Austin’s Avant-Garde Blues Band Churchwood Addresses These Dystopian Times on ‘Plenty Wrong to Go Awry’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The term ‘avant-garde blues band’ is an intriguing one, because it doesn’t immediately bring very many names to mind.  In their own experimental style, Churchwood has carved out a rather unique place, using some structural blues, jazz, metal and punk elements– plus a blend of like-minded, lyrically focused artists like Captain Beefheart, Nick Cave and Tom Waits as reference points– to create a mostly, dark menacing sound sprinkled with unpredictable moments.

Plenty Wrong to Go Awry is their fifth full-length release, framing the often complex lyrics of singer/co-founder, Joe Doerr – a poet, college professor and veteran rocker with tow masters degrees and a PhD in English from the University of Notre Dame, who first made his mark in the early 1980s as Kid LeRoi in the long-running Texas roots music powerhouse, the LeRoi Brothers. Their music is not for the faint of heart; it is both irreverent and literate. You need to dig into this material to appreciate the full breadth of what’s going on with. 

The quintet has two guitarists – Bill Anderson and Billysteve Korpi, bassist Adam Kahan and new drummer Eric Bohlke, with Doerr playing harp and singing. They augment various tracks with a horn section, cellos and organ. Fortunately, the liners – an 8-page booklet– contain the lyrics. Here’s an example, using the opening lines from the title track: “I saddled the blood weed on the lawn before daybreak All Throatlatch, gaskin, hock, and withers in the sprint/I rattled the mud fleas on the bawn near the canebreak Like a bolt form a bowstring lent my feathers to the flint/There’s plenty wrong to keep my mind off the mishaps there’s plenty wrong to keep the puzzle implied There’s plenty wrong that’s plenty fraught with plenty missteps /There’s plenty wrong to go awry.” Obviously, this is not light fare, but you start to get the idea that this is indeed an adventurous ride.

Churchwood formed in 2007 and has been on Jeff Smith’s San-Antonio-based Saustex label since 2010. Smith has known Doerr and guitarist Bill Anderson since the early ‘80s when the two were in the Austin group ballad Shambles, later Hand of Glory.  This project was recorded in the summer of 2019 and mixed in the Spring of 2020. Given that we were already gearing up for a Presidential election and very much in the throes of a political divide a year ago, the album addresses the current dystopian times we currently endure through a poetic and sometimes historical lens on “Ain’t Your Choir” and “Steal It Back.” Here’s a verse from the latter – “Anybody got a better way to battle boredom? Anybody got a better way to battle by the book? A bottle and a bible and the bottom of a barrel put the boogie in the boogeyman and crooked in the crook.”

Yes, even if one reads the lyrics along with the music, it’s often unclear just what Doerr is after but he is always a bit on the zany side, even when he’s having fun with the lyrics. After all, Doerr’s lyrics reflect an interest in French SymbolismLiterary ModernismSurrealism, and Beat Poetry. His themes are largely existentialist in scope: absurdity, anxiety, alienation, passion, individuality, and authenticity are his primary concerns. Some may prefer the roadhouse rave-up of the dueling snarling guitars in “Tantamount” and “Fixin” to Crawl” instead.  Whichever avenue one takes, this is music you need to give your full attention to, not unlike abstract art, or that weird cocktail that’s always intrigued you, just waiting for the best time to indulge.

 

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