Friday, October 8, 2021

Nathan Bell: “Red, White And American Blues (It Couldn’t Happen Here)” (2021) CD Review

In 2016, the Republican Party for all intents and purposes, if not in name, became the Fascist Party, though the rank and file members claim to be completely unaware of the change. And though their master, Donald Trump, a whiny ex-gameshow host, is no longer in power, they seem to be still in thrall to him, leading others in positions of power to emulate him in order to remain relevant to the moronic masses. It is a terrifying moment in this nation’s history, particularly as the upcoming mid-term elections could spell disaster for democracy. This is a time when anyone who is paying attention has the Red, White And American Blues. The parenthetical part of the title for Nathan Bell’s new album, “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” is a reference to Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, which tells the story of the rise of a dictator in the United States. That book was written as fascism took hold in Europe, but for most people there has been the belief that it just couldn’t happen here. That belief was essentially destroyed in 2016. Nathan Bell’s album was recorded in 2019, while Trump still occupied the White House, and though it was delayed due to the pandemic, the power and relevance of its songs have not lessened. The album features all original material, written by Nathan Bell. Joining Nathan Bell on these tracks are Alvino Bennett on drums and percussion; Frank Swart on bass, guitar, banjo, and electric mandolin; John Deaderick on keyboards; and Reverend Crow on harmonica. Special guests, including Patty Griffin and Regina McCrary, join Nathan Bell on vocals on certain tracks.

The album opens with “Angola Prison,” a driving, bluesy number with a strong pulse of a beat and some good work on harmonica, and a vocal performance that sounds of anger and pain, with a undeniable power. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Chains that rattle with my every breath/Me and the devil/We made a pact/That I’d leave Angola Prison/Lying on my back.” That’s followed by “American Gun.” Gun violence in this country has gotten so far out of hand that it seems nothing can be done about it, and so nothing is done about it. The fact that no real changes came after Sandy Hook shows just how screwed up this country is when it comes to firearms. Most of us wonder, if not then, when? This year there have been more mass shootings than days, and we are getting used to the idea that anywhere at any moment gun violence could erupt. It is frightening and depressing, and Nathan Bell’s “American Gun” hits that mark well. This one is more in the folk realm, sung from the perspective of a gun, in the same vein as Ellis Paul’s “Autobiography Of A Pistol” back in 1994. “I’ve got one job and I do it well,” Nathan Bell sings here. Indeed. Patty Griffin joins Nathan Bell on vocals on this track.

The lyrics of “American Blues” are delivered almost as spoken word, and that approach gives this song a stronger sense of immediacy, like Nathan has to tell us this right now. The song deals with racism and other perennial troubles of this nation. Check out these lines: “The church rapes the children it is paid to educate/Not a day goes by in this country that I’m not a father with/The American blues.” There is some excellent guitar work on this track. Nathan Bell does a sort of spoken word delivery on the next track as well, “Retread Cadillac (Lightnin’).” Regina McCrary joins him on vocals for this one, offering delicious responses to what is being said. It is such a cool track. “You got to get down/Get back up again.” Patty Griffin joins Nathan Bell on vocals on “A Lucky Man,” which is both a beautifully sad song and a truly positive number. “Had a pocket full of dreams, but I tossed them all/Had a few good friends until I lost them all/I wish they were still here so I could tell them all/That I’m a lucky man.”

“Wrong Man For The Job” is a good solid blues song. In 2016, the entire Cabinet was filled by the wrong men and women. You couldn’t get much more wrong than Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, or Wilbur Ross for Secretary of Commerce. And Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency? Holy shit, talk about wrong. It seemed Trump was deliberately dismantling the country by choosing the absolute worst person for each position. Here Nathan sings, “If I was the President/I’d start another war/Wouldn’t care who we were fighting or what we were fighting for/And I’d take all of your money, slip out the back door/Because I’m the wrong man, I’m the wrong man for the job.” Then there is some humor to “When You’re Dead (Ghost Reflects On His Dire Circumstances).” Here is a taste of the lyrics: “When you’re dead/You can ignore the warning labels/And all the things you were afraid to do/You can do them now instead/Because nothing else can kill you/When you’re dead.” Ah yes, a song that reminds us of the great benefits of being dead. And it features more great stuff on harmonica.

I don’t think anyone is sane enough to own a gun, including myself. Any writer will tell you that if you introduce a gun into the plot, it will have to go off at some point. So if you buy a gun, eventually you will be compelled to use it. Or someone else will use it. The opening stanza of “Mossberg Blues” is: “I bought a shotgun just the other day/It leans in the corner of my room/And every time I pass that way/It says, man, we should shoot someone real soon.” This song has a very late 1960s or early 1970s Rolling Stones vibe. Regina McCrary joins Nathan Bell on vocals on this track. Then Aubrie Sellers joins him on vocals for “Running On The Razor (Family),” another powerful blues song. Check out these lines: “They were dumb motherfuckers/Exactly as they seemed/Thought they had the ticket/But it couldn’t be redeemed.” That’s followed by “Zensuit’s Samadhi Blues.” The opening lines stood out for me the first time I listened to this album, and strike me each time I play it: “Man’s born a pauper/Man’s born a prince/Came into the world screaming/He’s been screaming ever since/For somebody/Make everything work out right.” We are all trying to make sense of the world, aren’t we? There is something of King Lear in this song, particularly in that moment when Lear begins to take a more critical look at himself and realizes that he has not cared for the poor, and in that acknowledgement that everything can be so easily taken away.

“Monday, Monday (The Bony Fingers Reprise)” comes on strong with a great groove. It’s a blues tune about working and a lack of money. “Used to bring my money to my baby/Keep a little for myself/Now I’m working for the man/And the man is somewhere else.” These lines also stand out: “Work your fingers to the bone/‘Til bones are all that’s left of you.” Who hasn’t been thinking about death lately? And having those thoughts during the workday is, well, just too much to bear at times. Then Patty Griffin joins Nathan Bell again for “To Each Of Us (A Shadow),” a gentle and intimate song that seems to be about anxiety and helping someone cope with it. “And I’m standing at the lighthouse/With no keys for the locks/As you sail through the fog/Headed straight into the rocks/But you’re all I ever wanted/You’re all I ever wanted/You’re all I ever wanted/So I breathe out/And I breathe in/Count every breath from one to ten/Turn around/And count back down/Again.” It is one of those songs that reach out to us, help us through whatever this thing is, and it is one of my personal favorites. The album then concludes with “Folding Money (You Better Move Along),” a song that rips into those that profit from religion. “Jesus won’t hear you when you call/Or answer when you pray/Jesus won’t hear you when you call/You’d better move/Move along.”

CD Track List

  1. Angola Prison
  2. American Gun
  3. American Blues
  4. Retread Cadillac (Lightnin’)
  5. A Lucky Man
  6. Wrong Man For The Job
  7. When You’re Dead (Ghost Reflects On His Dire Circumstances)
  8. Mossberg Blues
  9. Running On The Razor (Family)
  10. Zensuit’s Samadhi Blues
  11. Monday, Monday (The Bony Fingers Reprise)
  12. To Each Of Us (A Shadow)
  13. Folding Money (You Better Move Along)

Red, White And American Blues (It Couldn’t Happen Here) was released on October 1, 2021.

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