Ray Bonneville,
Bad Man's Blood
(Red House, 2011)

Ray Bonneville's records conjure up a noirish world populated by death-haunted, or anyway severely depressed, characters. If Bonneville is no Johnny Cash imitator, he yet recalls Cash's darkest visions, which at times took their inspiration from old folk ballads of doomed criminals contemplating the hangman's noose. Actually, Bad Man's Blood opens with a ballad -- the title song -- on precisely that theme.

"Blood's" mood seems to hang over the next cut, "Sugar & Riley," notwithstanding the consideration that it is in fact an optimistic song about a couple who quarrel bitterly into the late night but who reconcile by morning. The closing cut, "Funny 'Bout Love," is even more chipper, if sort of weirdly so. On the other hand, the grieving "River John" -- the emotionally rawest number, which is saying something -- imagines a departed friend as he walks in the dim light that divides this world from the one from which no traveler returns. A later song, "Cross and Flowers," visits "the hour of long shadows"; the singer contemplates a grave and the vagaries of fate, where "I see dice roll out of a hand unknown / I believe they are loaded long before they're thrown."

Bonneville's hard-road voice carries the grim news with unsettling conviction through simple, often touching folk-blues melodies played on his finger-picked acoustic or electric guitar. Austin compadres Gurf Morlix (guitars, bass, banjo and harmonies) and Mike Meadows (drums and percussion) provide appropriately skeletal back-up sounds. On occasion Dexter Payne offers up some r&b saxophone riffs, albeit mostly without making the proceedings feel like anything other than a funeral party.

All of this, the usually gloomy and the occasionally sunny, comprises the mature work that Bonneville is putting down in his aesthetically rewarding incarnation on Red House. His is a courageous art, unflinching in the face of the void. It seems odd that it's also so enjoyable to listen to.

music review by
Jerome Clark

8 October 2011

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