By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
NAMING YOUR CD Human Remains doesn't exactly scream Have A Nice Day, nor does filling it up with cheaters, calamities, crib death, and lyrics such as "Let's eat flesh from the knees of Jesus while he crawls." In fact, I was probably humming Terry Allen's songs in my head the other day when some little Ms. Sunshine called me a cynic. For the record, I'm not cynical, merely sarcastic. There is a difference, and you can hear it in Allen's surly Lubbock, Texas voice. His bitterness only bends from the burden of care, of paying attention, of giving a damn.
Sometimes, however, his acidity rises a little too far, and he ends up sounding like a tanked-up crank broadcasting opinions to an empty bar--as when he ushers in the album with the heavy-handed, cringe-inspiring tantrum, "Hey I don't need no chickenshit businessman/tellin' me what to do." Still, when he's good, he drops the macho rebel yell and hones in on specific stories, which, ironically, always end up with more universal resonance than just statements of discontent. "Little Sandy," a case in point, is a comely, albeit diminutive ode to a deceased infant. The loved child, now lost, is mourned by bagpipes, sounding so lonely and ancient that you come to wonder if our singing Texan is distant kin to that belle of Scottish folklore, Barbara Allen.
While there's nothing more grievous than the death of a child, Allen refuses to idealize childhood, especially given a culture where kids throw 5-year-olds from windows without remorse. "Crisis Site 13" explodes into heavy-metal guitar and drums before it settles down into nursery-rhyme melody, offering a jarring portrait of a gun-toting youth who "can kill you and never go to jail."
Remembering perhaps that we all end up in the same place, Allen prefaces his song list with the directive "start anywhere you want." I suggest track nine for two reasons--it takes a while for the album to get up to speed, and you skip four of the five disappointing David Byrne collaborations (where the drums tend to get labeled "percussion" and Byrne's pencil-neck funk contaminates Allen's rough simplicity). "Galleria Dele Armi," said ninth song, is a World War II tragedy straight out of neo-realist cinema: Richard Bowden's cello urges on Allen's chopped-up chant as he chugs through a story of war-ravaged Italian villagers taking a train to find food, only to be suffocated by coal smoke while trapped in a tunnel. Though the European narrative stands out as an anomaly in Allen's Texas tales, what could be more sympathetically country-song material than poor people on a death-bound train?
Kicking her way out of all this misery and despair near the album's end is "Peggy Legg," a one-legged dancing woman whose "one leg's so pretty she don't need no more." While she sounds like a character from David Lynch's cutting room floor, she's brought to life by Lone Star heroine Jo Carol Pierce, an old Lubbock high school crony of Allen's (on her dazzling album Bad Girls Upset by the Truth Pierce derides their hometown landscape as "a blank sheet of paper"). Pierce articulates Peggy's handicap as a metaphor for being human, pronouncing, "All you need is a heart/ And just enough of a brain/To get your half-ass in/Out of the rain."
Allen shares more with Pierce than mere lunchroom memories-- namely, the fact that both artists dabble in music while their real talents lie in the grand talk of their storytelling. And music isn't Allen's only art dabble; he works prolifically in a mess of media--drawing, sculpture, installation, and printmaking, to name a few. But to this writer, none of his visual artworks or his records (including this one) stand up to the sound collages he created for the New American Radio series Dugout and Bleeder. The success of these two poetic narratives hinges on the unpretentious grit of his speaking voice, which stretches from comedy to tragedy, making all the life stops in between. Not that singing and talking live that far apart. In Allen's case, its only the distance from cynicism to sarcasm--which is just as small as Texas itself.