Fred Eaglesmith,
50 Odd Dollars
(Razor & Tie, 1999)

In 1965, Bob Dylan walked onstage at the Newport Folk Festival and changed the history of rock 'n' roll. At the time, most of the people in the audience were convinced that his new electric side was a betrayal -- an insult to their loyalty and support. Today you would be hard pressed to find anyone who still thinks that Dylan should not have picked up an electric guitar.

While Fred Eaglesmith's recent album may not signify quite such a turning point in musical history, it brings up the same age-old questions. Who owns this music that we all like to listen to? I am not referring to legal rights of ownership, commercial licenses, etc. I am wondering who the essence of it, the experience itself, belongs to?

Specifically, I am wondering whether or not it is "right" for us to expect an artist to please us? Why shouldn't Tom Waits, for example, record any kind of bone-jarring, rough-as-sawn-wood, indecipherable song he wants to? Why shouldn't Steve Earle record a bluegrass album, even though much of his audience loves his rock 'n' roll side? Why shouldn't Fred Eaglesmith get together any group of musicians he pleases and record an electric, rock 'n' roll album, even though his fans would probably be happier with a bluegrass album?

Whether or not it is right, that is more or less what Fred has done. Die-hard fans of his old music will be disappointed. Those who love rock 'n' roll, who love tight, well-written songs with a hot band backing up the lead singer, will like it.

It is not vintage Fred Eaglesmith, but then, again, it is. The characters are the same: farmers, truckers, lonely ex-boyfriends, losers, those left behind by society; these are all people we have seen in previous Fred efforts. It is the music that is different. Ralph is not playing bass, and Willie is primarily confined to backup vocals. Fred has put down his acoustic for an electric guitar and the whole sound is louder, more rocking, not what we are used to from Fred at all.

The question really is: is it good or bad? When I first got Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams, nothing happened the first couple of times I played it. Now, with Lucinda at that time, I had no point of reference, nothing to compare it to; never having heard her music before. By the fifth time I played it, I was hooked. Much the same happened with Fred's new record. I was amazed when I heard it the first time. This must be the wrong record, was this really Fred? But his picture was on the cover, and he was singing about "Blue Tick Hounds" and "Rodeo Boys" -- so I listened some more. On the third or fourth time through, I started to "get it."

I have been playing this album every day since it came in the mail, and I really like this new sound. It is not the Fred we used to know, unless you turn it inside out. Then you will find it is Fred, after all. The lyrics are pared down; there is a scarcity of adjectives. The nouns and verbs convey the story without need of additional verbiage. The lines are sparse, and cut to the quick. There is a sort of frenetic, urgency in the music. It has a spooky, unsettled feeling overall. I have come to believe that what we are hearing is the metamorphosis of Fred.

Not that that is anything new. Each of Fred's albums has been different from the others, but this one takes a big leaper leap than the rest. Even cover suggests this state of change; look at the photo of Fred on the back. We see three different Freds overlapping each other, as if he isn't sure just who he is right now. The stories are the same: restlessness, alienation, fear of and reaction to: change. Loners, misfits, unhappy lovers, the same people we know so well from other Fred songs. They are just moving a little quicker on this album, propelled along by a solid rock beat and a thumping bass quite different from Ralph Schipper's. This is a very different band, and even Fred's guitar sounds different. On most songs, he is playing an electric axe and the finger picking is, for the large part, out the window.

Change happens, and I, for one, would rather see the artist playing what he wants to, than listen to someone who plays just what their audience wants to hear. Fred is Fred, and what he has to say is still worth listening to. And the more I play this record and forget my expectations, the better I like it for what it is.

Many of us have heard Fred and the boys do some of these songs live, but the versions here are quite different from what we heard before. This is a rock band, no question, and the rhythm section on this recording defines a different kind of Fred sound -- one perfectly suited to these songs.

