|CHUCK BRODSKY - "Radio" 1998||RATING: ****|
|Red House Records RHRCD119||Reviewer: Ian Clarke|
Chuck Brodsky's recent visit to the Downpatrick Folk Club was one of the most memorable musical events we've experienced for a long time and he performed brilliant versions of many of the songs from the "Radio" album in his set. In spite of that, I wasn't disappointing by the CD (as often is the case).
Brodsky, a modern day troubadour who has inherited the mantle of Woody Guthrie, is neither a crusading hippy evangelist nor a revolutionary poet. His songs express a deep humanitarian concern for how society treats the individual but don't preach at us. The lyrics are wonderful vignettes of human struggles, often narratives of real lives and events, some based on his first hand experiences and personal relationships.
His opener "La Migra Viene" is the story of illegal immigrant fruit pickers in Washington State, sweating for long hours to support their families back home and keeping an wary eye out for the local police (migra). Despite the subject, the mood is upbeat and brilliantly captures the indomitable spirit, resignation and resilience of the illegal aliens with whom we easily sympathise.
"Moe Berg" is a Prine style talking blues that describes the fascinating double life of the pro baseball-playing contemporary of Babe Ruth who spied for the CIA in 1930s. It's a pleasant little song that captures the enigma of man but musically is probably the weakest on the album.
Things pick up with the hillbilly style, banjo pickin' and washboard percussion of "Bad Whiskey" which relates the sad case of Tom Greene who poisoned himself on his home brewed illicit moonshine whiskey. There are some trademark touches of wry (pardon the pun) humour.
His "Our Gods" song is the most serious on the CD with its message song about religious hypocrisy. Again his weapons are ironic barbs which point out how we can kill for our gods but don't visit their temples when there's a football game on. The guitar is accompanied by nice organ reminiscent of the old Procul Harum sound. Very simple and powerful.
"Creepsville" is a rocky number about the kind of small town xenophobia we remember in "Psycho" films. When the singer checks into the motel the clerk asks him if he wants the room with the peephole. Brodsky, ever the optimist, ends the song with a hopeful note and the satire is good humoured, the listener not embittered.
The true tale of the young black Downs Syndrome boy "Radio" is a very affecting song adapted from a newspaper article by Gary Smith. The melodic guitar picking and Chuck's intimate vocal style, as much as the theme, bring a lump to the throat, as he tells how tough Coach Jones' heart is melted by the helpless, innocent mute at a time when race relations where at an all time low. It is the ultimate in feelgood songs and just manages to avoid excessive sentimentality. Brodsky manages to paint a vivid picture and you can see a smiling happy Radio jumping with the cheerleaders and high-fiving with the fans. A super song.
The CD moves into comic overdrive for a while with the hilarious "On Christmas I Got Nothing" with its tongue in cheek regrets about the disadvantages of being Jewish at that festive time. It is a lighthearted look at commercial motives and about religious stereotyping – for example the superstition that Jews have horns. Chuck sings how the neighbours' yards looked pretty strung with fairy lights,
"..the electricity they must have used !
We lit candles …. 'cause we were Jews"
Once again you can hear John Prine singing this song and I was amazed to hear Chuck say that Prine wasn't actually one of his influences.
Many people regard "Blow 'Em Away" as the standout track, a twelve bar blues road rage anthem, which gets under the skin of the frustrated commuter. It is probably very close to an accurate analysis of the psyche of the "mild mannered" businessman blowing a head gasket when he sees a motorcycle driving between the lanes - "to me that's an act of war". The mounting frustration and eventual breakdown into homicidal rage and sadistic bloodlust is hilarious. It's as funny a song as you'll ever hear and not unlike Loudon Wainwright at his very best.
Another sports song - "Hockey Fight Song" follows (so far Chuck has written nine about baseball). This leaves no room for doubt about the real reason why fans come to the games, "I wanna see a hockey fight – a donnybrook, a little brouhaha" and not any of those "pretty boys and all that fancy stuff they do". A high-octane testosterone fuelled song, catchy and upbeat again.
Probably my favourite two songs finish the CD, the war between the White Collars and the Rednecks "The Come Heres and the Been Heres" about class conflict in backwoods America. It could be anywhere that economic and cultural division provides comic contrasts in status symbols (french poodles and hound dogs) or customs (feeding ducks or racing turkeys), and manages to include topics like diet, sex education, American Indians, animal rights, real estate and local politics. Serious messages wrapped up in a colourful and extremely tasty candy shell. A wonderful song no matter which side of the fence you stand.
The closing track "Circle" is the only non-original, written by Annie Gallup. It beautifully captures the soul of the performer and the reason why, for men like Chuck Brodsky, the show must go on, because it helps us, "everyone in this shabby tent, …. believe in magic". Once again optimism and faith in human nature triumph over cynicism.
A marvelous CD by a charming man, an accomplished singer and guitar player whose magical songs leave you with a warm glow. Thanks Chuck. See you soon.