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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Mickey Newbury- ‘Frisco Mabel Joy (1971)

This is perhaps the most enigmatic album I’ve ever come across. I had heard about if for years, mostly in the same breath as Red Headed Stranger, Honky Tonk Heroes and the other classics of Outlaw Country. So when I finally got a copy and popped it in the stereo, I though maybe the drug-addled goon at the used store had slipped me the wrong disc. This album lies far off the beaten path that connects Nashville and Luckenbach.

First, the dominant sonic element (other than Newbury’s remarkable voice, which I’ll get to later) is what sounds like a blaring synthesizer, or perhaps it’s an air raid siren rigged to vaguely mimic a string section. If this wasn’t so unusual it would probably be unbearable. It seems to mask a horn section and maybe even some real strings in places. It’s weird and it’s stark and it’s haunting. But then so are the songs.

You may be familiar with the leadoff track, “An American Trilogy,” as a staple of Elvis’ latter day Vegas stage show. It’s the one where the King bellows lines from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and sprays sweat into the cheap seats. How Basically an embarrassing spectacle. In Newbury’s hands, it’s something completely different.

There’s not a lot of ambiguity to “The Battle Hymn,” nor “Dixie,” one of the other two traditional numbers Newbury melds together. But you get the feeling that Newbury is singing about something completely different than what’s in the lyrics. Something that’s gone, probably forever. Longing and despair are thick in his voice.

But this isn’t Johnny Cash’s longing and despair. Newbury sounds more like Steve Marriott than anyone you’d see on the Opry stage, veering from sinewy whisper to wailing cry. It’s nothing short of incredible.

There are certainly traditional country elements evident in Newbury’s songwriting throughout. “The Future’s Not What It Used To Be” could have gotten some play in a honky tonk in a more mainstream incarnation, and “Mobile Blue” is a gritty country rocker where Newbury sings like a more authentic John Fogerty.

But the songs where he writhes in pain are the clear strength of this album. “You’re Not the Same Sweet Baby” and “Swiss Cottage Place” are so good they’re almost tough to listen to.

“How I Love Them Old Songs,” a sprightly number that is the last song listed on the sleeve, makes you think that Newbury gave you the bad news first. But the rain isn’t over yet. Literally. The sounds of a thunder storm lead into a reprise of “San Francisco Mabel Joy,” a song from Newbury’s previous album, “Looks Like Rain,” which apparently inspired this album’s seemingly loose concept. Newbury picks you up with “Old Songs” only to make the unexpected fall even harder.

There are songs that can bring a tear to your eye, but this could be the only one I’ve ever heard where the despair is so palpable that you will be left simply staring, mouth agape, into the darkness Newbury has created. And that’s really how the story ends.

This is a remarkable album, but not an easy one. And as I’m sure Newbury would attest, it never gets any easier.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best song on the album, IMO, is "The Future's Not What It Used To Be."

Definitely a voice of sadness throughout.

7:32 PM  

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