Jez Lowe & the Bad Pennies,
Honesty Box
(Tantobie, 2002)

There's no justice in the world.

If there were, Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies would be world famous, and I mean right this second. Instead of social commentary songs from the 1960s, rendered soft and toothless by nostalgia, we'd be hearing the fiery "Skin Too Thin" and the thoughtful "In My Trade." "The Ballad Of Tasker Jack" would be so well known that people would forget it hadn't always been around. And "Latchkey Lover" would be playing nigh incessantly on the radio.

Of course, that's never going to happen. Not with an album that starts out with "Skin Too Thin," a song that dares not only to realize that there are rich and poor, but that one just might have something to do with the other. There's also an indignant call to action, echoed in the later "Armstrong's Army." These are rallying songs, calling for action, whatever it might be.

Most of the songs on Honesty Box are a bit more narrative. "Ballad of Tasker Jack" is a good John Henry-style worker's legend, of a miner and his abusive foreman. A simple tune and non-explicit lyrics tell a murder story without ever using the word or showing blood. Lowe's storytelling skills are sublime. This low-key style also works well for "Maddison," an absurdist story about a car, a contest and a very small town.

The lyrics consistently stretch beyond the expected, though never enough to feel forced. The right word is never sacrificed in exchange for a perfect rhyme, and it makes the songs more memorable. One of my favorites, the oddly upbeat "Latchkey Lover," sets the lament of a betrayed boyfriend to ridiculous lyrics: "Has she taken holy orders, is she kidnapped, sucked up to heaven by the little green men?" The skill with hyper exaggerating for humor is balanced with a painful understatement for the solemn songs. "In My Trade" offers up the most hopeful and crushing of life changes in a quiet tone. "Matchboxes" a tune of anti-nostalgia and father/son relations, avoids maudlin wailing for straightforward, and more touching, storytelling. The lyrics are enjoyable simply to read. Liner notes are sparse, but helpful. "I Saw Hands" makes very little sense without its creation history, and "The Big Fear" wouldn't have as much punch without the small bit of cultural history detailed in the notes.

"The Big Fear" is, as the Bad Pennies say, their anthropomorphic song, about the Lone Badger detective and his attempts to find the real killer of several friends. The music sets up the necessary film noir feel without using any of the slow jazzy music identified with those films, and leaves the ending open. I'd love to see a series of books based on this character.

"Mother's Day" starts out with a sorrowful echo of bubblegum tune "Mr. Postman," sung not by the girlfriend, but the mother of a young man at war. The mother's wistful voice is answered by her son, reading his letter. Each of the three letters is for a different family. While the choice of a celebrity for the second verse serves to make it a less universal song than it really should be, the final letter writer -- possibly the greatest celebrity in Western culture -- gives the song a twist of bitter humor that helps with the jarring transition to the next song, "Fancy Goods."

And it is jarring. The jump from "Mother's Day " to the manic "Fancy Goods" is one of the most bizarre song pairings I've ever witnessed. "Fancy Goods" is an absolute romp of a song, as a couple fights over each others' love of stuff. It captures perfectly the pointed hyperbole that comes into long running marital squabbles , and still can work as an indictment of materialism for the more serious-minded.

Honesty Box ends on what may be the weakest song, the repetitive "Long Iron." The chorus has far too many repeats, and the preachy tone the rest of the album avoids makes itself heard here. "Long Iron" isn't a bad song, exactly, but it doesn't live up to the rest of the album. But one song that isn't quite great is easily forgotten when listening to the album's worth of highly replayable songs before it. I've played it to a metal fan, a pop fan, and of course for my folk-loving self, and everyone who's heard it has found something they love. Go pick it up for yourself -- and then get your local radio station to give it some airtime. We need more justice in the world.

[ by Sarah Meador ]
Rambles: 31 August 2002

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