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Mojo Nixon & the Toadliquors
The Real ASock Ray Blue!

An even dozen years have passed since Mojo Nixon and his erstwhile partner Skid Roper presented to the world an anthem to close the '80s. The pure manic rockabilly energy groove of "Elvis Is Everywhere" captivated everyone from Graceland to MTV, from trailer park to Central Park. The song still gets a fair amount of airplay because of its timeless subject, but Mojo and Skid always played it in the same way that they presented their whole catalog, not as the novelty songs that they were perceived to be but as legitimate story songs that just happened to be drop-dead hilarious.

The Real ASock Ray Blue! is Mojo's first album of new material in four years (his last album, 1997's Gadzooks!!! The Home Made Bootleg, was a collection of demos and outtakes from his distant past), and his first on a semi-major label in one helluva long time. And it is the purest, most undiluted Mojo to date.

The disc flies right into the face of the offendable with the fresh-from-the-headlines declaration "I Don't Want No Cybersex!" then moves into a balls-out tribute to late Beat Farmers drummer Country Dick Montana ("The Ballad of Country Dick") and gear-jams into overdrive on the outrageously paced and juxtaposed "Drunk Divorced Floozie (The Ballad of Diana Spencer)."

If that doesn't raise enough hackles, Mojo descends on the jugular of his ostensible peer group by assailing the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame with the rather pungently titled "Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Lame," which includes an improvised rant that encapsulates the way many people feel about the corporately sterile manner in which the Hall treats its inductees and their music. ("Do you think Otis Redding is gonna be glad to see the Eagles? He's gonna kick Glenn Frey's ass!") And some may think that Mojo is picking an easy target with his late-in-the-game entry in the O.J.-bashing category, but one listen to the railroad-work-song electric blues of "Orenthal James (Was a Mighty Bad Man)" will dispel that notion pronto.

If there is an uncharacteristic moment on ASock Ray Blue!, it comes at the disc's conclusion. With Mojo in an acoustically pensive mood, he peels off the completely atypical (except for the "old man butt itch" reference) "When Did I Become My Dad," which sounds like Springsteen doing a reds-and-black-coffee impression of Loudon Wainwright -- an impressive end to an impressive release.

Throughout ASock Ray Blue!, the energy level of the music is high and rising. Whether he's working out a blues riff or a twisted folk tango or an ancient Maori fertility hymn translated through a Fender Strat and a pignose amp, Mojo's doing all he can to reclaim the good name of Nixon for gin-swilling, women-chasing, substance-abusing, politically incorrect men everywhere. And doing a damn fine job.

-- Brian Baker

Steve Wynn
My Midnight
(Zero Hour)

The great irony of Steve Wynn's lengthy and storied career is that a dozen bands that he has influenced over the years will have a better shot at being inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame than he does. There is something fundamentally wrong with that fact, but to Wynn it has no more significance than the act of picking his socks for the day. In his universe he lets accountants and scribes worry about the numbers and the influence. Wynn just concentrates on making the music.

From his monumentally coercive and subversive work with the Dream Syndicate, as influenced as it was influential, to his constantly shifting solo work, Wynn has made it his stated mission to follow as many directions as possible within the context of his general style. He has moved effortlessly between the Nick Drake-like darkness and sparseness of Fluorescent to the full band rave-up of Melting in the Dark (recorded with alternadarlings Come). The beauty of Wynn's work is that whatever he attempts holds up simply through the sheer force of his consistent vision. Because of his artistic conviction, Wynn's style-shifts never seem as contrived as David Bowie's episodic window-dressing but take on more of the feel of Neil Young's restless reinvention.

So it is with Wynn's latest message from his creative wilderness. My Midnight harks back to the leanness of Fluorescent, with the band shadings of Melting in the Dark and the pure rock ethic of Sweetness and Light. With his last couple of releases, Wynn has been offering a slight return to the glory days of his Dream Syndicate beginnings, certainly not with a calculated cash-in mentality but simply with more pure rock rhythms and potent pop hooks, coupled with his universally personal story lyrics. Wynn has long been compared to Lou Reed, perhaps not unfairly, as the pair share a penchant for earthy, urban tales of not-so-quiet desperation that are half sung, half muttered for effect. Reed's smirking cynicism and jaded pessimism ultimately set him apart from Wynn's often downcast but rarely hopeless outlook. In that light Wynn actually has more in common with Reed's erstwhile partner John Cale.

My Midnight is Wynn's latest attempt to marry his wide-ranging solo work to his Dream-y past, and is the most successful to date. The weary reserve of "Cats and Dogs" and "Lay of the Land" is counterpointed by the burning drive of "Nothing But the Shell" and "My Favorite Game," all of which are reminiscent of Wynn's entire history. The string- and brass-laden title cut builds in intensity, but Wynn never brings it to a crashing crescendo, preferring to let it simmer and fade. Much of My Midnight is suffused with a push-pull tension between Wynn's softer side and his desire and ability to rock just as hard as his Dream days, sometimes between tracks and sometimes within a single song.

Steve Wynn is one of rock's true originals, a free spirit who legitimately creates for himself first and foremost. He is genuinely pleased if someone understands and enjoys his work, but it's beyond his capacity to calibrate his musical endeavors actually to set out to achieve that goal. Perhaps that's why Wynn's work as a whole has been so consistently satisfying and uncompromising.

-- Brian Baker

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Brian Baker