Kinky Friedman the musical artist was much like Kinky Friedman the gubernatorial candidate: a novelty act with odd glimmers of sincerity between the barrage of one-liners. He was sometimes hyped as the Frank Zappa of country, but that was a considerable stretch. About the only thing Friedman and Zappa had in common was a willingness to ridicule their own constituency, as Zappa did when he mocked the hippie drug culture on “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” and Friedman did when he made buffooons of Lone Star-swigging rednecks on “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore.” It’s fairer to think of Friedman as the poor man’s (make that the destitute man’s) Randy Newman.
Like Newman, Friedman found that his joke songs overshadowed his weightier creations, so in 1999, Friedman released Pearls in the Snow, a tribute album to himself, featuring friends such as Lyle Lovett and Willie Nelson. That album put the focus on Kinky the serious social commentator, but with this updated, revamped version (which steals its name from Friedman’s gubernatorial campaign slogan), balance is restored to reflect Kinky’s penchant for politically incorrect stand-up comedy with a guitar.
Because Kinky was a dustbowl-dry, hopelessly monotoned singer, it’s almost inevitable that these covers will be improvements on his original recordings. Kevin Fowler puts across the ridiculously dated chauvinism of “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven (and Your Buns in the Bed)” with a just-kidding wink, while Nelson brings an effortless elegance to “Ride ’Em Jewboy.” “Sold American,” Friedman’s finest taking-inventory-of-America song, gets an appropriately elegiac treatment from Lyle Lovett, while the fearless Todd Snider lets it rip on “They Ain’t Making Jews” with a reckless rockabilly gallop and a perfect sense of comic timing.
Snider is the one performer on Why the Hell Not who acknowledges the album’s raison d’etre: to prop up Friedman’s bid for the governor’s mansion. As Snider battles the song’s bigoted lout, he sings: “If there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s an ethnocentric racist/and we ain’t gonna let people talk like that now that Kinky’s in charge of Texas.” Wishful thinking, sure, but you could say the same thing about Friedman’s entire career.
STEADY AS SHE GOES
It’s getting pretty damn hard to ignore the Hold Steady. And it’s about to get harder with the release of Boys and Girls in America, their third album in as many years. The Brooklyn-based band’s post-punk-informed rock is just that damn good.
Let’s start with the obvious: Front man Craig Finn is one of the finest lyricists America currently has to offer the world, even if he is a pretty piss-poor singer. Actually, to call him a singer seems unfair to most singers since he sounds a lot more like Elvis Costello might after gargling with asbestos. Still, his half-sung/half-shouted lyrics play out with a clarity that probably confounds indie rock. Consider “Charlemagne in Sweatpants,” a song off the Hold Steady’s last album, Separation Sunday: “It’s not like she’s enslaved/It’s more like she’s enthralled/She don’t need it, but she likes it.” The term “concept album” was pretty much coined to describe this kind of work, except that Separation offers no grandiose intergalactic themes. It’s just about a broken soul called Hallelujah (or Holly).
Holly pops up again in Boys and Girls, but Finn’s fictional muse — who also appeared on the band’s first album — is used sparingly here. Instead of a concept album, we get a record conceptually bound by themes of drug abuse and loss, wrapped up in infectious musicianship that packs hair-metal guitars, Elton-John pianos, and even some strings and organs into the mix. And, of course, you get Finn’s lyrics, like on suicide ditty “Stuck Between Stations”: “There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly/But he didn’t, so he died.”
At the exponential rate that Hold Steady albums are improving upon their predecessors, it’s entirely possible that, by the end of the decade, they might be marketed as the sonic equivalent to crack.