1. Jon Langford, “Lost in America,” from Gold Brick (ROIR)
This summer Bruce Springsteen will be getting thousands on their feet with “John Henry,” cheering the tale of a man who in the years after the Civil War died proving he could hammer through rock faster than a steam drill. In October, Oxford will publish Scott Reynolds Nelson’s Steel Drivin’ Man, where John Henry is real-life prisoner number 497 in Virginia’s Richmond Penitentiary. But in Jon Langford’s leaping “Lost in America,” John Henry is the country itself. He’s there when the last spike is driven into the Transcontinental Railroad, walks away from the fight with the drill, dies in the “Wreck of Old 97,” turns up as a soldier at Abu Ghraib—and, just possibly, takes the September 11 planes back from their hijackers and breaks Columbus out of Guantanamo. It’s as rousing as Springsteen’s version, and absolutely heartbreaking, which for some reason the actual ‘John Henry” folk song never is.
2. The Lovekill, These Moments Are Momentum (Astro Magnetics)
Cleveland by way of Omaha, and more exciting than driving the 800 miles at 100 mph.
3. Gang of Four, “Natural’s Not in It,” from Entertainment! (EMI)
“The problem-uh, of-uh leisure,” Jon King chanted uncertainly on the band’s first album, in 1979; he made the notion sound like a black hole. Now the song will kick off Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. “Andy and I thought it was a fantastic idea to use this song for the film, when we heard it was a new take on the costume drama,” King says of himself and Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill. “It seems to have shook up the audience in Cannes. It could easily be French parochialism ’bout a Yank taking on this iconic figure without due deference. It’s the only developed country where there’d be a prosecution of a rapper for criticizing Napoleon and de Gaulle.”
4. Peter Carey, Theft (Knopf)
“We had been born walled out from art, had never guessed it might exist,” says an Australian painter in Carey’s new novel, “and then we saw what had been kept from us.” The resentment is patent, but still it’s a shock when fragments of pop songs—art the man wasn’t born walled off from—explode in his mouth as he rails against a 16th-century art critic: “You went to the finest schools all right but you are nothing more than a gossip and a suck-up to Cosimo de’ Medici. I was a butcher and I came in through the bathroom window.”
5. Ronnie Dawson et al., Rockin’ Bones: 1950s Punk & Rockabilly (Rhino)
Across 101 tracks from 1954 through 1964, the trash (Dwight Pullen’s “Sunglasses After Dark”) is so giddy it makes the masterpieces (Elvis’s “Baby Let’s Play House”) feel like folk music.
6-9. Irma Thomas, Dr. John, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, Bruce Springsteen
In the work Thomas and Dr. John did last fall for the collection Our New Orleans (Nonesuch), you could almost hear Katrina blow away decades of complacency. Now they walk blankly through their paces on the formally similar package Sing Me Back Home (Burgundy), credited to the no-doubt already disbanded New Orleans Social Club. On Thomas’s own After the Rain (Rounder), the songs are classy, the arrangements contrived, and once past a tense, every-breath-I-take remake of the Drifters’ 1960 “I Count the Tears,” the singing is confused. Costello and Toussaint’s The River in Reverse (Verve Forecast)—recorded last November and December in Los Angeles and New Orleans—is tedious. But in Concord, California, on June 6, Springsteen’s update of Blind Alfred Reed’s 1929 complaint “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” rang true even through the self-congratulatory stomp of his huge “Seeger Sessions” band. It was his verse about George W. Bush’s first visit to New Orleans after the flood; “He took a look around, gave a little pep talk, said ‘I’m with you,’ then took a little walk,” Springsteen sang.
10. Jon Langford, Nashville Radio (Verse Chorus Press)
Almost any one of these photo-based paintings of old country singers would serve as a grimy, plastic-covered image on a tombstone. But there’s so much hidden-in-plain-sight detail in the pictures—mottos, slight facial distortions, quotations—that by page 120 Hank Williams as St. Sebastian (in a cowboy hat but otherwise naked from the waist up, from a photo taken after an arrest) seems obvious. All the graves are open.
Headline Image: Jon Langford’s Hank Alone, 1988
Interview, August 2006