Tom House,
Jesus Doesn't Live Here Anymore
(Catamount, 2001)

Tom House's voice has a quavering, whining tone that makes it perfect for old-timey, hillbilly music. He sounds much like what you'd expect from a derelict hobo in the '30s, perfectly at home in the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Although his voice and phrasing have been compared to Dylan's, he reminds me more of Barry Louis Polisar -- deliberately a bit off-key, with an off-beat phrasing of words to music.

There's nothing earth-shattering in most of the songs of this CD. You'll find the typical, straightforward, sentimental, folk-type lyrics in "Love Be Gentle," "Making My Peace" and "Picking Up and Going." There's also the sad, pathetic story about people with absolutely no respect for themselves in "Everything Changes." Not only do we have the woman who doesn't know who the father of her baby is, out drinking in a bar, risking fetal alcohol syndrome, lung cancer and socially communicable diseases, but we have the narrator of the song, possibly the father of her baby, pitying himself and her, and also her drunk ex-boyfriend, newly released from jail. Where's Jerry Springer when you need him?

On the other hand, the subject matter of some of the songs is that remarkably dysfunctional side of life best represented in the files of a psychiatrist. It's corrupt and perverted, enough to make you say the boy is psychotic. Of course, as House once said about himself, he often sits down at night with a bottle of whiskey, his guitar and pen, and then gets up in the morning to see what the whiskey fairy left for him. I would say it's obvious -- nothing the weak at heart would want to hear.

While violence and murder are not unknown in folk music, House takes it to new, graphically descriptive heights. "The Cruel Mother," "Tom Dooley" and "Banks of the Ohio" are all examples of the "somebody's done somebody in" song. For instance, Tom Dooley "stabs her with my knife." In the "Child of God," however, House writes:

"they found her down
in a culvert bound
her body broken and bruised
she was dead and he had used her
even the strongest
had to turn their face away
their stomachs buckle
things unthinkable
too horrible to say"

This is why I don't read the newspaper, or watch the news or reality TV. This is too gruesome for me. On the other hand, in a verse left out of the liner notes, he provides a subtle criticism of how the media dwells on these grisly aspects of life. You just have to be able to stick around to the end of the song to hear the message.

"Daddy's Dark Eyes" hints at incest, as only a victim in denial will discuss the crime. House's droning, hillbilly voice seems like it's coming straight out of the mouth of one of the more dubious supporting characters in Deliverance, making it seem even more nauseatingly demeaning and tragic.

"Jesus Didn't Die..." is a misleading title for this song -- the remainder of the line is "for faggots like you." It's the brutally graphic story of the beating of a gay man from the perspective of the accomplice, with the most telling line being "Can a man be a Christian and a coward, too?" If you can look past the words of the song describing the event to the message House is trying to convey, it's clear that House feels too many of us act based on fear -- in this case, fear of what people will think about us -- which leads to tragic consequences for everyone. One almost feels sorry for the poor slob in this story who won't stand up for what's right. Since this parallels the Laramie, Wyoming, story, the last thing I want is for someone to feel sorry for either of the killers. For those who care, this song includes the "F" word. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, I find the colloquial references to homosexuals and the description of the vicious beating far more offensive.

The melodies are typical of the genre. There are several songs ("Picking Up and Going," "Toss Your Partner") that remind me of other country/old-timey/bluegrass/folk songs I've heard before. Accompaniment is spare, as you would expect in folk music, but the mandolin, guitar picking and pedal guitar are not only appropriate to the songs they accompany, but are also fantastic. The percussion is subtle. All together, it's catchy stuff and grows on you quickly.

Background vocals are pretty good, too. Nothing beats good old-timey harmonies, especially in "Papa's Dancing With His Daughter," "Picking Up and Going" and "Everything Changes." The sighing, quietly howling bluesy woman in the background is sometimes just moaning, sometimes mumbling the words. Her harmonies don't always seem to match the song, but still lend an interesting touch to "Making My Peace," "Isadora's Dancing Tonight" and "Daddy's Dark Eyes." In "Child of God," she sounds like the dead girl, wailing like a banshee, adding yet another dimension to a multifaceted song.

The packaging is eco-friendly, brown cardboard, with typeface reminiscent of old-fashioned manual typewriters. The photo on the front is an artsy black and tan, showing some morbidly dead animal desiccating on the cover. Of course, after listening to most of the tunes, the title of the CD is probably a lament that Jesus has finally forsaken us, since most of us are too evil to warrant saving the few righteous folks who remain.

The liner notes are as disorganized as House's logic. The words don't exactly match what's on the CD, something normal for folk music, which changes and grows as it ages. Of course, if you can follow the logic in lyrics like "he's just like he's always been/going on and on some nothing/don't half matter way he does/always has it's the way he is" ("Papa's Dancing With His Daughter,") you should have no trouble in figuring it all out. And yes, he sings most of the songs like he writes them -- without punctuation, so occasionally the interpretation of the song is up to you. If your delicate sensibilities haven't been totally turned off by anything else on this CD, this is the least of the problems you'll find with this package. Like me, you can chalk it all up to House's -- and his whiskey fairy's -- charm.

[ by Alanna Berger ]
Rambles: 23 March 2002

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