The current Americana boom provides a broad umbrella, underneath which shelter an intriguingly diverse range of artists. At one extreme, typified by the likes of The Jayhawks, the umbrella is more like the kind of thing you find in a cocktail, their mellifluous country-rock harmonies having the sweet, sticky appeal of a tequila sunrise. If, however, you're after the harder stuff, it doesn't come much harder than Johnny Dowd, whose songs are more like slugs of hundred-proof rotgut moonshine, the kind of stuff that burns right down to your core, then burns all the way back up again.
A late bloomer, Dowd appeared in the late 1990s, when he was already the wrong side of 50, with the extraordinary Wrong Side of Memphis, a collection of bleak, twisted tales of love, sin and death croaked out in a voice that sounded like it had lived every last second of those 50-plus years, delivered in settings that rammed together old country-blues with avant-rock soundscapes. Since then, in albums like last year's tremendous The Pawnbroker's Wife, Dowd has proved himself to be a true original with the single-minded vision of a Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams or Robert Johnson - if not their hummability.
Along the way he's picked up a band of fearsome originality, but they're only present in fitful form on Wire Flowers, a collection of four-track demos drawn from the same period as his Wrong Side of Memphis debut. A few of the songs have since appeared in different guises on his other albums, but as Johnny himself puts it, "what you'll find here are the original bad seeds". He's not joking, either. There's few crumbs of comfort to chew on in these songs, which confront the suicidal horror of the proletarian American experience with a fearlessness that wipes away anyillusions about the fabled American Dream.
Take the opening, title-track, which creeps in on the back of a desultory drumbeat and noise collage intermittently lacerated with shards of tortured electric guitar as Dowd drawls his tale of a wretched adulterous liaison: "They checked into a motel in a little town called Paradise/ It had air-conditioning and television and a Magic Finger king-sized bed/ They lay down in a frenzy like rats engulfed in flames/ Flowers, old wire flowers, will not obliterate their shame". The juxtaposition of the mockingly ironic detail - the town called Paradise, the Magic Finger bed, the old wire flowers - with the revulsion of "rats engulfed by flames" gives the song a visceral power that makes you want to wash your hands in absolution after you've heard it.
It also colours your impression of subsequent tracks, so that when you encounter "Rockefeller's Eyes", in which the narrator is ashamed to be caught stacking supermarket shelves by an old flame, you're shocked that the song doesn't end up with one or the other, or both of them, dead. The arrangements mostly feature just Dowd himself, overdubbing a smudge of reedy organ, desolate plunking banjo or tremor of vibrato guitar over his strummed acoustic guitar. It's not an easy listening experience, but there's a grim fascination to Wire Flowers that's utterly compelling.Reuse content