Rock Bottom Rhapsody
Yes, this writer may be a little late to Pokey LaFarge but am attracted to his old school 1950s R&B as done by white artists from the period, mixed in with some bluesy and rockabilly riffs here and there. Echoes of the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and others course through his music too. LaFarge’s guitar is usually at the forefront, and its mostly strummed for rhythm rather than chorded for melody. He’s backed on these tunes by an elite group of Chicago players, including Alex Hall (drums, percussion, vibraphone, keyboards),(The Flat Five) Joel Paterson (guitar) ( Robbie Fulks, Devil in a Woodpile), Scott Ligon (piano, organ) (The Flat Five, NRBQ), Jimmy Sutton (bass) (JD McPherson, Jake LaBotz), Deron Johnson (piano) (Miles Davis, Stanley Clarke) and others. Multi-instrumentalist Chris Seefried adds production values that suggest past recording technologies. All of this makes the record sound rather retro, and deceptively smooth, given the underlying turbulent nature of many of LaFarge’s lyrics. Anyone who puts a song on a disc entitled “Fuck Me Up,” carries warning signs. The title Rock Bottom Rhapsody even suggests he’s been to hell and maybe back.
This is an artist singing about addiction, about scars from too many poor choices and a realization that even though living dangerously has its pitfalls, he easily falls prey. The gentle opening belies the pain, a formal instrumental introduction led by sentimental strings appropriately called “Rock Bottom Rhapsody”. That sets the melancholy mood before plunging into what should be despair, given the title “End of My Rope.” Instead it carries a bouncy Buddy Holly vibe, on that LaFarge calls “Charlie Feathers meets Everly Bros. meets T-Rex.” Then comes a bluesy, obtuse piano with a slew of female voices for “Fuck Me Up.” The dancehall “Amy Winehouse Meets Duke Ellington” styled “Bluebird” follows with plenty of ooh oohs from the female backgrounds.
Following the reprise of the theme, we get a mix of tunes, but he certainly sounds happy on the rather weird love song, the piano ballad “Lucky Sometimes.” By his own admission, he was playing with several styles in “Carry On,” a little Beatles, a little soul with the refrain “Why should I carry on?” This retro pop vibe extends into the melodic “Just the Same,” one that LaFarge calls is Laurel Canyon-esque love song. “Fallen Angel’ is a bleak stomper, seemingly about a strong-out dude, with a succinct acoustic guitar solo midway through.
“Storm-a-Comin’” expresses the loneliness of being heartbroken in the dead of winter in Chicago as his vocal lines take on a pleading tone amidst the soul backdrop. He flips the switch again for the tremolo guitar imbued “Ain’t Comin’ Home,” for those who never want a partying evening to end. He calls this one “50s or 60s Charlie Rich meets Sam Cooke.” So, just when it seems like he’s arrived at a brighter place, he serves up the lament “Lost in the Crowd,” about the darker side of his time in Los Angeles. Then we get the sound of applause signaling the show is over and instead of the string quartet rendering of the theme, a stark piano. It’s a strange ending to a bizarre, mix-tape like set of songs. Yet, somehow, the melodies, the pacing, and the retro feel is appealing in yes, a strange way.
- Jim Hynes