Close to the bone

Tom House's backwoods sound carries essential sparks

While writing so prolifically, he was also pursuing a separate calling in Nashville--what he terms a "barroom musician." The early '70s found him participating in that town's street scene, rubbing elbows with now-essential names like Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, "guys who were really pushing the limits back then, and for the most part still are." (Van Zandt has since died.)

It was an intense time. "I played around town pretty solid for about 15 years, and I made a name for myself as a loose cannon," House explains. "I was a lot madder then, when I was young. I stayed drunk all the time and said what was on my mind. Alcohol was like a fuel for me. I played drunk a lot too, and I used to sing stuff that I didn't recall. My wife would tell me about it later. Finally I decided to record my stuff."

He first put out inside these walls, a self-released cassette that is a rougher, simpler version of the music that appears on neighborhood; most notable is the song "karen gracen," a harrowing tale of an institutionalized woman who is raped daily by her caretaker.

"I never really thought about it one way or the other," he says, "but I guess that I do write mostly pessimistic songs. I seem to obsess over that kind of thing." He adds--casually but not with indifference--that his father shot himself last year and that House's own marriage of 15 years has recently dissolved. "We drifted apart," he says.

His self-evaluation is matter-of-fact and seems without pity. He is quick to mention though, that he can write upbeat songs, naming as examples "c'mon through carolina" and "this light little ditty that I wrote about driving around Houston." He pauses. "Sometimes I wonder about the validity of it."

But one song does not a reversal of style make. In the next breath, House talks about one of his pending efforts, a song "about six or seven minutes long, about a guy who touches a corpse and, without even knowing it, brings scarlet fever to his whole family. It's sort of my Job song." Indeed, it seems that the further into despair or abuse or angry gulps of whiskey or hypocrisy that House delves, the sharper his lyrics cut. One of the best cuts on the neighborhood is changing is "nuclear winter"--the title coming from a House poem that appears on the CD itself. A song about life after a nuclear exchange, his bleak portrait of an eternal, ash-laden night is accompanied by his rough, chunky acoustic strumming and a mournful fiddle. Its doomed, sing-song style then breaks into off-kilter rhythms that sound like a distressed children's song:

and you talk about your good german
talk about your kamikaze talk about the alamo
the spartans at thermopylae

House sums up in one pissed-off, keening wail the gamut of what people become through war--resolute, insanely determined, brave--and how the ultimate becoming is still dead amid blackened ruin. At another point in the chorus he asks, "religions of the world are they the danger?"

In fact, House--who calls the apocalyptic tune his "little experiment in science fiction," says the song is primarily a question about the role of religion. "When I write, I don't really plan that much," he explains. "My writing is more a jumble of images, and even I don't always know how they fit, so I don't know if I'm making that link [human nature and war] so much as I'm just wondering about the overall stupidity of war. I was raised a Free Will Baptist, and they believe that in the Bible, the world will end as a result of a conflict in the Middle East. And if you look in the Bible, you see that there's been fightin' there for thousands of years, and it just struck me, how religion fosters a good deal of the misery on this earth."

Inside these walls features only House accompanying himself on his guitar; neighborhood subtly adds jew's harp, banjo, mandolin, trombone, percussion, and other instruments, but the effect is just as stark--if not even more so. House's voice quavers, rawly implying trauma and instability, and he often lapses into uttering syllables and sounds in the place of words--very similar to speaking in tongues, or the back-country equivalent of scat singing. His basic, almost primeval style is not an affectation. "I consciously stay in those old--y'might say Appalachian--sounds," he says. "My guitar style, that's how I play, very rhythmic. Imbedded in the way I play is that I never played, like, in a rock band; I always played by myself. And for a long time, it didn't click: the thing I hear the most is people saying something like 'It took me forever to get used to that voice.'"

The most striking cut on neighborhood, however, is "i'm in love with susan smith," an examination of hypocrisy that centers on a declaration of love for the woman who murdered her two children by pushing her car into a lake, then made up a story about anonymous black kidnappers to explain away her crime. In "susan smith," the narrator seems both compassionately aware of the pressures Smith--a single mother--was under and disgusted by her falsehoods, but he's enraged by those who leap to judge the woman.

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