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White on Black

One of my favorite records released in 2008 was The Dad Horse Experience‘s Too Close to Heaven, a collection of twisted “keller gospel” songs based heavily in Appalachian old-time music, German folk and murder balladry. The album struck a balance of dark humor, whimsy and heartfelt poetry that is often hard to come by and harder still to maintain. Chief among the album’s highlights is “Gates Of Heaven,” a song of reluctant repentance. The refrain — I will stand before the gates of heaven with a bucket full of sins. Lord, I’m a bad ass motherfucker, but won’t you please let me in? — encapsulates the entire album.

Since that album, Off Label Records has released two parts of their three-part White on Black series of limited-edition Dad Horse seven-inch singles, each of which features the art of a different artist working only under the guideline that they must create a white-on-black design.

Electric Gates of HeavenThe first record in the series features an electric version of “Gates of Heaven” along with the traditional “Moonshiner” and the non-album track “I’m Not Here Anymore.” The new version of “Gates of Heaven” starts with an electric banjo and the thump of bass pedals and proceeds at a slightly faster clip than the original. After the first refrain, shakers and hand claps add a percussive element the original lacked that propels the song. While the overall arrangement is not drastically changed, the electric banjo brings a sort of grit that works very well with the spirit of the song. Whereas the original had an old-time character, this new version feels more akin to something from Sun Records in the fifties. It sits closer to At Folsom Prison than it does to O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I love it and hope to hear more in this vein from Dad Horse in the future. My only complaint with this song is that the mix is a little off. The voice is too loud, while the banjo is too quiet. A little more volume on the music, and this song could get rowdy.

Following “Gates of Heaven,” the drunkard’s lament, “Moonshiner,” is a somber waltz (or possibly polka mazurka?) that brings the mood down. Like many Dad Horse numbers, his take on this traditional song showcases a certain unschooled quality in the music that supports the artistry, rather than diminishing it. On the flip side, closing out the disc is “I’m Not Here Anymore,” a fuzzy, phased and filtered psychedelic two-step paean that bounces along with a driving rhythm that stumbles a few times while pushing ever forward. If “Moonshiner” gives us the folk storyteller side of Dad Horse, this song gives us the experimental, off-kilter (and slightly manic) religious side.

Lord Must Fix My SoulThe second disc in the series is fan-favorite “Lord Must Fix My Soul,” backed with “Find My Body Down,” both songs from the album, though these may be different recordings or mixes. “Lord Must Fix My Soul” is one of Dad Horse’s more ridiculous tales of sin and redemption. It’s a fun and funny song, a series of heinous crimes punctuated with the plea that the lord turn his shit soul into gold. On its own, the song treads dangerously close to novelty music, but in the context of Dad Horse’s other work, it’s the winking grin that reminds the listener to not be so serious all the time.

The B-side, “Find My Body Down,” is the story of a man who dies in a fiery mid-air collision while flying across the country to see his love. It has some of my favorite imagery in Dad Horse’s catalog (a mighty, might cloud of blood and kerosene), and more than most of his songs it manages to work  his macabre humor and moving poetry into the same lines, no mean feat. Juxtaposing a lighthearted sing-song nature with the gory details of the story is nothing new, but Dad Horse does it particularly well here. The chorus really makes the song, though, and is some of the most simplistically beautiful sentiment in all of Dad Horse’s work: Find me in the blue sky. Find me in the dark cloud passing by. Find me in the rain upon your skin. Find my body down.

Of course, I can’t talk about these records without mentioning the artwork. Artist Veronika Schumacher‘s design for “Electric Gates of Heaven” appears to be a collage of elements from a few of her wallpaper pieces. While the elements are striking, I don’t feel like the piece is successful. Christopher Mueller’s illustration for “Lord Must Fix My Soul,” however, is really fantastic. Ultimately, the songs on this seven-inch are not necessary for someone who already has the album, but the artwork alone makes this one worth the money.

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Top 11 of 2008 – Part 9 – Dad Horse Experience and Secret Machines

These are the last two albums in my top 11 of 2008. I should have more to say on Dad Horse, but I’m tapped for right now. I’ll probably revisit it later this year.

The Dad Horse Experience “Too Close to Heaven”

I don’t usually like novelty music, and when I first heard The Dad Horse Experience, I thought it was a joke and nearly skipped past it. A simple description – German guy plays twisted gospel murder ballads on banjo and kazoo – makes it sound just about as unappetizing as a record can be. Something in the music made me listen a little longer, though, and I realized that this is, in fact, a brilliant album. Dad Horse Ottn, who supposedly started playing music at the age of 40 (though I don’t know how much of his story is true and how much is fabricated showmanship), sings songs of sin and redemption and then more sin, for good measure. The music deconstructs old-time gospel folk, updating it and mixing it with folk German sounds and modern melodies. At times I can almost hear a Violent Femmes sort of voice peeking through. Through it all, Ottn’s pleas for redemption and the tales of why he needs to be saved give the album a bizarre, hallucinatory character that makes this by far the most original record I’ve heard this year.

The Secret Machines “Secret Machines”

In 2004, The Secret Machines released their debut long player “Now Here is Nowhere,” fifty minutes of thudding, head-nodding rhythms and spaced-out electric guitar and organ texture. It is wonderfully crafted album, sitting just on the psych-pop side of stoner rock, leaning away from the more metal, Sabbath-influenced style. If I smoked dope, that album would probably provide the soundtrack more than just about any other.

They followed “Nowhere” with “Ten Silver Drops,” an album that lost some of the edge and repetition of the first album in favor of more radio-friendly, more focused songs. Influences not heard on the previous album began to shine through, with scraps of “Joshua Tree”-era U2 floating in and out. Though it features some of their very best songs, like “Daddy’s in the Doldrums” and “I Hate Pretending,” I missed the simpler rhythmic style of the first album.

With their eponymous third full length, the first missing guitarist Ben Curtis, The Secret Machines have split the difference between the earlier two records. Keeping the more polished production and bigger textures of “Ten Silver Drops,” the band has also brought back some of the driving simplicity of the first album. Bowie, U2, Pink Floyd and Zepplin all find voice at various points in the songs, but the album never sounds derivative. The record, like their others, is timeless, fitting alongside the best rock music of the last four decades. The departure of a founding member is always cause for concern for fans of a band, but here The Secret Machines have proven that they can still make a top notch album.

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Top 11 Albums of 2008 – The Short Version

I’m currently working on lengthier writings about my top eleven records of 2008, but in the meantime, here’s the list. In no particular order:

She Keeps Bees “Nests”
Young Widows “Old Wounds”
Disfear “Live the Storm”
Foxy Shazam “Introducing Foxy”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!”
School of VII Bells “Alpinisms”
The Cool Kids “The Bake Sale”
The Gaslight Anthem “The ’59 Sound”
The Dad Horse Experience “Too Close to Heaven”
Earth “The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull”
The Secret Machines “Secret Machines”

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