AUSTIN SOUND 'SOUND PICKS' 2-20-08Boxcar Satan + Ghostwriter - hobo nouveau (Dogfingers/ End of the West)
Whatever the purpose, San Antonio band Boxcar Satan and solo artist Ghostwriter’s first collaborative effort, hobo nouveau collapses into a biting, gritty good time tethered by velvet ropes of fire. Call it 52 whirlpool minutes of punk folk made by snappily-dressed no-account day-jobbing night-rockers and I won’t fight you - but I’ll only half agree. Without knowing how long the preparatory discussion lasted, I can only say that for a two-day recording after a two-day practice, it’s a near seamless weaving of contemporary songs from Boxcar and Ghostwriter inlaid with commentaries of folk-heroes. Holding its own against the most lofty and cash-infused albums, it captures the breaking point of the dispossessed.
The December release of hobo nouveau was eerily appropriate, landing on the heels of a housing bubble bust, a manufacturing bust, and two months before the tanking of the service industry that’s landed us in an official recession1. Toss in the platitudes of an election year and hobo is both a harbinger and a pre-trial brief: a fair warning of economic disparity and its impact on human life. With party pundits belching smokestacks of sound-bite pollution like “Life is precious and beautiful” while stepping over a wino and pontificating “Coal is a vital commodity,” while nudging through a deal to hand the miner a dull lamp and a pittance, hobo is the kid playing poker with aces stuffed up their sleeves.
James, Jiminy Cricket’s estate heir2, sits on our shoulder shamming innocence and asking, “What to do? Gosh, I’m so very small.” Before making a snack of James, the Cheshire Cat licks his lips and purrs, “Be the sole proprietor of your survival and salvation; they won’t miss you until you’re gone anyway. Munch, munch. See?”
The first night I watched an audience of Dockers, Inks, and Fishnets belt out the lyrics from Ghostwriter’s hand, “People,” I knew the game was afoot. To a simple spoken word song carried by a twanging guitar and a stompbox, the assembly sang, “I’m scared to death I’m gonna end up like the rest/ … / you can’t live with them and you just can’t kill ‘em unless you want to go to prison/ … / something that I can’t stand: how they want everything on their plate by The Man/ they act like they can’t do nothin’ with their hands/… / if I don’t take a drink, then I might start a fight/… / I try to tell them how I feel and they don’t think this act is real/ … / it’s a standoff but I didn’t plan it.” Cramming together both social and personal commentary, it’s one of the most visceral omens of the album. But the problem is more than theoretical; it’s sitting in a car twiddling your thumbs while your upwardly mobile lover shops for the shoes that will guarantee their forthcoming Hilton lifestyle. Playing out the goaded and circular nature of a commitment doomed to failure, “Yuppie” carves out the soul with deft, slicing strokes and throws it into a second-hand centrifuge. “You want to talk but I don’t want to fight/ We took the oath/ ain’t nothing we can do about it/ We’re gonna ride this out this way for sure/ You want to fight but I don’t want to talk about it.”
Backhanding an older hypocrisy, Sanford slitters into the picture with silky cigarette bravado, “God don’t like you, I know.” Is gospel singer Elder Charlie Beck spinning in the grave knowing a band named Boxcar Satan and a bassist from a band called Pigface corrupted his gospel tune, “Drinkin’ Shine”? The 1930 original wags a finger at drinkers during prohibition and in an era of less than equitable racial treatment. Who needs to put up with that brand of moralizing? Not these guys. Blending banjo, harmonica, and an occasional group chorus, Sanford sidles up and asks “Say you done cut whiskey out, well how about a little wine?/ … / Christian, you better walk that line, cause you can’t walk those golden streets all tanked up on shine,” delivering not just a counterpoint, but playing one of their aces. Likewise, hobo throws in the blue-collar sentiments of Bob Dylan’s 1979 “Serve Somebody,” Woody Guthrie’s 1940 “Jesus Christ” and even trades out the watery ease and pickin’ of Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon,” filling the story of the mining life with plaintive guitar and a patient drum kit. Boxcar Satan’s song, “Traveling Man” takes the “you’re-so-full-of-shit” and ramrods right into the realm of unadulterated “I-ain’t-makin’-no-excuses” while staring you right in the eye and saying, “you-know-why.” The ebb and flow copulation of bonfire-bone-in-your-nose pounding and the foil of shocking silence right before the jihad declares, “I been drinkin’ piss and whiskey/ Stumbin’ around with Mr. D” and “I grab my souvenir and head back to the wrong side of town.” Boiling down the obscenity of futility, Ghostwriter growls “Two steps forward, three steps back - one more time.” Point? Until the day arrives when they plunge in the needle, flip the switch, or release the gas, you’ve got to throw down the facts of life as an act of Hope, as an act of Faith spat upon, which is sometimes Rage. By agreeing to destroy the relief valve on a pressure cooker, you know it will eventually explode, searing or killing everyone nearby. And at whose feet would you lay that blame? Maybe it doesn’t matter—seeking pity is pointless and saps the only remaining trait you possess: Dignity. Be willing to brawl for what’s important and walk away from that which does not matter. Ergo: “Traveling Man.”
Yet while “Traveling Man” would be hard to top, Sanford manages to take a Ghostwriter original and rip out whatever is left of your guts. Riding on waves of drums and bass and then slapping your complacency away with a collision of harmonica, ebow, and crashing cymbals, these guys make screaming “Fuck You; Stare Harder” at your neighbors not only reasonable but a divine command.
What to do when all the emotions have finally been put down in print, all the notes have been played, the bank of raw emotion and grueling noise has been made? Pulling from Texas musician Townes Van Zandt, hobo nouveau ends on a tribute to the salve of finding one’s own kind, cobbling together a tribe, and driving towards something that doesn’t promise more than enough to eat and a family who’s willing to share their bread with "Blaze's Blues," perhaps Austin's hobo nouveau par excellance. This is what speaks to the dispossessed, that 50% of the population sharing that 20% of the nation’s wealth. The top 1% who get the 14% of the income may do well to buy3 the album as well - if for no other reason than to get to know who the people with the pitchforks and tar at your door are when they come knockin’.
For all its spunk and all my preaching, hobo is an almost too-subtle album, wavering on the edge of an abyss of obscurity due to its suavity. It’s a shame, really. The intro track, “Dead Man’s Hand,” sets up a seemingly innocuous quietus, lays down a subtly verdant landscape of deep pulls from guitar and bass. Slowly layering more sound, Boxcar sneaks in with a cool commentary for survival: “It’s feast or famine/ stuff your face while you can/ you never know when you’ll end up with a dead man’s hand.” Located at the front, it’s entirely possible to miss the lesson. All too often, we expect to hear whiny contritions. Yet hobo nouveau is a blending of the raw and the polished; perhaps that is the beauty, the tragic flaw, and the joke. Like the cover art, like the collusion of two bands, like the lives that we lead that demand different roles, it is default two-faced by necessity. Living dual lives we generate extra phantom limbs for ever-increasing survival tasks, smiling in one direction, frowning in another - but the cost literally stretches the skin until the very sinews of each muscle and every joint in the body is nearly cracking open, spilling blood all over the floor. But whatcha’ gonna do? So whatcha’ gonna do?
- Zoe Nicol
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