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Cruel Words

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Album Review

Johnny Dowd presents a curious mixture of the raw and the sophisticated on his sixth album, Cruel Words. His band, which features keyboard player Michael Starks and drummer Brian Wilson in addition to his own guitar work, plays rudimentary blues-rock arrangements with harsh, angular rhythms in a sort of John Lee Hooker-meets-Devo sound, occasionally veering toward heavy metal, and he sings in a gruff voice with a strong rural accent. But his lyrics and the subject matter of his songs, while sometimes bluntly expressed, sound more like the product of a college graduate than an unlettered bluesman. Antiwar statements and descriptions of the class struggle come up frequently, and Dowd sometimes writes like he's starting a novel instead of a song. "He died in a motel surrounded by women's shoes," begins "Final Encore," a song that turns out to be about a deceased singer. That person cannot be Dowd himself, of course, but elsewhere he does turn directly autobiographical. To avoid any confusion, "Drunk" quickly name-checks its main character, "Johnny Dowd, Johnny Dowd, Johnny Dowd," before turning to a heartfelt declaration of recidivist alcoholism. "Oh, what I would give for a drink," Dowd sings, lustily accompanied by Mekons Jon Langford and Sally Timms. It all ends up with a cover of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" that recalls what Devo did with "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" before breaking into the main riff of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man." Having started his recording career at the half-century mark, when most artists are slowing down or have stopped altogether, Dowd continues to record regularly, and, idiosyncratic as they may be, he is clearly making the albums he wants to make.


Born: 1948 in Fort Worth, TX

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Singer/songwriter Johnny Dowd was almost 50 when Wrong Side of Memphis, his debut solo record of wracked country-folk-rock tunes, drew comparisons to Nick Cave in the alternative press. To a degree, that parallel was justified, as Wrong Side of Memphis devoted itself to murder songs and tales of doomed sinners. Dowd had grown up in Texas, Memphis, and Oklahoma before operating a trucking business in upstate New York, and his songs veered close to the source of American creepiness. Yet gallows humor...
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Cruel Words, Johnny Dowd
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