Cold Dog Soup
There are songwriters who are respected by fans, and there are songwriters who are respected by other songwriters. Then there's Guy Clark, who earns professional respect like a banker compounds interest. The Texas-born song stylist has long been revered by his peers and his rabidly faithful cult following as a craftsman who shapes music and lyrics the way Michelangelo shaped the marble that became David. Since his debut nearly a quarter-century ago, Clark has been content to provide a number of potent hits for the likes of Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, George Strait, and Jerry Jeff Walker while pursuing an intermittent recording career that has resulted in a relatively slim nine-album catalog.
Four years have passed since Clark's last studio recording, 1995's Dublin Blues, but as always his studio absences are almost negligible in the face of his constant writing efforts. Cold Dog Soup, Clark's ninth studio album, is notable primarily because it is his first stab at recording since the death of his friend and fellow songwriting icon Townes Van Zandt. It's no surprise then that Van Zandt's name shows up in the lead-off title track, which also mentions Tom Waits, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, and features this sharply rendered testimony of the creative lifestyle: "Ain't no money in poetry/That's what sets the poet free/I've had all the freedom I can stand." Clark, much too smart to fashion the tune as merely a maudlin memorial to Van Zandt, manages to elevate the song to a lifestyle tribute in which Van Zandt is appropriately, but gently, lionized. In a career littered with powerful songs, "Cold Dog Soup" stands as one of Clark's finest, and it sets the bar for the remainder of the album.
Clark follows his standard stylistic equation of alternating between a folksy mountaintop and a bluegrassy knoll in presenting his gorgeously constructed story songs. From the John Prine-ish observations of "Men Will Be Boys" to the clever traveling metaphor of "Indian Head Penny" to the dryly hopeful "Die Tryin'," Guy Clark has once again given a clinic on thoughtfully and beautifully conceived songwriting. -- Brian Baker
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Out of This World
The denizens of Berry Gordy's Motown dominated the national charts with the Sound of Young America, but '60s Detroit was brimming with soul shouters who made music that was wilder, weirder, and often times as good, if not better, than anything offered up by Smokey, Marvin, the Temps, and the Tops. Nolan Strong and the Diablos scored regional hits with the grinding "Mind Over Matter" and the sublimely bizarre "The Wind." Nathaniel Meyer and the Viscounts' stomping "Village of Love" was a perfect mingling of doo-wop and nascent soul. And there was Andre Williams, a singer, songwriter, and producer revered today for such leering oddities as "Jail Bait," "Bacon Fat," and "The Greasy Chicken."
Then there was Gino Washington, a Motor City fireball who could wail with pure rock 'n' roll ferocity and define the darkness and beauty of a ballad with a mere twist of a syllable or a piercing falsetto yelp. Norton's excellent Out of This World is the first-ever collection of Washington's impossibly rare sides cut for such labels as Wand, Ric-Tic, and his own myriad imprints. None of these singles found an audience far beyond the Midwest, but everything here bristles with passion, energy, and excitement -- the pile-driving rockers; the creepy nocturnal musings; the lilting, late-'60s soul; even throwaway dance novelties with titles like "Do the Frog."
Washington was already an amateur-show veteran when he made his 1961 debut with "I'm a Coward," a good song that was bettered by the B-side, a haunting slice of romantic desperation titled "Puppet on a String," in which he vows to slit his wrists if his sweetie ever leaves him. It was his second single, 1963's "Out of This World," that provided a throttling showcase for his dexterous pipes and the wailing accompaniment of the all-white Atlantics, a quintet led by ace teen guitarist Jeff Williams. With the Atlantics and on occasion the female vocal group the Rochelles, Washington netted a slew of regional hits -- most notably "Gino Is a Coward," a crushing remake of his debut, which Bruce Springsteen would rewrite as "I'm a Coward" in the late '80s -- that epitomize everything gloriously great about rock 'n' roll during the era when the Beatles and Rolling Stones supposedly ruled the domestic roost. Think Motor City shimmy paired with the slop-bucket soul of Gary U.S. Bonds, and you have an idea of the passionate mayhem documented on Norton's timely toast to a lost legend. -- John Floyd