Asylum Street Spankers,
God's Favorite Band
(Spanks-A-Lot/Yellow Dog, 2009)

God's Favorite Band? Well, presumably God loves unbelievers, too, so let us hope He doesn't take offense if this is, as advertised, "the world's first agnostic gospel album." If He has an easily tickled sense of humor, He and the Asylum Street Spankers will get on splendidly.

When one thinks of the musicians of Austin, Texas, one automatically conjures up visions of guitar-rock bands, country artists (alternative and traditional) and Townes Van Zandt-wannabe singer-songwriters. The Spankers have no truck with any of that. Too outsized a sense of the absurd, for one thing, and for another a shared conviction that anything, however crude or crazy, is worth doing if it gets a laugh. A Spankers concert is not for the prudish, delicate, narrow-minded or otherwise faint-hearted (as witness their live CD What? And Give Up Show Business?, which I reviewed in this space on 1 November 2008).

Beyond the wickedly over-the-top comedy lies pointed, left-leaning social commentary and superior musicianship. The Spankers -- there is a reason I do not refer to them by their acronym -- are in essence a jug band, an acoustic ensemble rooted, however irreverently, in the old-time sounds of hokum, country blues and early jazz. On God's Favorite Band they get about as serious as they're able (in short, never entirely) as they turn to traditional spirituals, including standards such as "Wade in the Water" and "Down by the Riverside," the latter as much an anti-war protest song as a celebration of salvation.

The CD opens with their reimagined "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," best known from Blind Willie Johnson's chilling arrangement. If the song loses its sense of mystery here -- and I suspect that the nothing-if-not-straightforward Spankers aren't much on mystery anyway -- they do it nicely their own way. Several other antique gospel numbers, mostly from the African-American tradition, follow in rough-edged and lively versions.

Band member Wammo (is that a first or a last name?) contributes two originals, the flavor of which is captured in this ecumenical sentiment: "Ain't got no problem with Buddha/ 'Cause he's a huge Nirvana fan." Then again, as God's Favorite Band affirms in the final cut, "It Ain't Necessarily So." Has a gospel album in the long, rich history of gospel albums ever closed with such a consumer warning?

review by
Jerome Clark

29 May 2010

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new