King of the World
In this age of calculated maneuver, it's nice to occasionally see something like creativity unhinged, like Tom Hulce's Mozart in Amadeus. Houstonians Scott Daniels, Greg Wood, and Eddie Hawkins are vets of late and largely unlamented bayou city bands like Fleshmop and Tab Jones. But with some of the songs on King of the World, the trio--now a quintet--strikes a lost chord that's equal parts Hank Williams (father and son), the Beat Farmers, and John Prine, with highlights by Syd Barrett. Having captured a sound, the band proceeds to run amok, beating on everything in sight like the Three Stooges having a pillow fight. Styles fly about like feathers, from '50s ballad to batter-dipped southern-rock anthem; as a result, King is an overheated, every-which-a-way mess--but a beautiful mess nonetheless. It's ambitious--almost 74 minutes, 23 original tracks--and uneven, but even when King trips over itself, it falls upward.
The disc begins with "Mockingbird," which starts out with a couplet of unusual grace: "Old folks sit around the shallow pool of sunlight in the grass/While a bottle dances in a circle from hand to empty hand." Like the best songs, it's seemingly based on an event particular to the writers, but painted with brush strokes broad enough to resonate in any ear, invoking enough mythic images (Pablo Picasso, John the Baptist) to satisfy any listener's sense of significance. With its refrain of "Just like a dream/But better 'cause you're not in it," it hints at heartbreak while at the same time promising (eventual) deliverance. Instruments progressively weigh in--drums, electric guitar, dobro, banjo--and give the song a rising pop dynamic that the "lalalalalas" of the chorus back up perfectly; these guys know the tricks. "Jewel Case" is a rocker that's the best expression of wounded American womanhood since Tom Petty's version of the Byrds' "American Girl"--"And she goes mighty far out of her way/To be the last person that anybody'd say/Was just another pretty face/Though the description fits." "No Shit" details the surprise of a grade-A heel as he discovers that merely confessing your faults doesn't necessarily guarantee forgiveness. "Loma" is a heartsick farewell at the end of the day, but so shot-through with different emotions that the listener doesn't know if the song's saying good night till the next sunrise or for good. Certainly, there are songs that you barely notice, (the crooner numbers, or some of the EP tacked on the end) or receive with irritation (when their clownishness overwhelms the material, or the songs seem propped up), but those cuts alternate with ones that reach out and grab you. With Horseshoe--as with the proverbial hand grenades--that's close enough.