Rachel Harrington,
Makin' Our House a Honkytonk
(Skinny Dennis, 2012)

Ordinarily a folk-oriented singer-songwriter (see my reviews in this space on 6 December 2008 and 9 April 2011), Seattle-based Rachel Harrington heads off in an angular direction on Makin' Our House a Honkytonk. On her current project Harrington performs songs that sound generally or specifically country, broadly 1960s-style, with elements of rock and r&b, the one constant being strong, stick-in-the-head melodies.

She cites the late Gram Parsons as an inspiration, and indeed his presence is felt on occasion, but this also feels a bit like the alive and active Robbie Fulks, whose mockery of country's conventions is leavened with genuine affection for the genre.

The thematic inspiration for the title tune, also the opening cut, is easily discerned, at least if your memory stretches back to the country music of a few decades ago. "I'm Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home," written by Dewayne Blackwell, was a 1982 hit for David Frizzell. Like the song that inspired it, "Makin' Our House" -- one of the nine originals Harrington contributes to the 10-cut line-up -- is a fed-up wife's tongue-in-cheek threat to turn the house into a drinkin' joint where her husband will feel comfortable. Nothing wrong with the song itself; it's a good one, and it rocks harder than the Frizzell equivalent.

"He's My Man" is the sort of countrified r&b that put Ray Charles on the charts in the 1960s, complete with Raelettes-like female back-up singers, while "Love Him or Leave Him to Me" is a Tammy Wynette-like heartbreaker about adultery and competing affections, in other words an old-school pure 1960s country song. Other cuts, such as "Get You Some," "Hippie in My House" and "Nothin' to Do But You," are neither country nor r&b but entertainingly retro pop-rock. She and Mark Erelli join in a duet on Erelli's exquisitely conceived "I'll Show You Mine," which manages to be at once deeply erotic and achingly melancholic. It all ends with the hard-core country of "I'd Like to Take This Chance."

Sadly, likable as the songs are, they would never get played on what passes for country radio these days. Drinkin' and doin' it, to which much of Makin' Our House's content is devoted, are activities severely proscribed on today's commercial playlists. But if that kind of pious wholesomeness makes you wanna hurl, here's the good news: there's a party going on over at Rachel Harrington's place.

music review by
Jerome Clark

18 August 2012

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