By John DeFore
Lubbock, Bangkok, Juarez and Milan
I still remember how, years ago, I came by my collection of Terry Allen records. I was scrounging through the Santa Fe flea market, a place where African textile merchants, dealers in cowboy ephemera, and turquoise jewelers sit side by side. One book vendor had a small box of sandy CDs hidden under a table, and there - tucked in among some compilations of long-forgotten "remixed club hits," scratched-up one hit wonders, and everything else I'd never want to own - was one copy of each of Allen's discs, still half-covered in flimsy shrink wrap.
They looked like they'd been pulled from a dumpster somewhere, but somehow the random indignity seemed appropriate in Santa Fe, one of those places (like Allen's mind) where high-art pretensions jostle around with stuff made from dirt and bone, and a bit of skepticism about what gets categorized where works wonders.
Now in their 25th year, Sugar Hill Records is working to shine a little light on this Kansas-born Lubbock boy who has long skirted fame despite accomplishments as both a musician and a visual artist. Last year they reissued the long-MIA Amerasia, a spooky combination of recordings from Lubbock and Bangkok, of songs chronicling the aftermath of the years the United States "used Thailand `as` a landlocked aircraft carrier from which to bomb the neighboring countries of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam." Here, mandolin meets bamboo flute and slide guitars are accompanied by elephant-skin drums.
There's plenty of strangeness in Amerasia, but the record contains more lamentation than one finds in the rest of the songwriter's back catalogue. His other records tend toward the wry, the ironic, or the absurd, even when they tell stories about believable characters. One ideal point of entry is Lubbock (on everything), most of which could sit happily in the jukebox alongside tunes from Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, and Robert Earl Keen.
Take the waltzing "The Beautiful Waitress," a tale of lunch counter love that could be an answer song to Lyle Lovett's jokey "Here I Am." Lovett's song is a punch-line dressed up as seduction; Allen's is funny but, at heart, as sincerely lovesick as a trucker who knows he'll dream of this waitress for the next hundred thousand miles: "'cause you'll only touch her once / only this one time at lunch / and she might as well touch you too / it's the last time you're passin' through."
Less poignant is "Truckload of Art," which envisions an East Coast / West Coast art rivalry as heated as any gangsta-rap gang war. The song draws on Allen's experience as a sculptor and conceptual artist, a second existence he shares with longtime admirer David Byrne. Byrne shows up to sing backup on the guest-heavy Human Remains, where Allen covers his "Buck Naked" - a song that, like many of Allen's, looks like a joke from far away but can break your heart if you get up close.
Allen's peculiar blend of songcraft and artsy theatricality hits its peak on Juarez, the latest of his albums to get Sugar Hill's reissue treatment. Juarez is so comfortably planted in concept-album-ville that it devotes an entire track to a non-musical introduction of the cast of characters; Allen even allows the listener to play stage director, suggesting but not demanding that one character's car is "probably a Buick." In the new liner notes for this reissue, Dave Alvin compares the record to "mandatory" '70s masterpieces like Randy Newman's Good Old Boys, and he's got something: It balances an overall story arc with the need to craft songs that stand on their own, and the story works on all kinds of levels, from the literal to the allegorical.
Allen's buddy David Byrne, by the way, has a new album of his own out. Grown Backwards (Nonesuch) is a step away from the nightclub and into the concert hall, with few electronic sounds to be found among the tympani, accordions and marimbas. The songs are among the most directly personal Byrne has written - except for the ones written by guys like Georges Bizet and Giuseppe Verdi.
That's right: David Byrne sings a couple of opera arias here, one alongside Rufus Wainwright, and they're beautiful. There's something gorgeously vulnerable about hearing this guy, who spent his early career encased in irony, reaching for the high notes on songs he was never meant to sing. I don't mean that he can't sing them, just that "Au Fond Du Temple Saint" in David Byrne's hands is a different creature from the one sung from the stage of the Met. It's not as odd a recontextualization as Terry Allen singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee," but it's an exciting new experience nonetheless, another in a long string of experiments that more often than not work better than they should. •
By John DeFore