Album Review: John Doe & The Sadies – Country Club
John Doe, of seminal punk band X, has been flirting with the country music sound for years now. In the mid 80s he played bass in side project The Knitters, an excellent alt-country band (in addition to Doe, the band included Dave Alvin, Exene Cervenka, Johnny Ray Bartel and D.J. Bonebrake) whose two albums are certainly worth a listen for fans of roots music and/or aging punk rockers. More recently Doe has recorded multiple country-tinged solo records, and as readers of Celluloid Country may recall, played George Strait’s best friend and drummer in the film Pure Country.
The Sadies are one of Americana’s most desired backing bands, thanks to their irresistible garage/surf/country blend. They’ve worked with Neko Case, Andre Williams and Jon Langford, but their seven studio albums of as a group are nothing to be ignored.
In theory, the combination of live wires like Doe and The Sadies should result in a strong contender for album of the year. In practice, however, Country Club doesn’t quite live up to expectations.
The material Doe chose for the album—which includes songs penned by Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson, and Bill Anderson—is so good that, unless you sing in Pig Latin or choose Jessica Simpson for a duet partner, it’s pretty hard to screw these songs up. However, it’s a double edged sword in that these songs are so associated with their original artists that it’s difficult for Doe to really make the material his own. For the most part, Doe offers up straightforward covers of these classics. At times, he’s almost too reverent, like on his anemic cover of Tammy Wynette’s “‘Til I Get It Right,” not to mention a version of “Night Life” that sounds like everyone involved was loaded to the gills with Quaaludes and cough syrup.
Luckily, The Sadies remedy this as they offer up their punkish interpretation of the Bakersfield sound and show their country chops on ballads with some help from the excellent pedal steel of guest Bob Egan, best known for his work with Wilco.
Despite the occasional misstep, there are genuine moments of excellence on this album. When Doe does let loose, it’s wonderful, combining throwback sound with modern style. He transforms Hank Williams’ “Take These Chains From My Heart” into a lively Buck Owens style romp, and Bill Anderson’s murder ballad “The Cold Hard Facts of Life” sounds nearly as good as the version made famous by Porter Wagoner. These songs, along with “(Now And Then There’s A) Fool Such As I” make Country Club a perfect record to listen to should you have a bottle of whiskey by your side and heartache to spare.
Sadies’ fellow Canadian roots rocker Kathleen Edwards contributes solid, enjoyable guest vocals on two tracks, including this delightful exchange from Merle Haggard’s “Are the Good Times Really Over for Good” as Doe bemoans the state of modern society and the death of feminine domesticity:
Doe: “Before microwave ovens/When a girl could still cook and still would.”
Though Country Club is at heart a covers album, four originals round out the album: three composed by The Sadies, (“Before I Wake” from 2001 album Tremendous Efforts in addition to manic instrumentals “Pink Mountain Rag” and “The Sudbury Nickel”) and one (“It Just Dawned On Me”) co-written by Doe and his ex-wife/current bandmate Exene Cervenka. Where covers only hint at the potential inherent in a Doe/Sadies collaboration, these originals lay it bare for the world to hear as they channel the energy of an entire live performance into a few short minutes of song.
Overall, John Doe and The Sadies make a damn good team. And while Country Club isn’t a shoo in for album of the year, it’s not a record to be ignored, either.
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