Featuring a member of Queens of the Stone Age but starring the singer and guitarist Jesse “The Devil” Hughes (credited throughout as J Devil Huge), Peace Love Death Metal is an uncompromisingly inflamed but deep-down wimpy stomp through an American high school: a high school defined on one hand by Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant—his version of the Columbine mass murders—and on the other hand by Daniel M. Pinkwater’s novel Young Adults, where the endemic jocks-versus-brains conflict takes the form of a struggle between two conflicting theories of art (and, of course, life), with the two-man Dada Ducks gang going up against the conformist goons of Heroic Realism. Some of the Eagles’ song titles are better than the songs—the George Clinton tribute “Whorehoppin (Shit, Goddam),” “San Berdoo Sunburn”—but “Bad Dream Mama” pays off from first note to last, and still falls short of “Kiss the Devil.” “Who’ll love the devil? Who’ll kiss his tongue? Who will kiss the devil on his tongue?” Huge growls, and answers himself: “I’ll love the devil! I’ll kiss his tongue! I will kiss the devil on his tongue!” “Kiss the Devil,” it turns out, is a very light rewrite of Virginia banjoist Dock Boggs’s “Sugar Baby”: a mountain-symbolist masterpiece that, hinting at a man’s wish to murder both his wife and his child (“Who’ll rock the cradle, who’ll sing the song? Who’ll rock the cradle when you gone?”), is more demonic than these Eagles—not to mention the other Eagles—would ever dare to be. And that’s why the rewrite works. Jesse Hughes heard Boggs, understood him, and also understood that the only way he could ever sing Boggs’s song was to turn it into a joke. It’s a good joke, but that’s not all it is.
3. Loudon Wainwright III, “Presidents’ Day”
By November 3 this anti-Bush song may seem as pathetic as a Wesley Clark campaign button. For the moment it’s as sharp as an Oliphant editorial cartoon, with that little bird talking at the bottom.
4. Mendoza Line, Fortune (Cooking Vinyl)
The CD booklet here is full of words, but like ballplayers who fall below the line the band named itself for (.198: Mario Mendoza’s 1979 full-season batting average with the Seattle Mariners), some of the band’s best words are doomed to be forgotten because they’re wasted in press material. For Fortune, they’re in a couple of anonymous, first-person pages titled “About the Songs,” with the back story of “Fellow Travelers” (which in the 1950s meant traitors) described directly: “As recollections of the 2000 presidential election dissolve into a hazy, melancholic fugue, they stopped to wonder if it had all really happened that way: was our country really given away to a small coterie of unprincipled Fortune 500 acolytes… Were these men really assisted in their ascendancy by a group of so called ‘liberal activists’ whose self-aggrandizing exercise in ‘protest’ helped set the real cause of progressive politics back forty years… and who will ever have enough money to buy our country back now? Additionally: Wasn’t that the year my every aspect of the social and emotional fabric of my life unraveled utterly? Could it be that this is more than a coincidence? I have a bad feeling this might all be my fault…” Out of that mix of rage and fear, self-ridicule and guilt, come country songs with vowels dragged into the next county and rave-ups about the national debt compounded daily by private failures. In a number where the sweet trill of a steel guitar coming off the last word gives almost nothing back to what a fiddle has already taken away, the simple heartbreak of singers whose loss of faith in their country has made it impossible to trust the people they love can break your heart as well. “Make every day count,” the press release says, “even if it can only count to three.”
5-7. Leslie Bennetts, “Not Across My Daughter’s Big Brass Bed You Don’t, Bob” (Los Angeles Times, April 16); Mel Gibson, producer, The Passion of the Christ—Songs Inspired by (Universal South); Mirah with the Black Cat Orchestra, “Dear Landlord,” from To All We Stretch the Open Arm (YoYo)
Bob Dylan Sellout Alert! Bennetts, who made her name attacking Hillary Clinton in the pages of Vanity Fair, again raises the flag of moral outrage. This time it’s because of the way “an artist who once had a profound effect on American culture” can now be found in a Victoria’s Secret commercial. There he is in the city of gondolas and Titian; as his suicidal “Love Sick” plays, he squints across the Grand Canal at a montage of underwear models, thus giving a whole new meaning to “See Venice and die.” But what about “Not Dark Yet”—like “Love Sick” from the wasteland of Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind—appearing on a collection of mostly old recordings that Mel Gibson has put to work celebrating his very own movie to the point of claiming that he himself is somehow responsible for their creation? Bennetts thinks an underwear commercial is pedophilia, Gibson thinks a song following a man down a dead road is about Jesus, and they may be right—but not as right as the one-time riot grrrl chanteuse Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, who, like so many before her, understands that a profound Bob Dylan song can, in other hands, sound like anybody’s common sense.
8-9. Penelope Houston with Pat Johnson, “The Pale Green Girl,” from The Pale Green Girl (DBK Works) and Nancy Sinatra, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” (Reprise)
A slow, hesitating song with a quick, poppy chorus, right up to that point where guitarist Pat Johnson makes you lean forward and wonder what his few broken, abstract notes are saying, and Houston, in her most powerful moments since she broke up the Avengers in 1979, cracks the punk whip that’s been hiding in the tune all along. I heard it on the radio immediately after Nancy Sinatra’s shockingly avant-garde 1966 version of a Sonny and Cher hit, from the Kill Bill, Vol. 1 soundtrack. The Vol. 2 set would be better off with “The Pale Green Girl” than anything that’s actually on it.
10. Jan Berry, 1941-2004
He treated everyone around him like something to kick out of the way, including the truck he crashed into 38 years ago and never really walked away from. He never apologized, except perhaps in that perfect moment in “Dead Man’s Curve,” after the Jag he’s been racing has been totaled; a hand runs across the strings of a harp, and Jan finds himself not in his Stingray in heaven, playing a lute, but in the hospital, putting on a convincing show of humility—“Well, the last thing I remember, Doc, I started to swerve…”—but you can bet he’s secretly grinning over every word.
City Pages, May 5, 2004