DUSTY WRIGHT: Can Anyone Hear Me? (PetRock)
The idea of the protest song has become something that belongs to young earnest souls from the sixties. When Joan Baez loved Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs couldn't stop singing his politics. A host of seriously activated individuals rode the crest of a wave that their own minds and consciences had created. They sang, they rioted, they put flowers down the barrels of guns, and some got shot for their audacity. But even the changing times change. They eventually moved towards introspection, and it seemed we'd progressed beyond requiring the song as a protest vehicle. In 2020 that couldn't be much further from the truth. The year where things really did fall apart, and continue to.
A spoilt baby of a man who hijacked the Republican party as the ticket for his ego and his sense of entitlement, began to finally unravel when the brown stuff hit the fan in the form of a virus we only distantly knew of in January. Behaving like a schoolyard bully his hiring and firing became an almost weekly routine, as was his inability to articulate anything more illuminating than a walkout when scrutinised, became a source of comedic folly. Not so much the emperor's new clothes, more something that mentioned the architecture of his hair, or the lack of it.
George Floyd got killed by a police officer, a murder in plain sight and one replayed and revisited in our loop system mentality, and the centre began to buckle and fold. People took to the streets.
In Britain, a waffling twerp performed his comedy toff routine and lied and scraped and bowed and finally became what he'd always wanted. If karma exists, and it seems to a random sort of system, then he got his prayers answered at precisely the wrong/right time. In the shadow of the virus, he and his version of the Keystone Cops, have waffled, promised, did another u-turn, and then a third, and have only been successful in revealing the paucity of their ideas. He also has hair that looks like a wig and makes Andy Warhol's mane look convincing and the genuine article.
The appeased children have taken over the asylum at the wrong time. Surely, finally it's time to reach for the guitar, and a pen and some paper, and to begin to annotate the crisis of a shambles.
Dusty Wright is one such singer who has recorded an album within these ever extending and darkening shadows of uncertainty. Something has to be said. A song is a song is a song, but it also depends on the soil from which it sprang. Protest by default, or simply via circumstance, he has created a collection that references the past in order to articulate the future. New York City in a time of plague and masks. A fertile aspect he would have rather not encountered, but since he has, he hasn't ducked the gauntlet, but manfully grasped the bouquet of nettles that represents his experience of the country that spawned him. It is a protest of disappointment. An articulation of frustration and rage. Honesty may be the best policy in most circumstances, but in this case it's the only one at hand.
This collection connects with an understated urgency, an edge of despair that caresses the vestiges, the rags of hope for better times ahead, and sunshine at the tunnel's exit, but it begins with "Rain Rain." A cleansing madrigal that sways in a transcendent fashion like The Polyphonic Spree arms stretched outwards in a downpour. It has an inherent optimism and a almost hip-hop backbeat, with a Native American edge, catchy as hell, and with some neat banjitar. A Covid-19 epistle with hope at its centre.
"'New Year Bliss" bears a cynical spring in its step. A REM vibe, a seemingly optimistic lyric, and a flippant teaser of the fates.
"It's a New Year
Better than the last year
So much better than before.
It's New Year
Gonna be great year
Once we get past our fears."
That fresh hope that rings hollow in the light of older experiences, but this year has taken the biscuit, the cookie box, and the urge to be sociable.
In "Broken Birds" there resides an analogy on the horrors of abused children. A jangly, jingling melody that runs at odds with the words.
"I will always wondered why
Why the child has to die...
Fairytales don't come true
Life's a mess
Nobody what you do.
Broken birds try to fly..."
A song I'd love to hear from the larynx of Mary Gauthier.
The title track has a hook and swagger at its heart. "Can Anyone Hear Me?" holds an alt-country swagger and poise, but is a song about feeling like the margins are where you belong, by misadventure.
"Can anyone hear me?
Does anyone care?
Can anyone see me?
I'm standing right here"
A perfect take on the invisibility delivered by daily life. Poised, articulate, but perfectly understated, and immensely radio friendly.
"You can buy more guns
And build more walls
But the hate in your heart
Will be the end of us all."
A song for the here that is our now.
"I Don't Understand" continues to dissect the modern world from a stance of innocence rendered outraged and betrayed. A lullaby of fearful doom.
"I don't understand
Why evil fills our land.
Why evil ties our hands
I don't... understand"
The song rather suggests that he does via the apparent absence of an interventionist deity.
In "Book Of Tears" is a direct challenge to the American love affair with guns and the ever growing pool of loss it claims.
''How many lives must be lost?
What's the price?
Who pays the cost?"
It could be a collaboration between Dwight Yokham and Randy Travis, though that's a doubtful state of collaborative action. A minor evangelical edge creeps in with some wonderful vocal shadowing from Caitlin Bement.
With "Makes No Sense" the theme of innocent outrage continues to develop:
"It makes no sense
That children are afraid
It makes no sense
They won't go out and play
It makes no sense.
It makes no sense."
The harmonica gives an folk edge whilst the sentiment betrays Cat Stevens at his bedsitter best. A song that evidences the virtue of honesty over guile. It screams out for a choir for it to rise beyond as it fades.
"Loaded Dice" is John Mellencamp's "Jack & Diane" revisited in the new world order. A neat sharp take on desperation within a dysfunctional home. A shopping list of woes it suggests a country influenced version of the drug observation that Sixto Rodriguez annotated on his now revered "Cold Fact." The more things change, the more they don't.
"Loaded dice never win the roll
Loaded dice stuck in a hole
Loaded dice in the land of the free....
There ain't nothin' free about it."
A lyric as far removed as one can get from the mysticism imbued by Norman Rockwell in his depiction of the American Dream.
"Pardon My Love," a majestic murder ballad of dark, melancholy, ghosts a Bad Seeds noir take on emotion and revenge. A song of a lover extinguishing his beloved's abusive partner and the pointlessness of revenge. Hauntingly gothic in arrangement it stands out in its simplicity and grace and crests across some beautiful cello from Matt Goeke in perfect cohesion with trem guitar by Jonathan K Bendis.
"When She Comes Back" is a broken-hearted prayer of emotional requirements that are at odds with what there is on offer. Suggestions fly of Chris Isaak in the guitar trembles and the vocal delivery.
Ran off with my friend
I've seen this movie
And I know how it ends."
The eternal new hope of the wretched in a song for a line dance of despair. Going to the edge and falling.
As a closer "Every Man's Burden" brings us a Canned Heat boogie plea for justice, compassion and understanding a love and let live affair. Starkly raw it betrays a lyrical honesty is best means to hammer home a point of sense and clarity.
"You may think you know my anger
You may say you share my rage
You might even see my struggles
But you'll never... feel my pain.
The entire affair is a valiant effort to distill sense of a senseless world. In that fashion it therefore isn't a typical protest album. It's a personal statement of alienation and disappointment felt not just by Wright but by many, though he has mastered and attested to his demons rather well. Arriving beautifully dressed in a cover by UK-based linocut artist Kester Hackney that echoes both Paul Klee and a restrained Jean Michel Basquiat, bearing a profile head full of symbols lifted from the songs, here's an image that deserves to be on vinyl, and hopefully will be one day soon
The album has a clarity of tone rendered by producer/mixer Dan Cardinal whose deftness of touch has also graced the songs of Darlingside and Josh Ritter. Here's hope that the question implicit in the title results in the audience and the answer it so richly deserves. A modern protest via tried and tested means, and the refinement of hurt and personal rage.