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.
The 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.
The 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.