Ornery (adj.): having a contrary disposition; cantankerous
Yosemite Sam is a prime example of an ornery character well known to all. And The Wages Of Sin play purely ornery music. By burning the sugar and gloss off the surface of rockabilly, they effectively reduce it to its folksy roots and then take it waltzing around the saloon floor while grizzled prospectors spit their ‘baccy and whoop it up. While their second album Gringo Mariachi has all the rustic bluster of Yosemite Sam on a goldfields rampage, it also showcases a particularly rich depth of musicianship rarely seen in punked-up folk. This milieu is male, all-the-way-male, and sepia-tinted at that. But the misadventures of messy, flawed men is bedrock material for country music. Long may it be so.
The card game opens with Skull Creek Logger, a folk punk bone-rattler as pleasingly gutsy as its name suggests. The rolling war drums are reminiscent of Rum, Sodomy & The Lash-era Pogues. Men fight the elements of the New World and shout back into the wind as they are decimated by forces beyond their control. Fury and fiddle music provide a terrific unholy union. Then onto the album’s prettiest firecracker The Drunkard’s Prayer; if anyone was ever in any doubt about the direct lineage shared by American folksong and rockabilly/rock & roll then this song settles all arguments. And best of all, it carries the wistful, lonesome and fatalistic essence of such roots music all within a hollered chorus of “tur-a-lur-a-laddie”. There are countless songs of rambling and alcoholism churned out by any band that dares to brand itself with the Jolly Roger but this one really stands out. Lead Sinner Jesse Stewart has delivered a classic traditional song which every greaser and Bettie Page girl from Seattle to Sydney will immediately appreciate. Hellcat grooves. And unsentimental, too: “I woke up in the street and all the birds were singing, so I went back to the bar while the church bells all were ringing”. Been there, drank that … Prayer just tells it like it is. Belly Of The Whale is 18th Century scurvy and bilge rats stewed and steeped in biblical prophecy. The imagery would not be out of place in an early Flogging Molly song and the minor key keeps it grim.
Black Lung Blues brings Steve Earle’s bare knuckled storytelling to mind, a bitter chronology of generations of mining men and their lives of battle and toil. A rich vein of subject material is tapped here. Haymarket opens with a neat gypsy banjo quick-waltz but soon surges into pure countrybilly. This one must be a live favourite. New Orleans Eulogy is country rock of sorts, crammed with swampy imagery and doomed sentiment; “a southern gothic tragedy, an angel’s grievous fall, Sin City got your money, liquor took your voice”. Bible & A Gun continues with Steve Earle’s vision of the ‘modern’ folk ballad, a tale of incessant drug running against a background of old time religion and military misadventure.
Razor In My Pocket is something straight out of that Irish folksong softback you keep stashed away with that cheap banjo you still haven’t got around to learning (LEARN IT, you lazy bastards). Razor is a ‘Gangs Of New York’ tale minus the ridiculous accents of that film (Day Lewis excepted). Portrait Of An Evangelist stands out on account of its stark Appalachian gospel introduction, unsettling and reeking of brimstone. Then it’s back on the salty decks with Ten Fathoms Deep, very much in keeping with the sound of The Wages’ first album, Custom Of The Sea. But there’s a theremin in here somewhere (!). The Righteous Stranger by mandolinist Marc Robben is a scalding political stream, totally contemporary and therefore something of a departure for the band. And then … (here we go) … and then a banjo and mandolin-powered take on The Clash chestnut White Riot. You can’t really go wrong with that. The album ends with a no bullshit country death song – Stull – a solid and typical Wages broadside that serves to illustrate the fact that country death song lyrics sit happily alongside heavy metal lyrics; “I’d like to say I’m on the righteous path, but I’ve done things that might incur God’s wrath”. ‘Cept there’s a county sherriff in here, so you know it’s The Wages Of Sin.
The good folk of Seattle should be very proud of The Wages Of Sin. Great musicians to a man, they take roots music in their own direction with confidence and clout. And to all of us flawed gringos who have rambled, brawled and woken up in the street, they show that has always been thus. But also that redemption is always lurking in the wings. Manana, manana, a gringo’s life for me.
Will Swan November, Sydney 2008