Johnny Dowd, Wake Up The Snakes

Published on June 23rd, 2010 in: Current Faves, Music, Music Reviews, Reviews |

By J Howell

wake up the snakes

It’s more than a little puzzling to me why Johnny Dowd isn’t better known or revered as a master of American music. Dowd’s latest release, Wake Up The Snakes, is everything that rock and roll could and should be, or at the very least, one badass variant thereof.

In this day and age, even if Dowd isn’t exactly a household name (and I have to admit, prior to near-synchronous name-dropping in song by Howe Gelb and seeing the brilliant film Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus a couple years back, Dowd was a stranger to me, too), it’s easy enough to find a lot of recurring descriptors and comparisons on the Internet. While it may be somewhat lazy, it’s not exactly a huge stretch to say that listeners who enjoy the work of Nick Cave or Tom Waits, or readers who like Harry Crews, will likely find a new favorite in Dowd: he deserves the respect those three command.

Many of Dowd’s songs are inhabited by characters from the wrong side of the tracks—repentant losers, jealous lovers, the accused, the accusers, the guilty, and the unfortunate innocents, those who know better but can’t help themselves—and Dowd is a masterful teller of these peoples’ stories. More than a few of the songs here have a feel that would lend itself well to the jukebox in a dark bar, the kind of sounds that fill the dank conditioned air inside while you’re avoiding the scorching afternoon outside, getting a good drunk on in the middle of the day. Wake Up The Snakes delivers a kind of grit that most of us would probably prefer to observe from a safe distance, and it does so beautifully.

Wake Up The Snakes is, first and foremost, a rock and roll record. The kind of rock and roll record that would be more common these days if the genre hadn’t become so splintered, sidetracked, and derailed over the last two or three decades. Nearly every song on Wake Up The Snakes manages an uncanny hybrid of classic sounds and arrangements with just enough modern sensibility to add up to timelessness. The couple of tracks that don’t only miss that mark due to Dowd’s experimentalist tendencies, and are just as engaging nonetheless.

Snakes is a spectacular record sonically as well as lyrically. There’s a classic feel in many of the sounds here—there are Farfisa organs; more varieties of twang, snarl, and growl in the standard and baritone guitars than most artists would likely know what to do with; some of the finest drumming you’re likely to have heard lately; and some of the best use of a wah pedal since the early ’70s. Many of the songs have a glorious reverb, the kind of panned-to-one-side echo that seems largely forgotten anymore, the lush sound of an actual echo chamber as opposed to a digital box.

While there’s a fair share of old-school cool present, there’s also just enough grit and sheen to keep things in a place that nods to sounds of the past while remaining firmly in the twenty-first century: the ferocious drum sounds in “Howling Wolf Blues” and the thick octave-fuzz of “Time” come to mind. Wake Up The Snakes is, simply put, one of the best-engineered recordings in recent memory.

Between Dowd’s imagery and iconoclastic delivery, his band’s considerable skill, and the masterful recording of both, Wake Up The Snakes makes for a serious contender for the best record of 2010. More rock and roll records should be this good.

Wake Up The Snakes was released by Munich Records on March 4, 2010 and is available via Johnny Dowd’s website to those in the US and Canada. For those in Europe, check out the Munich Records website to order.

Upcoming Johnny Dowd tour dates are as follows:

June 24: Wildfire, Ithaca, NY, with Your Kid Sister
July 17: Giving Tree Cafe, Ithaca, NY (w/Ken Hallett, Rocket Morton & Park Doing)
July 22: Grassroots Festival, Trumansburg, NY (solo, Grandstand)
July 24: Grassroots Festival, Trumansburg, NY (band, Cabaret)

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