The latest album from Drunk Uncle – er, I’m sorry, I meant Hank Williams Jr. – is the musical equivalent of a gratuitous open-carry display in a crowded Applebee’s.
Set to the tune of every country and southern rock cliché available to modern man, “It’s About Time” (Big Machine) is filled with lyrical couplets that read like talking points for a Ted Cruz stump speech. The record would be absolutely hilarious, if wasn’t so sad and bereft of hope.
Williams, Jr. – who, at 66, has spent several decades making it all but impossible for any right-thinking individual to believe that he is a blood relative to the late great father of true country music, Hank Williams – gets the only listenable song on this wretched platter out of the way first, thank God. (I mean that same god that Williams Jr., worships, of course, the one who is white, Republican, wears a ‘Make America Great Again’ ball cap, and drives a John Deere. No offense to John Deere.) Of course, it’s a cover, in the form of Neil Young’s hootin’ and hollerin’ “Are You Ready for the Country,” with guest Eric Church, who probably should’ve known better, but still, contributes to the fiddle-fueled fury here.
Then it’s straight to the great American gutter, where Williams Jr. does his Liberal-baiting best to keep us awake by filling tunes like “God Fearin’ Man,” “God and Guns” and “Wrapped Up, Tangled Up in Jesus (God’s Got It)” with the sort of juvenile “us vs. them-isms” that would most definitely get any guest at my house shown the door quicker than you can say “Ted Nugent”.
If you’re curious about the party platform, try this one on for size: “God and guns/Keep us strong/That’s what this country was founded on/Well we might as well give up and run/If we let them take our god and guns.” Tone deaf? Yes, clearly. (The country was actually founded on a vision of equality and belief in the rights of individuals to liberty, free speech, due process of law, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly, but hey, why quibble?)
Of course, it is not the sole purview of entertainers on the political right to offer their knee-jerk opinions on matters of state and society during elections cycles, but Williams Jr. lacks anything resembling nuance of the sort that, for example, Bruce Springsteen brought to his symbolically George W. Bush-bashing gem “Magic.”
Great songwriters employ metaphor, imagery, occasional obliqueness, and symbolism, so that their songs might have resonance outside of their immediate milieu. Williams Jr. is not a great songwriter. Perhaps if this whole music thing doesn’t work out for him, he can get a job on Fox News.
Chicago’s Tortoise has been making gloriously genre-defying music for nearly 25 years at this point, which is long enough for the band’s influence to start showing up in the work of younger bands. Snarky Puppy, Bill Lawrence, Jaga Jazzist, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and, locally, Lazlo Hollyfeld – all would seem to have fallen beneath the sway of of Tortoise’s jazz-informed marriage of electronic, ambient, jam, funk, rock, and dub stylings. This has been an absolute godsend for the last ten years of experimental music.
Still, there’s something refreshing about Tortoise’s own take on music-as-art, and the freshly released “The Catastrophist” (Thrill Jockey) is quite possibly the band’s most pleasing effort to date. It has been almost 7 years since we were last gifted with new Tortoise, but even if we push the anticipation to the side, “The Catastrophist” is spellbinding, a little strange, a lot daring, and abundantly dramatic. That’s a tall order for instrumental (with the exception of a delirious cover of the David essex chestnut “Rock On”) music to fill, but fill it they do.
Originally the result of a commission by the City of Chicago – “Write some music that would work as basis for collaboration with some of Chicago’s finest jazz musicians,” the city said, and so Tortoise did – “The Catastrophist” grew into a full-fledged Tortoise album when the band members reworked some of the commissioned material and wrote a whole bunch more to augment it.
“The Catastrophist” might not make Tortoise into a household name, but then, do they really need to be one? This is truly special music, and those who “get it” will likely welcome it into their hearts and their homes. (Road trip alert: Tortoise plays Lee’s Palace in Toronto on March 12.)