In Pokey LaFarge’s own words, “the man singing these songs isn’t exactly the same man that wrote them.” And that’s probably a good thing. As the album title indicates, LaFarge was going through a dark period when he wrote a bulk of the songs on this, his ninth record and first for New West. He had recently moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles, a city that certainly has a longstanding reputation for introducing Midwest kids to some of the bigger vices this world has to offer.
In LaFarge’s wonderfully poetic style, he spills out his own story of drugs and drink across a vintage sound that is equal parts jazz, blues, swing and an always-evolving umbrella of Americana. Everything about LaFarge, from his name, his dress, his instruments and his influences reek of nostalgia and nowhere is that more obvious than on this LP. From the striking instrumental that opens and closes the record, “Rock Bottom Rhapsody” and “Rock Bottom Finale,” to the slap bass and piano rolls throughout “Fuck Me Up” that sound like they are coming out of a prohibition era speakeasy in Chicago (minus the “Fuck Me Up” sing along chorus), LaFarge somehow manages to make the nostalgia sound authentic rather than gimmicky, which is quite an impressive feat.
The theme of the nice Midwestern boy out of his element surfaces several times throughout the record, showing some obvious autobiographical elements to the songs here. And while there is definitely a slightly more ominous tone to the music here compared to earlier efforts, there is also a bit of optimism laced throughout; “I’m happy where you found me/with my two feet on the ground/I will never let a fallen angel take me down,” he croons on the surprisingly upbeat “Fallen Angel,” a song akin to a modern day hymn.
LaFarge has since left Los Angeles and is now sober. But with Rock Bottom Rhapsody, he left there with an addictively catchy cautionary tale told across a dozen or so songs, steeped in another time, but still remarkably relevant today.
Photo credit: Larry Niehues