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`Meanest man' can't be all bad

John Doe offers songs drawn from the personal and the mystical, and the best, of which there are several, are both.

June 10, 2007|Greg Burk | Special to The Times

MY wife stole my advance copy of John Doe's new record and wouldn't give it back. This is often a sign of very good music.

X/Knitters singer Doe always has a lot to offer in his solo roots-rock guise, but "A Year in the Wilderness" is something special. An intimate, mysterious atmosphere seeps like gas through the sound space. Doe, though, keeps his head well out of the oven.

He wakes up alive and shivering beside a skeletal bedmate in "Hotel Ghost" as Dave Alvin's roaring lead guitar blasts the cobwebs away. And that's just an icebreaker for the warmer chills of the song likely to become Doe's career signature, the mid-tempo country-rocker "Golden State."

The tune's a masterpiece -- three minutes of condensed drama, love and longing, with a chorus that could lift a tombstone. Much of the leverage derives from the clear-eyed, inventive harmonies from Kathleen Edwards, with whom he first sang on a tribute to country angel Gram Parsons a few years back.

There's plenty more to savor. Edwards returns to complement acoustic and steel guitars on the lilting back-porch romancer "A Little More Time," and to balance the crashing groove and coyote wail of "Lean Out Yr Window." The mightily rolling blues shout "There's a Hole" recalls the Knitters' recent echobilly.

A few quiet interludes such as the slow-strolling "Darling Underdog" (with lyrics by X's Exene Cervenka) and "The Bridge" (a lovely personal snapshot) make for a comfortable pace that builds to a conclusion with the ascending instrumental coda of "Grain of Salt."

But who's the menacing shadow who drifts through "The Meanest Man in the World"? The song offers little in the way of explanation.

Doe was asked to elaborate. "It's autobiographical," he deadpanned. Aw, come on. "It is! I didn't murder anybody, but.... "

Well, anyone who can come up with lines such as "We all get what we deserve ... unfortunately" ("Unforgiven") and "You can't come to my room, it's more than I could stand" ("Big Moon") should be allowed to get away with homicide. And Doe's baritone croon has never sounded more natural; where other rootsmen strain for hayseed cred, this weathered road poet can't play anything but himself.

If, as it's been reported, "Wilderness" was thrown together in a rush, its delicately balanced, ear-tweaking production doesn't come off that way. Says Doe: "No Dave Way, no good record. I'm serious, he is a master."

The artful application of reverb alone is worth study. Where does that come from? "Probably Bakersfield," he says. "And maybe Houston, with George Jones." The holistic musicianship too, conjures diesel momentum seemingly out of nowhere; Doe particularly credits bottomy bassist David J. Carpenter and Tex-Mexy keyboardist Jamie Muhoberac, who've been with him for years.

When we talked, Doe was just tuning up his van for an American tour that will start after a free Amoeba Records show he's doing Tuesday, the day "Wilderness" comes out.

The record's generating enthusiastic early reviews. How does he feel?

"I'm feeling like there's a 10,000-pound gorilla just outside," he says. "And I've got to open the door."


John Doe

"A Year in the Wilderness"

(Yep Roc)

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On the Record is an occasional feature incorporating artists' comments with critical assessments of noteworthy new works.

Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released unless otherwise indicated.

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