Concept albums appear to have had their time in the sun. The days when an entire story, not just a series of songs that have a sense of cohesion but a full on story reflected as a somewhat linear narrative from song to song unfolding from two sides of vinyl or a cassette tape seem numbered by a pick and choose distribution of digital downloads and the lust for hits that has plagued the music industry since day one. Still you can find purists that will sit you down in front of a turntable for a full rendition from the book of Pink Floyd’s The Wall or The Who’s Tommy.
But all that happened on the pop and rock side of the tracks, a concept albums in country and roots music has always been an even rarer creature. In 1975 Willie Nelson showed that a country music concept album not only could be created, but could be a hit with Red Headed Stranger, an unorthodox work featuring a fugitive preacher, on the run from the law after killing his wife, that went on the reach multi-platinum levels and made Nelson the icon he is today. But that was one album made over thirty years ago and the music industry and taste landscape has changed considerably.
So who in the hell would dare look at over this hostile aural landscape and plunge head first into the breach? Enter Hang Jones, pseudonym for San Francisco based singer/songwriter Stephen Grillos. His new release The Ballad of Carlsbad County tells a dark tale of a New Mexico town rife with drunken lust, envy, jealousy, deceit and finally the murder of a young woman and the wrongful conviction of a murderer that nonetheless was innocent of this specific wicked deed.
The songs uncoil this venomous tale with sparse arrangements – Grillos on lead vocals, guitar and mandolin, Matt Cunitz on upright bass, pump organ, backing vocals and Mayumi Urgino on fiddle and backing vocals – are ate less step-by-step chapters than character studies that moves the story and sets a mood.
Album opener “Mexico Line” tells the story of a man headed South-bound, on the run and armed. The song gallops and you feel the desperation in the man by Grillos’ passionate delivery and Urgino’s sawing like she’s possessed in a superb fusion of Gypsy/hillbilly fiddle. Imagine deliverance meets the Red Violin and you’re not far off.
“The Reckoning” is a lilting, beautiful song of foreboding and danger (Don’t go chasing shadows, son, you’ll only find death) “Comin’ Round” is as upbeat mandolin, washboard and fiddle tune that sound like a loose and raucous collaberation of Steve Earle and Kurt Cobain on a hot July front porch night.
“She Said” and “Wasted Time” are a soulfully melancholy tunes reflecting a man’s obsession for a woman out of reach. That obsession is given a finer point on the tune “Caroline,” which finds the subject weaving between desperate pleading and vaguely threatening.
“Red” is easily my favorite cut on the album. An emotional pique comes to a slow boil over strummed guitar and a bobbing and weaving fiddle. “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” is a dirge-like murder ballad that follows in it’s aftermath. “Arm Yourselves” is a Tumbleweed Connection-style rag addressing mob vengeance. “Hangman’s Noose” is a dark song of acquiescence and longing, a man’s view that death is a final means to an end in his loved ones arms. The album concludes with “Alive” where a man is faced with muddied morality of murder as a necessary step toward freedom.
As a concept album The Ballad of Carlsbad County is more then the sum of it’s parts. Each song stands on it’s own and the story isn’t a straitjacket on the organic nature of the whole. This dusty, dark beauty is one of my favorite releases of the year.
Hang Jones – Caroline