Pop: The Big Noise

TERRY ALLEN Salivation Sugar Hill
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TERRY ALLEN is about as protean as artists get. The 56-year-old Texan has written several screenplays, radio productions and soundtracks, including collaborating with David Byrne on True Stories, has sculpture on display in New York's Museum Of Modern Art, video art in Washington's National Gallery, and has designed nightclubs. Along the way, he's picked up a Guggenheim Fellowship and no fewer than three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and has found the time somewhere to make 10 albums which push restlessly at the envelope of what is possible in the country-rock genre. Which makes him possibly the planet's only playwright/sculptor/architect/ multimedia artist/musician: No1 in a field of one. In all his work, Allen displays the kind of attitude one expects from a feisty tyro half his age. His life-size bronze sculpture Modern Communication, for instance, depicts a businessman with fingers in his ears and a shoe stuffed in his mouth; and there are few more pertinent commentaries on the current Balkan war than his unflinching, bloody rumination on nationalism, "Ourland", - despite it having been written 16 years ago, with another conflict entirely in mind.

Salivation continues the stream of trenchant commentaries on contemporary American tropes that has made previous releases such as Bloodlines, Smokin' The Dummy, and Lubbock (On Everything) cult items amongst the new-country cognoscenti. Imperialism ("Cortez Sail"), baseball ("Red Leg Boy"), murder ("Ain't No Top 40 Song"), and the travelling musician's lot ("Billy The Boy" and "The Show") are all intelligently and emotionally dealt with here, Allen's scabrous lyrics set to backings which shift from country to cajun to conjunto and beyond, as the circumstances demand. In particular, the ambivalent position of Christianity in the current American worldview comes in for special treatment on Salivation. To a tuba-bass cakewalk reminiscent of Ry Cooder, "Southern Comfort" offers a reminder, Southern state by Southern state, of racist dues to be paid come Judgement Day, while "The Doll" employs a bizarre, arabic-country drone of bouzouki, djembe, harmonium, clarinet and cello to underscore Allen's musings on "...the doll inside our dollars, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Cash". Most penetrating of all is the title-track, which posits religion as a moveable feast, and heaven as "...just an adjustment/That moves on down the road". It's not a pretty picture, as he acknowledges - "Hold on to the good book/But don't hold your breath" - but somehow, Allen finds enough gallows humour to play the final lines in the voice of Donald Duck. Let's see Garth Brooks match that.