Red Sammy — These Poems with Kerosene
I wrote about this band before: they’re a tight folk-rock group from Baltimore, and their last album, a Cheaper Kind of Love Song, was a righteous, genre-busting stew. They contacted me a few weeks ago to see if I’d do a review of their new disc. I accept the task with pleasure, because if this album is any indication, they’ve lost none of their ambition.
Most songwriters consider themselves poets, and on some level, I suppose they must be. But I’ve never ever liked a band because of their lyrics; what the singer is trying to express through his band is almost always the last thing I notice. Damn the elocution, it’s the sound we want, as the general who argued with the artillerist might have put it.
But since the advent of the CD, some groups have taken it upon themselves to spice up the usual rotation of songs in the key of E(xpected) with the occational spoken-word riff. Black Flag did it back in the 80’s, the White Stripes did it on their final album, and it’s become a staple of hip-hop to have random skits and poems and hidden tracks amidst the stone-cold rhyming. Red Sammy decided to give it a try this time around, working with University of Baltimore professor and published poet Steve Matalie on some short poetic works for this album, nestled amid the songs. Such a move can be precious, and it can be jarring, and it can be beside the point. But it doesn’t have to be, and given the low-key feel of the songs (such as “Woodbourne”), taking a minute just for voice to tell us about the Hobbies of the Damned (the longest poem, clocking in at 1:29) hardly throws the album off. Rather, it provides a kind of thematic focus.
I hear a hunger for elevation, for escape, that crosses both the poems and the songs, especially tunes such as “Friends” and “Shark Bait”, which do their level best to create an impression of Tom Waits, if Tom Waits could enunciate. Lost souls wander in and out, hoping for something, resigned to nothing, or in any case, nothing new. It’s a dark vision, and suffering is the only thing that seems to penetrate the gloom.
It would make sense for me to say that the band eased off the gas on the songs to make them fit this vision, but I don’t know if I can. Because it makes even more sense to say that this is exactly the kind of vision Red Sammy was made to sell. Sure, maybe only the album-opener “Better That Way” kicks with that late-60’s Stones feel of A Cheaper Kind of Love Song, but who needs a band to sound the same all the time? This album, like all blues, elevates misery to art. We can all use a bit of that now and again.
Red Sammy is having a release party at the Windup Space tomorrow from 5 to 8 pm. Ticket price includes a copy of the CD. Do yourself a favor.