Michael Hurley,
Ida Con Snock
(Gnomonsong, 2009)

It says here, "Ida Con Snock is the 21st full length album by legendary rambler, cartoonist, and 'outsider' folk singer, guitarist Michael Hurley." Clearly, I lost track awhile ago. Until this arrived unexpectedly on my doorstep, my CD collection housed all of three Hurley discs, none anything close to recent.

From the evidence of this new release, I am the poorer for the shameful neglect and inattention. Hurley's Long Journey (Rounder, 1976) remains one of my favorite albums from an otherwise mostly musically impoverished decade. "Portland Water" still sounds great. I know; I just listened to it. "Snock" or "snockgrass" -- deliberately meaningless -- is Hurley's personal name for his particular approach; after all, everything needs a name, and if you have to snatch one out of thin air, why not? Don't ask me to translate "Ida Con," though.

Let us now complain, and untrivially. The minimalist package and associated recording information do inform us who is playing in the acoustic folk band accompanying Hurley, when (between 2005 and 2007), and where (Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock, New York). Frustratingly -- I may go so far as infuriatingly -- to the reviewer or any other serious listener, the notes cite the titles of the songs, and no more. The promo material boasts of Hurley's songwriting prowess while providing no additional enlightenment in the present instance beyond this hand-waving declaration: "there are seven originals and five loving covers of 50's rock'n'roll chestnuts, C&W and folk vintage here." Uh, thanks.

OK, I know that Hurley did not write the medley comprising "Molly Malone" and "Loch Lomond" (done as Ramblin' Jack Elliott might have conceived them, incidentally, something you may have to hear to imagine). Eight decades ago, Georgia bluesmen Charley Lincoln -- Charley Hicks in real life -- and Willie Baker cut "It Must Be Gelatine," which opens the disc. To all evidence "Going Steady" is an early pop-rock teenage-love song of the sort with which the late Rick Nelson is automatically associated, but a search for relevant information uncovers nothing. "Ragg Mopp" (as "Rag Mop") I recognize from the song initially recorded by the Ames Brothers, then picked up by uncountable Western-swing bands. The remaining cover candidates, even what they may be, are a mystery to me. All I know is that "I Can't Help Myself," written by whomever, is not the 1965 Four Tops/Holland-Dozier-Holland hit.

At the root of the confusion is Hurley's ability to write both straightforwardly and crookedly. Moreover, his vocals and arrangements do not discriminate. Hurley's music -- his own or somebody else's composition -- is all of a piece. That is a virtue, and that's one reason he is not your standard-issue singer-songwriter. Most singer-songwriters are not very good at delivering any material but their own. It really would be nice, however, to know whether a lyric is coming out of Hurley's imagination or another's.

On the other hand, nobody but Hurley could have written "Hog of the Forsaken," which reappears -- in the same loping old-timey arrangement but with a new opening verse -- after its first showing on Long Journey. Though delivered as if in casual conversation (the effect underscored by a simple, completely irresistible melody), the lyrics are elliptical and indecipherable; they could be anything, from a nursery fable to a jeremiad about the imminent demise of civilization. I would have sworn that -- the fact of its apparent inspiration in the traditional "Wild Hog in the Wilderness" aside -- it could not be carried into any context available to normal consciousness. Thus, I was shocked, then propelled into helpless laughter, when I heard it as the coda to a Deadwood episode on which Al Swearengen's thugs murder a man and dump his body on the street to be consumed by a band of roaming pigs. Subsequently, "Hog" made the Deadwood soundtrack, as well it should have.

It's easy to think of Hurley as an old-school, amiably cracked hipster, and that's not wrong, but it would be a mistake to overlook his considerable musical gifts. They're such that with every listening, as often as not one has the impression of hearing something radically unlike what one had just thought one heard. On initial exposure I took Hurley's singing to be distracted, even narcoleptic, but since then, the warmth and humor -- a chuckle seems somewhere within range even in some of the more melancholy material -- have risen to audibility, at least temporarily. He is, however, mumbling more than he was in the 1970s, and I still can't make out a good share of the words.

All the same, the songs and performances are eminently listenable, and some are downright beautiful. My favorite, "Hoot Owls," something about wandering and yodeling, has the feeling of a hundred-year-old folk song, also a John Prine tune, most of all (author or no) Michael Hurley. The guy hasn't lost the snock.

review by
Jerome Clark

6 March 2010

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