Sunday, February 24, 2019

Love it: Call of the West

This weekend, I had a conversation with a friend of mine regarding significant albums (for his podcast Deeper Cuts). He wanted me to tell him about an album that held a special place in my heart, and it took me a while to narrow it down to just one, as there are so many for so many different reasons. I decided on Wall of Voodoo’s Call of the West from 1982.

This was their second album, and it was a little more commercially accessible than their previous one. You might know it from the single Mexican Radio, which is still probably their most well-known song. It is the reason that I bought the album in the first place, but to say the rest of the collection was less 'popular radio' friendly would be putting it mildly.

I was I think 13 when I first heard it, and up to that point I didn’t really have very many albums in my collection that were not a direct result of the tastes of either my parents or my brothers - I had started finding influences from new avenues, but this might be the first album that I had brought home that was so different from what I had previously collected.

This was simply the most quintessentially 'American' sounding thing I had ever heard, and still is - and I grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Dusty, twangy, new wave but somehow other. The arrangements a bizarre, sometimes frenetic, mix of traditional guitar, bass, and drum, with percussive synthesizer and clashing harmonica layers. When I was older I realized this was influenced by a SoCal sound, something a Niagara region kid in the early 80s would have no experience with.

Stanard Ridgway is a storyteller. Responsible for all the lyrics on the album, he paints a picture of failed possibilities, paranoia, detachment, abandonment, and the deterioration of the American dream. Of becoming an adult and discovering that it’s not going to be all parties and excitement, but instead a never-ending cycle of drudgery and banal existence as you work yourself into the grave - and that’s it. Just the kind of cynical worldview a teenager will naturally gravitate towards as they try to define themselves with a bit more sophistication.

And yet, it can’t be written off as pretension. Ridgway's visceral, gritty stories were definitely ahead of their time, and I don’t think anyone knew quite what to do with this album beyond the single. I think even Rolling Stone only gave it two stars. The rest of his work with the band, and indeed his solo work, continues in the storyteller vein and is well worth a listen in its own right.

This is an album I come back to again and again. Even though some of the instrumentation sounds a bit dated, it still seems somehow fresh. It’s also one I prefer to listen to in order rather than allowing it to shuffle, as I feel that it hangs together as a long story of sorts. At the very least, I prefer to start with Tomorrow - the ultimate procrastination song - and end with Call of the West - which includes a fantastic spoken word section in the middle known as 'the conflict,' outlining a universal wish:
...To have a fair shake,
To get a piece of the rock,
A slice of the pie,
And to spit out the window of your car
And not have the wind blow it back in your face.

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