Southern Culture on the Skids
The best way to listen to a Southern Culture on the Skids album is while under the influence of alcohol, preferably the cheapest brand available, because SCOTS records generally concern: drinking, being drunk, people who have had too much to drink, the pursuit of something to drink or fried chicken (the latter preferably with lots to drink). Every now and then, head Skid and main songwriter Rick Miller will find another topic of discussion -- say, a motel, or a backyard hoe-down, or barreling down the highway in a vintage automobile -- but sooner or later, his songs' protagonists always find their way to a bottle.
On the first SCOTS full-length in a coon's age -- a "coon's age" being roughly three years, which coincidentally is when the veteran North Carolina combo issued its second and last major-label album, 1997's Plastic Seat Sweat on DGC -- there appears to be a lot of, um, drinking going on. Right off the bat, in the mariachified title cut, an aging beauty queen sprays down her massive beehive, downs a few generous tumblers of gin, then hits the local tavern in hopes of garnering some lingering glances or wolf whistles to help offset her small-town ennui. "Drunk and Lonesome (Again)," a George Jones-style slice of honky-tonk twang 'n' moan, finds vocalist Miller blearily reaching for his shot glass as he complains to no one in particular, "Who said memory's our friend?". In "I Learned to Dance in Mississippi," against a backdrop of horny horns and guitars set on choogle, the whole SCOTS crew heads down to Junior Kimbrough's legendary juke joint where, sources assure us, the drinks flow freely. You probably don't need too much elaboration on the subject matter of chicken-pickin' rocker "Corn Liquor."
Keep in mind, however, that the booze-fueled Hee Haw image SCOTS plays up has led some to dismiss the overall-clad, fried chicken-tossing stage antics of Miller, drummer Dave Hartman and organist "Cousin" Bess, along with the bewigged, Patsy Cline-in-hell persona of bassist Mary Huff, as so much white-trash hokum. Such grousings overlook the ensemble's estimable musicianship and deep reverence for rock 'n' roll's primal aesthetics.
Stage show aside, SCOTS has paid a lot of dues since appearing on the North Carolina scene 16 years ago, and the group additionally still coughs up its share of recompense in the form of heartfelt homage. Consider: "King of the Mountain," which is based on an appropriated T. Rex riff; "Haw River Stomp," perhaps the best swamp-rock number that Tony Joe White didn't write; or "Just How Lonely," an incandescent, jangly pop/folk rock number steeped in the kind of heartache Gram Parsons specialized in. (Interestingly, the latter features Huff singing lead; in the song's original demo incarnation a decade earlier, Miller handled the vocals. Ever the prolific songwriter, Miller nevertheless raids his back catalogue with regularity -- "Drunk and Lonesome" is also a vintage composition -- and he's still got a treasure trove of material in storage.)
Worth noting, too, is that SCOTS has been known to whip out vintage covers, from Link Wray to the Sonics to the Louvin Brothers to the Fugs. Here, an obscure Latino-flavored blues number called "Pass the Hatchet" by Roger & the Gypsies -- a sinewy cross between "Working on the Chain Gang" and Booker T as interpreted by Creedence Clearwater -- turns up, additional testimony that, all shtick aside, Miller & Co.'s taste in music tends to run a bit deeper and classier than the average yokel's.
Memphis roots music maven Tav Falco's inclinations also hew away from the standard issue, and as the front man for Panther Burns since the late '70s, he's had plenty of time to refine (or deconstruct, as the case may be) his vision. Like SCOTS, he's never been shy about foisting so-called shtick upon the public if it gets and keeps their attention; to put things into perspective, Falco took a lot of heat for infusing blues and rockabilly with art-rock skronk long before Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion or Doo Rag were accused of slumming. Also like SCOTS, Falco appreciates an obscure cover tune; he actually beat them to "Pass the Hatchet" with a rendition on his '87 The World We Knew LP, and he's no doubt at least partially responsible for fostering Alex Chilton's well-documented reliance on eclectic covers (Chilton was an early member of Panther Burns).
Panther Phobia is Falco's first full-length release since 1995's loungey, tango-inclined Shadow Dancer. (A mini-album, Disappearing Angel, was issued in '96.) This one marks a return to the minimalist primitivism of Panther Burns' 1980 long-playing debut, Behind the Magnolia Curtain. Joined by longtime trapsman Ross Johnson, bassist Jack Oblivian, synthesizer player Eric Hill and guitarist Kitty Fires, Falco sounds more inspired than he has in years. He frontloads the set with covers: Rockabilly excavations such as Jessie Mae Hemphill's ramshackle, click-clackin' "Streamline Train" and Johnny Carroll's rowdy twangathon "Wild Wild Women" appear alongside blues investigations from Howlin' Wolf (a desolate, mournful "Going Home") and R.L. Burnside (via an arrangement for the droning, slide guitar traditional number "Mellow Peaches"). An old Charlie Feathers track, "Cockroach," is given the aforementioned deconstruction treatment, reduced to barely naught but a whispering snare, walking bass, scratchy guitar chords and Falco's demented moan. The original compositions are barely distinguishable from the covers -- bluesabilly tune "The Young Psychotics" takes its cue from a stripped-down variation on "Psycho," while the manifestolike, 12-minute boogie "Panther Phobia" is even more warped, a cross between the Twilight Zone theme, Flamin' Groovies' "Comin' After Me," Grand Funk's "We're an American Band" and the MC5's "Black to Comm" -- indication that Falco isn't just revisiting his roots, but that he's gone native.
With production courtesy of Doug Easley (of Memphis' celebrated Easley Recording Studios) and '68 Comeback's Jeffrey Evans, Panther Burns is rendered in deep sepia and earth tones, from deep within the bowels of Satan's echo chamber. Given the amount of hiss and distortion that survived the transition from studio tapes to hard disc, the casual listener is hereby forewarned, although lo-fi freaks will doubtless gravitate to the set.
In either instance, however, Panther Phobia offers an exhilarating listening experience, raw as fresh road kill and, as with the SCOTS album, well-suited to the accompanying prodigious intake of intoxicants.
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