"Blue Tick Hound" is the familiar moonshine ballad with all the detail stripped out of the middle of it. With a series of quick brush strokes, Fred paints the picture we all know from old-time ballads. Moonshiner, revenuer, tracking hounds, it's all there and the framework Fred builds is easy to fill in since we are all so familiar with the story. But there's only one adjective in the first verse, giving listeners a clear and urgent picture. To write songs this clean, this tasty is no small feat.

Fred has done a remarkable job of staying true to his muse without becoming a caricature of himself.

"Rodeo Boy" is another story we already know by heart. This is one of Fred's characters we have met in songs like "Last Six Dollars," "Drive-In Movie," "I'm Just Dreamin'" or any of dozens of other songs that have come before. But, once again, with deft strokes, Fred makes the story come alive and tug at our heart strings. The character tells us that "I walk around in shoes...." What a brilliant line! It's not enough to tell us that his boots are scattered on the floor, he has been reduced to walking around in shoes -- absolute, desperate, misery.

In "Ten Ton Chain," the Hammond B-3 creates the setting for a sparse set of lyrics. Another song about the loss of a relationship, couched in auto-related language. Fred writes great choruses and I like the song overall, but this one feels a little unfocused, the story comes and goes so fast and it's related in such vague loose strokes, that it's hard to really get into this song.

"Gettin' To Me," in which I hear a touch of "Peter Gunn," is all about sleepless nights. About those images that play themselves over and over in your mind in the wee hours about confusion, disorientation. I used to have a rose bush that grew outside the window of my room, and on windy, stormy nights, the roses would bang against the window over and over in a very unsettling manner, sort of the "raven at the door" effect. That's the feeling this song leaves me with.

"Mighty Big Car" is taken at a much slower pace than it usually is in his live shows; this tune drones along and almost becomes a dirge. The lyrics of the song sound almost like an indictment until we get to "...headlights thick as Mason Jars / Everybody says that they look like Mars...."

"Crazier" comes out almost like western swing. It's a little less frenetic and surreal than some of the other tunes. The electric guitar is quieter on this one, and Willie plays some electric mandolin.

"Georgia Overdrive" is one of Fred's inevitable car songs (there are at least four on this album that might qualify), some kind of relative to "105" or maybe an offshoot of "Freight Train." "Steel Guitar" is another great song, with a sort of mysterious urgency to it. Swamp and bayou, mist and fog, and through it all, the sounds of a steel guitar. Listen to it and tell me it doesn't transport you to some other place, that for a moment it doesn't feel like you are wearing boots and standing in the mud.

"Carter" is the one song that might be easiest for old friends of Fred to accept, the one that sounds the most like the Fred we all knew. Fiddle, acoustic mandolin (played by Dan Whitely), pedal steel and a Hammond B-3 all help carry the song and give it a traditional bluegrassy-feel. A tribute to bluegrass legend Carter Stanley, who passed away about twenty years ago, the images are powerful and evocative. The singer is clearly rooted in his environment, but somehow nothing is the same for him; he tells us he can't even play one more song. But he does, in fact he plays two more. "Alternator" and "Bullets" round out the album. They are both back in the rock 'n' roll vein and Fred tears it up as he makes his exit.

"Alternator" is a sort of an anti-"105." the flip side of that tearin'-up-the-highway song. "Bullets" is a cross between "Crashin' and Burnin'" and "Freight Train."

As far as the over-all sound goes, I really like it. I do miss Willie P.'s Hendrix-like electric slide mandolin riffs, which I would happily see substituted for the much more understated guitar work on this album. Wille P. plays a tasty, funky, down and dirty lead and I really like that. But the work on this disc is up to standards and I think that what is important about what we are hearing here is what it implies about Fred's future work. My guess is that Fred always saw himself as a rock 'n' roller and just took the long way around getting there. If that is true, we can look forward to some scorching rock 'n' roll from this artist. He has the chops and he writes great songs. The potential is awesome.

[ by Jan Marica ]

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