Monday, September 29, 2008

Mockingbird Bible

Dearest Friends, you will recall that last year I was captivated by the songsmithery of local country-western-folk-blues singer/songwriter Rodney DeCroo. Well, he has a new album out, Mockingbird Bible, and I got religion.

As a quick recap for those of you who weren't listening the first time around, he's been variously compared to Steve Earle, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, John Prine, and even Bruce Springsteen. But don't let yourself get lazy and think that with that you've got him pegged; he's kinda sorta like the best bits of them all stitched together, with more on top.

At the core is a man with a superb talent for crafting poetic stories out of words and experience. Stories of people carrying burdens of regret, shame, fear, trauma, and self-doubt; of loves and relationships gone askew; of difficult memories and difficult questions; and also of beauty. They are sung in Rodney's supremely evocative voice; it's neither a polished nor a perfect voice, but its gritty and gravelly imperfections convey an honesty and authority based on hard experience and emotion. The songs are carried forward by Rodney's acoustic guitar, which he plays with an an elegant economy, and are embellished on the album by contributions from some fine Vancouver musicians; sweet backing singing by Sam Parton of the Be Good Tanyas, Ida Nilsen's tender vocals and piano, and the rich pluckings of stringmeister John Wood.

Mockingbird Bible is shot through with an introspective sadness and bitterness. The album's quasi-title track, 'Mockingbird,' is downright harrowing; Rodney picks at the strings as if they're his nerves as he sings an tense, high-pitched blues story of rejection and betrayal that leaves me exhausted each time I hear it. 'Loneliness Has The Heart Of A Spider,' which is just a fantastic metaphor, is mellower, mournful tale redolent of self entrapment. 'Shooting Stars' seems to lament the loneliness of a life on the road, with Rodney singing of "lonely girls in heartbreak bars / they love the way you play your guitar."

But it's not all gloom and doom and bleakness; if you want that, just stick to your Joy Division, you miserable gits. For in amongst all the angst are islands of spirituality. Now rest assured, I'm not talking about old-time, tub-thumping evangelism or kumbayah hippy-drippiness. It's a less-focused faith in grace and redemption, one that brings a sense of hope, however grubby. Nowhere is this more in evidence than on 'Spinning Wheel,' which sits roughly in the middle of the album's sadness: "I stand at the razor's edge / as these lights burn through my head / and despite every word I said / I praise this spinning wheel."

Probably what I find most powerful about Rodney's music is how it often it will sneak up and suddenly stab straight through my outer hide and pierce some damned, dammed up pool of emotion that I didn't even realize was there. Heck, that happened the first time I ever set eyes or ears on him, and it happened again while listening to the album. Twice, in fact. And though sometimes I can figure out why it does ("Oh my mother / Oh my father / Will we ever be reconciled? / Though I went out and I wandered / I am still your only child"), often I'm not really sure. "Deep waters, they don't run dry" - why does that bit from 'Black Earth, Green Fields' twist my heart in a knot??

I've been trying to figure out why the album is called Mockingbird Bible, which is odd because usually I'm fairly accepting of whatever an album is dubbed. Life's A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy? Yeah, sure Billy, cheers. Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? Um, right, WHAT-everr. I even asked Rodney, who gently encouraged me with a twinkle in his eye (well, there probably was one while he typed the e-mail) to decide that for myself.

So what did I come up with? Well, I was reminded of Miss Maudie's declaration in To Kill A Mockingbird: "Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy ... , they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us." In the book the bird becomes a symbol of innocence, and of innocence tarnished. I think Rodney just wants -perhaps needs- to sing his scarred heart out for us. And this album is his Bible, chapter and verse.

To top it all off, folks, Rodney is an excellent live performer. To mark the release of Mockingbird Bible he played a packed Railway Club with the robust backing of his three-piece Convictions. Interestingly, the band punched up the songs to a rockier-n-rollier pace, which traded in some of album's sadness for a greater sense of urgency. All of which was grand; after all, if a band just plays their repertoire note-for-note on stage, why bloody bother going out & staying up late??

Bottom line, Dearest Friends: buy the album, and go see him live. If you're in western Canada, you may well have the chance to catch one of the shown on his current tour of BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. If you do, take it. Pop over here to check out dates.

Rodney DeCroo - Shooting Stars (buy here)