Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: The Jack Grace Band – The Martini Cowboy

The Jack Grace Band have been sort of the opening act du jour on the country circuit, opening for Merle and Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee, et al.. If this is an attempt to get some notice from the retro country crowd, it ought to work. Hell, this ought to get them on the Grand Old Opry, if they don’t mind songs about cocaine at the Ryman Auditorium.

The Jack Grace Band’s last album I Like It Wrong put in some serious overtime on some of the better jukeboxes across the counry. In fact, you could say that it was the party album of the summer of 2004. Suffused in booze and tested live on crowds of drunks in dives all over town, those songs were every smart party animal’s alternative to Jimmy Buffett. It may therefore come as some surprise that the new album by the Jack Grace Band is an attempt to – gasp – make a serious record. I say record because the cd is divided into a distinct side 1 and side 2. A concept album, no less, complete with little instrumental fragments separating the songs, and something of a central, unifying theme. The most surprising thing about it is that it actually works. Tight, focused, thoughtfully conceived, in other words, everything Grace’s previous work was NOT. Which ironically was always his saving grace – the band may have been a little loose, the whiskey may have run rivers but you always knew that if you went to see these guys live you would have a good time. While it doesn’t look like anybody left the bar for very long to make this album, it’s a hundred eighty degrees from what you might expect after hearing the last one. Is it possible that Grace has actually matured?

The Martini Cowboy is packed with haunting, gorgeously old-fashioned, 1960s style country songs with tasteful electric guitar, soaring pedal steel, piano and a rhythm section that swings like the dickens. You can dance to this stuff more than you can Grace’s older stuff. Because ultimately that’s why honkytonks exist: where else can you squeeze your cheatin’ lover against the jukebox and sway to the strains of Merle Haggard? Who happens to be exactly who the first song, the album’s title track, evokes. Straight up. When he’s on top of his game Jack Grace’s songs sound like country classics from 40 or 50 years ago. The cd’s second song, Broken Man continues in a purist vein, driven by Jon Dryden’s beautiful, incisively minimal honkytonk piano “I’m not gonna go out there tonight,” swears the Martini Cowboy. He’s been burned too many times. Which leads perfectly into the next song, Cry, a sexy bossa beat and groovalicious bass player Daria Grace’s bop-bop backing vocals only momentarily distracting from its eerie minor-key drive and bitter lyrics. When after a surprisingly jaunty, jazzy guitar solo the thing stumbles out of its groove and literally falls apart, the effect is nothing short of heartbreaking.

The album’s next track Trying to Get Away from Nothing at All zooms in on our protagonist trying to pull himself away from the brink. It’s a showcase for Jack Grace’s voice, a big, Johnny Cash style baritone that can handle the over-the-top whiskey-drinking anthems and the dark, disturbing ballads with equal aplomb.

After that song, we get Sugarbear, another minor-key Waits-esque number with ambient steel guitar, and Rotary Phone, arguably the album’s best song , a haunting, skeletal minor-key blues: “Let me tell a story about the way it used to be/With a rotary phone don’t leave a message for me/You’re gonna be an old man too…”

The last song of the “A side”, What I Drink and Who I Meet at the Track (Is My Business) is completely self-explanatory – it’s one of those songs that someone should have written long ago, and that it took this long before someone did is a mystery. It’s a good thing that it was this guy who wrote it and not Neil Sedaka. I mean, can you imagine Neil Sedaka at the track? No, you can’t. He’d get killed before he got to the stands.

The “B side” begins with Uncle Luther. By now, the Martini Cowboy has fallen in love. His Uncle Luther is moving back to the shack he hasn’t lived in for ten years and the Martini Cowboy has to get out. But that’s not what’s bugging him. It’s that he can’t stop thinking about her. Yeah, her, and it scares the hell out of him. The following tune, Verge of Happiness is so George Jones it’s not funny, in fact it’s scary, right down to the vocals. Nobody ever did desperate, lost love songs better than Jones, anyway, so it makes sense. Happy in the Fall continues in the No Show Jones vein “I’m happy in the fall, but I don’t like the landing,” Grace muses ruefully as the band swings behind him. The album’s climactic track, Something to Look Forward To – where the guy finally gets the girl – is a bit of a letdown. Like at the end of Siddhartha when the guy finally gets to India and all he finds is…OMMMMM (hey, this is a serious album, I’m trying to be serious about this).The cd concludes with a real old-timey number called Spike Down, which sounds like an electrified version of some obscure 19th century folk blues.

There’s not a weak song on this album – which is more impressive than you think. Hell, even Sergeant Pepper had that stupid phony raga tune that Harrison sang. And Merle Haggard’s greatest hits albums all seem to have those horrid pro-Vietnam War ditties he did before he woke up and smelled the coffee. So the Martini Cowboy’s in pretty good company. If this doesn’t get him the big record deal (memo to the band – WATCH YOUR BACK), Jack Grace can always fall back on his side project Van Hayride, which plays country covers of Van Halen songs. I’m not making this up. Not a word.

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May 9, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments