Spook Handy,
Whatcha Gonna Do
(Akashic, 2007)

Spook Handy is a throwback to the great folk scare of the early 1960s when an artist could be billed as a protest singer and have the bulk of his material made up of songs that slammed social and political injustice. You know, the kind of songs that Bob Dylan burned out on, choosing to go electric in an attempt to escape them.

If there's a problem with protest songs, Tom Paxton, one of the early masters of the form, summed it up: they date quickly and badly. The best ones -- and Handy covers one of the very best, Pete Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" -- transcend their situation and take on a life beyond their immediate genesis. Others, though, are so tied to to the immediate that once the problem they're attacking becomes familiar, they have nothing else to offer.

I'm afraid that's the case with many of Spook Handy's songs. "Mom & Pop's Small Town Corner Hardware Store," which opens the album, tells the story of a local hardware store that closed down because a mall has opened. It goes on to attack what Handy sees as the nation's dropdead rush to conformity, taking on gentrification, the rise of condos and Mcmansions, Staples and pizza chains. We've evolved into a land Handy calls Generica. Handy fires a cannon here, scattering shot in all directions. If you too are upset at what Handy sees as universal trends, you'll probably like the song. If you want a song to be more than a series of gripes, you're not going to respond to it.

Other songs cover the embarrassment of a woman who refuses to leave her house anymore because the news got out that her dead husband was not working for a private corporation but was instead flying secret missions over Iran. "Death Comes Anyway" attacks war. He also blasts the commercialization of Christmas.

Handy's targets are so safe -- I mean, who, other than a few insane neocons, is going to defend war? -- and his music so pedestrian, that I found myself wondering if I were being put on, if this was satire.

I'm afraid it isn't.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Michael Scott Cain

19 July 2008

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