics reveal a genuine ability to evaluate, understand, and restructure the arrangements in both accessible and challenging ways. Don’t mistake this for a joke album, because all it does is shine a light on Haggard’s talent, as well as the artistic avenues exceptional musicians can travel, even when the music they’re playing isn’t theirs.
RIYL: Merle Haggard, Elvis Presley, The Lounge Lizards, Buddy Holly, Shockabilly