. . .with Christopher Sandes featuring Pickles and Price
owie put it best. A voice like sand and glue. That simple phrase embodied so much more than just Dylan’s gravelly yelp. It pegged the way his lyrics wound the most disparate of elements into a surrealistic brocade, full of unforeseen textures and haplessly elegant non-sequiturs. He adored language through its own contortions, and made of those fragments giant paeans that made of him the best, or the most singular at least, voice pop music has ever known.
Since The Basement Tapes, many artists have been toetagged ‘the next Dylan’, and it’s a misplaced fate shared most closely by all those labeled ‘the next Jordan.’ An impossibility and its own pop-death knell, the label is best forgotten and left unused. The first to try, Donovan, surely foresaw the irony in his quiet posturing in Don’t Look Back, and he soon gave out to a career of whimsical Carrollian imagery and children’s fantasies. Perhaps the closest to actually meeting these iconic qualifications was Bruce Springsteen, but he arrived in an era where American songwriting had taken a backseat to raucous mayhem and post-hippie debauchery. He was the critics’ Dylan; they hoped for him to be what they swore they needed and what they remembered now just vaguely. He wasn’t. He didn’t need to be, and the pigeonholing was only to clean up the pop landscape for their own scribblings. Now, the lead singer of the Deadly Snakes, Andre Ethier, has unveiled an album that’s got the critics thinking about Hibbing’s favorite son again. And, of course, the comparisons are no more precise, but with Andre Ethier and Christopher Sandes featuring Pickles and Price, you can’t help but go along with them. I’m just not that strong.
With this first solo work, Ethier tears the shingles off Big Pink to let the sun, the rain and the humid summer air through its vagrant walls. Wood begins to curl and fade under his steam-heated delivery. Bewildering and dizzying, heatstroke begins to set in, but there are other elements to blame, the songwriting for example. Ethier creates short thumbprints, sketches so blotted and damp with ink that they merge together. They sink through empty notebooks and give life to haphazard imprints below. These are Rorschach figures for the street musician, and whatever you see in them is best kept to yourself.
As the lengthy title indicates, Ethier is joined here by Christopher Sandes and two woebegone hillbillies named Pickles and Price (it helps to imagine them with a Jean Valjean grime between their toes), who combine to play everything from the piano and electric guitar to the simple bass and drum parts. Recorded in ramshackle lo-fi glory with a tendency to rely on the first take, the gang combines jailhouse piano rolls and bumping country percussion into songs that are as rollicking and dusty as they are vibrant with city light. Through it all, they perform with enough raw grace to allow for levity, as they work hard to straddle the line between one-offers and cultured precision. The sacred pint alone can unbind the tongue of Dedelus? Perhaps. Against this slivered backdrop, Ethier blends Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, and bits of early Ry Cooder into one of the more distinctive voices I’ve heard all year (Rule Number One for male songwriter/frontman credibility: it’s not about technical quality. If it were, every fool on American Idol would have a prayer. It’s distinction. See the abovementioned, Neil Young, Lou Reed, Robert Plant, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Thom Yorke, etc.).
On album opener “Let me Put my Suitcase Down,” Ethier lays himself down to rest on top of the track’s lazy barrelhouse piano. The song is so willfully inert and travelblind it lulls you into a providential smirk. Further on, the album matches jugband tempos (“Little Saddy”) to the barren sound of the ukulele (“She Will Never Be Your Girl”). The instrumentation varies only slightly, but it’s through these hair-thin distinctions that the album’s tyrannical sense of jubilation comes through, never fading into monotony. The gallow-builder faces his own construction one final time, and liberties are taken throughout the cool, black nights and too-sudden mornings of Ethier’s tales.
Certainly, the tools of the trade here are time-worn, if not timeless. If Guitar World sells a Country/Folk music starter set, everything you hear here is certainly included. Many of the chords are probably laid out in its elementary songbook. But there’s the sweat. There’s the suffocation. There’s the purblind betrayal of stern poetics. Ethier has mastered the smoke-eyed folk pompadour stance so perfectly I hope he never returns to the Deadly Snakes. I’ll be a fool and a philistine for you anytime, Andre. Just don’t call in your chips ‘til I’ve the time to be both.