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Album Review: Ward White – Maybe but Probably Not

I don’t know what happened to this guy. He just snapped. Maybe it was the bad dayjob – that happens to a lot of people. Whatever the cause, the result was the first instant classic to come out last year, the high point so far in the career of the American Richard Thompson. Ward White is a virtual anomaly among US rock songwriters, a brutally cynical, dazzling wordsmith with equally spectacularly guitar chops and a straight-up rock sensibility. No solipsistic folkie whining here. No cheesy synthesizers or dated 90s trip-hop production. This album ROCKS….quietly. White’s tasteful, minimalist production sets his Bowie-inflected vocals soaring over tersely arranged acoustic and electric guitars and a string quartet. Chamber rock has never been so exhilarating. White’s back catalog, notably his previous release, Lovely Invalids demonstrates a sardonic wit and a wickedly playful, literate lyricism. He never met a pun he could resist (unless the boss asked for one) and employs devices including personification, metonymy and meta in ways that few English-language writers have done outside the covers of a book. Here, he succeeds at being clever without being too clever by half: the substance of this album matches its style, milligram for milligram. I believe that is how bile is measured.

The album opens with the psychopathological Things Kept Falling: “I’m not alone in this,” White taunts. As Mary Lee Kortes has noted, bad relationships are the gift that keeps on giving: and either this guy has had a spectacular streak of bad luck, or he’s a particularly gifted observer. Maybe both. On the album’s title track, he gleefully recounts to an ex how he “mined your broken heart for an album cut.” But no one escapes White’s minesweeper approach to hypocrisy. In the equally gleeful New York supremacist anthem L.A. Is Not the Answer, he takes a swipe at the trendoid lit crowd: “Tell Joe Henry to call me/I haven’t heard from Bill Vollmann in so long…” In Can You Lie?, he mines the irony of duplicitous actor types trying on roles for size for all it’s worth: “I want to know if you can lie convincingly to me/If you break character I’ll see/I will!”

Undertow, with its haunting minor-key chorus is pure symbolism, the booze ebbing back, yet all the while taunting the boozer that sooner or later he’ll fall off the wagon because “you were paralyzed and I set you free.” In the album’s concluding track, So Long, yet another ex will “Call me up, tell me about the weather, how everybody is so thin out there.” White’s terse response is, “I think I’ll extend my visa,” presumably in some distant foreign land.

The album’s centerpiece – and arguably the best song of the year – is Hole In the Head, a particularly timely take on deadend dayjob drudgery. It works equally well as Barbara Ehrenreich-style journalism, mise-en-scene piece and rock tune:

I can’t believe what you say
You’re a liar
Please don’t look so shocked
Hell, you could retire on all you stole
And I’m not gonna look anymore
Unless I’m buying
Tell you the truth, I’m tired of not trying to care in any way
I need this job like a hole in the head
I need a hole in my head to do this job
I need a head for some reason that escapes me now
There’s no escaping you

White’s two guitars and bass (he plays all the instruments) maintain the song’s claustrophobic intensity all the way though to its final ominous, ringing minor chord. Yet there’s more than just spleen here. White knows that banality of evil can sometimes be very funny, if in a blackly humorous way, and there are as many laugh-out-loud jokes on this album as there are instantly recognizable moments for anyone who’s ever been screwed in a relationship or struggled to refrain from decking an obnoxious boss.

Maybe But Probably Not ranks with Armed Forces by Elvis Costello, Mirror Blue by Richard Thompson and Mad Within Reason by LJ Murphy as one of the alltime great pissed-off lyrical rock records. It’s also a trenchant warning not to ever, ever mess with a songwriter. They always get even in the end. By the way, as an interesting bit of trivia, former Scout drummer Nigel Rawles overdubbed drums on many of the songs. For those of you who may be unaware, in modern recording it is customary to record drums before the rest of the band, which is logical enough since the band needs a beat to follow. It’s a credit to White that his timing was good enough for a drummer to follow without stumbling, and it’s a credit to both musicians that they could pull this off and make it sound like a seamless whole.

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May 3, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments