Album review: JOHNNY DOWD – Do The Gargon

 

 Mother Jinx Records [Release date 05.08.13]

‘The record took two weeks to make, which is plenty if you know what you’re doing’, says New York based Texan exile Johnny Dowd.

He seems to know what he’s doing, as he follows his subconscious to cast himself as a young boy abandoned at a filling station in Nebraska in 1953. The story could be real or imagined. And essentially it doesn’t matter, as it’s just a theme on which he focuses his improvised lyrics that don’t so much resemble a rambling narrative as a collage of snatched imagery.

There’s no real sense of linear progression, save for an accessible ending and a vague sense of resolution.  His quest appears to be to magnify small town weirdness, but his dense musical collage has little to compare it with, other than the lo-fi gothic tales of Jim White or the bludgeoning noir filled bluster of Nick Cave.

‘Do the Gargon’ isn’t so much a concept album based round his alter ego, as a collection of distorted musical sketches directed by a stream of consciousness.

Dowd wishes to engage you on two levels, initially as a street poet world in an imaginary world in which Hubert Selby Jr. meets Bukowski and probably with the same disregard for punctuation. And then there’s the core musical backup, comprising proto-metal boogie and electronic doodling with an edgy production.

Johnny plays distorted guitar and sings through what sounds like a harp amp in a power trio set up.  Michael Stark plays equally distorted keyboards and Willie B. plays drums and bass pedals. Most of what they play would probably sound a lot more ordinary without the effects.

It’s music that might easily inhabit the black & white film world of say Jim Jarmusch or the detailed intricacy of David Lynch, as Dowd brings a musical edge to match his poetic lyrics.

‘Metal Turkey’ for example,  sounds like an early Beefheart demo with distant ripping guitar lines, on a track that speeds up to a manic metallic crescendo and probably would test your patience outside the context of the album as a whole.

Dowd seems happiest when he dwells on snatches of word plays or cool sounding phrases that don’t necessarily mean anything. On ‘Shaquille’ he comes up with the wonderful line, ‘I went to the barber shop to meet Sir Lancelot, one of the knights of the round table’, with a suitably distorted vocal and dense riffs.

And it’s that intrinsic combination that draws you in, as you want to understand lyrical meaning as much a simply immerse yourself in the poetic cadence and the song’s flow. On the other hand the pulsating riffs draw you into another world entirely.

And somewhere in the middle of this collage of unrelenting drones, heavy riffs and barbed wire vocals there’s a slowly evolving coherent core.  The welcome moments of light and shade come on a warped love song such as ‘Girl in a Suitcase’, as his wistful vocal wraps itself around a surprisingly subtle guitar line.

He sneaks in a rapped out disco beat on the title track, which reprises his theme of abandonment over a pulsating riff. He takes on the persona of a ‘robot ballerina’ on the shifting tempo’s of ‘Pussywhipped’, a heavy, cumbersome arrangement that is only rescued by a wah-wah guitar break, while the unsettling lyrics to ‘Just To Touch Her Cheek’ are played out over a routine boogie.

Whether you buy into Johnny Dowd’s mystique or not, or you lose your patience with some of his borrowed riffs, there’s always something drawing you back. It’s a stop-start album with occasional tension breaking funky grooves and a cacophonic resolution as on ‘Butterflies and Unicorns’. His eclectic lyrics grapple with the detailed minutiae of our existence as seen through the eyes of the perennial outsider.

The album finishes with the title track, an alt. dance piece with a declamatory intro:  ‘Alright kids, this is Johnny Dowd, I got a brand new dance for you, and it’s called ‘Do The Gargon’. The song has a throbbing  variation on the riff from Beeheart’s ‘Drop Out Boogie’ and a funky groove, as even Johnny knows the value of a tension breaking resolution to round off an obtuse album of challenging music.

‘Do The Gargon’ will doubtless provoke much debate but it’s a catalyst that ignites an imaginary spark, even if his use of language, themes and boogie riffs have a recycled familiarity. ***½ 

Review by Pete Feenstra


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