A voice like a booze-addled death row inmate, a mind like an existential pulp novelist.
Garry Mulholland 2010
The snakes never sleep in the music of Johnny Dowd. One of the great mavericks of contemporary music, the Texan-born, Ithaca, New York-based singer, songwriter, guitarist and purveyor of absurd and twisted tales of the American underbelly didn’t start his recording career until his 49th year. Now 62 and onto his tenth studio album, the man with a voice like a booze-addled death row inmate and a mind like an existential pulp novelist is still setting his deathly imaginings among rusty blade roots-rock that is equal parts Cash, Cave, Waits and something all his own which is definitively gothic, but definitely not goth.
The former US army veteran and removal man’s latest is a back-to-basics affair, recorded quickly with Dowd’s crack band and taking its cue from the 60s garage and soul records that first forged his love of music. But otherwise, little has changed: the protagonists of Dowd’s songs remind you of Jim Morrison’s couplet from The Doors’ Riders on the Storm: “There’s a killer on the road / His brain is squirming like a toad”. These first-person testimonies of insanity and violence delivered in hillbilly-hobo growls and whines are given essential balance by Dowd’s secret weapon. Singer-guitarist Kim Sherwood-Caso has the sweet, clear voice of a bruised angel, and her beautiful, sad and spooky interjections give voice to the ghosts of all the people – mainly women – who die unpleasantly in Dowd’s songs.
Wake Up the Snakes isn’t quite up to the standard of early masterpieces Pictures From Life’s Other Side and Temporary Shelter, but it is Dowd’s best since 2004’s Cemetery Shoes, with highlights Yolanda, Time, Demons and Goats, Voices and the genuinely horrifying Me and Mary Lou deserving a place in any classic Dowd playlist. As always, this grey-haired, dapper and slightly scary man takes human agony and madness to such an extreme that he dares you to laugh – and then destroys any potential irony with harsh and terrible truths. Therein lay the snakes.