Album: Black and Blue America

Train Wreck
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The Independent Culture

Chip Taylor has led the kind of life that should be optioned for a Hollywood biopic. Born James Voight, the youngest of three brothers whose number includes the actor Jon (Midnight Cowboy, Runaway Train) – and thus now the uncle of Angelina Jolie, star of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – Chip staked his first claim to fame as the composer of that most lascivious of rock anthems, "Wild Thing", an American No 1 for the Troggs back in 1966. His latest achievement is to have set a new record for the longest time-span between No 1s, Shaggy's recent chart-topper "Angel" being based on Chip's second most famous composition, "Angel of the Morning".

In between, he wrote some other notable songs – "I Can't Let Go" for the Hollies, "Try" for Janis Joplin, "Any Way You Want Me" for the Troggs – and released several albums of his own, before throwing in the towel in 1980 and abandoning music in favour of a more lucrative second career as a professional gambler, eventually becoming so proficient at blackjack that he was banned from casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Chip returned to his first love in 1996 with the albums The Living Room Tapes and Hit Man, but this opening salvo of the new millennium surely represents his most concerted and satisfying burst of songwriting in several decades.

Set to a confident but unassuming country-rock verging in places on Tex-Mex and Southern swamp-funk, Black and Blue offers a series of tableaux illustrating various characters and modes of (mostly) American life, from the disabled Vietnam veteran in "Theme for an American Hero" to the boozed-up college kids in "Fort Worth Thursday Night", from the lesbian daughter addressed in "What a Smile You Had" to the cowpoke sentimentality of "I Need Some Horses Around". Interspersed between the songs are familiar radio snippets illustrating famous events, heroes and villains from the last century, whose appeal rapidly grows thin; the songs themselves are mostly gripping, however, right from the moment Taylor's careworn voice intones the album's elegiac opening couplet: "It was a true America/ A red, white, black and blue America."

Sometimes the observations aren't so much "torn from tomorrow's headlines" (as old movie trailers liked to boast) as snatched between the buttons on a television remote control. But elsewhere, Taylor displays the kind of personal awareness that takes decades to accrue, ruminating sagely upon life, friendship and ageing with John Prine in "The Way of It", and acting properly contrite in "Sometimes I Act Just Like a Fool", pleading, "Oh, let's get back together/ With the intention of makin' me somethin' better than what I am."

Particularly moving is the wedding song "The Ship", a duet with Lucinda Williams, which features the simple vow, "You will always be/ On life's open sea/ The ship I sail upon." It may be only a breath or two away from "The Wind Beneath My Wings", but it's a world of sincerity apart. Poised between the cynical and the disingenuous, the hedonistic and the thoughtful, Black and Blue America is as close to a modern classic as contemporary country is likely to come this year.