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Paul Burch & The WPA Ballclub | Blue Notes (Shoeshine Records)
The rain spatters outside. It is always raining. The streetlights are out and inside the bar men sit staring dead eyed into their drink. Welcoming the slow, unfolding oblivion. Someone gets up and pumps the jukebox. This record comes on. In a voice hijacked from another part of this century, Burch sings "What you call romance is like walking a barbed wire fence / Barefoot, blindfolded, one arm tied, nothing to break the fall." Someone says they haven't heard music like this since before the war. Someone else falls off his barstool. Welcome to the world of the WPA Ballclub - a smoky world, held in a time capsule, a world before microwaves, modems, napalm, before the funny man with the little moustache became elected leader. Lambchop Vibes player and solo artist Paul Burch has been elegantly mining this seam for three albums now and with Blue Notes he's produced his best music yet. Lazy and languid vocals, stand-up bass, unobtrusive drums and a barload of atmosphere make up this record. Going back to Country music of the 'twenties, that dark, chilling idiom of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, Burch moves away from the more Western Swing / Honky Tonk flavoured stylings of his first two albums to a land of low-lit natural disaster. Burch's voice is smooth, urbane, sophisticated and witty, his phrasing perfect - the ghost of Jimmie Rodgers haunts each line. There's Dylan here too. Not the wild flashing demon Dylan but the unfashionable country squire of Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait (check out Burch's hat and demeanor on the cover - cross reference it with Nashville Skyline - you'll see what I mean.) Isolda is a disarmingly gorgeous ballad about a woman who "With her incense / Her absinthe / Her calumets and her pinfold" could easily be one of Dylan's mystery temptresses. The call and response dynamics of How Do I Know? lend a bit of light, utilising the great Tom House on backing vocals while Hitting Bottom is so slinky, sad and sensuous it could have come straight out of a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. On each of his preceding two albums Burch has included one narrative of such great power that it makes you think this man's got the Depression-era version of Nebraska inside him - on this album, it's the drifter's lament of Carter Cain, a warm empathetic song whose moral stature could have come off John Wesley Harding. "Tune in to the Grand Ole Opry" it says (in true Lambchop fashion) on the inner sleeve, though what you'll hear on this record is a far cry from anything you might catch on that venerable institution - this music should come crackling out of a mono radio speaker somewhere in the wet hills. Someone else falls off their barstool. They make a clean thud on the floor, but no one notices, they're too wrapped up in the music. It's the 21st Century but inside the bar it will be 1930 forever.
CWAS #8 - Summer 2001