J Shogren & Shanghai'd,
God Bless These Crooked Little Songs
(Jaha!, 2013)

An academic who specializes in environmental studies, J Shogren divides his presence between Wyoming and Sweden. In his spare time he composes songs and performs them with musician friends. The results, suggesting the influences of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Holy Modal Rounders and Spider John Koerner, come filtered through traditional music, not least the polkas still to be heard in rural and small-town dance halls of the nation's northern tier. One song even name-checks Whoopee John, whom I'm sure few of his listeners will recognize or remember.

The acoustic God Bless These Crooked Little Songs is surely the best-sounding of his three CDs. (I reviewed the others in this space on 6 June 2009 and 11 September 2010.) It's beautifully clear and vivid, owing to the studio genius of Dan Tinker (engineering) and Jim Wilson (mastering). The songs themselves showcase Shogren's characteristic off-centeredness, expressed in the voices of outsiders who are not seeing what others are observing, rather something odder, deeper and existentially disorienting. And, let us be clear, that's not because they're wiser than the rest of us.

Shogren's appropriately gonzo melodies, sometimes driven by (as noted) polka and even tango rhythms, underscore his characters' unhinged sensibilities, though perhaps only "Pickled Pickles Panger Polka" carries them into actual madness, albeit in a good-natured way. In fact, though it will take some attentive listenings to discern as much, Shogren is in good part a droll comedian. He leaves it up to the listener, however, to catch the jokes.

Then there's "Curry," the closest thing here to a song that sounds straightforwardly tuneful in the manner of an authentic old-time ballad. I don't know this, but I'm going to presume its inspiration was Harvey "Kid Curry" Logan, who left a crimson trail across the Rocky Mountain West as he rode and robbed with Black Jack Ketchum's gang and, later, the Wild Bunch. According to some Western historians (in what one hopes is a hyperbolic estimate), he killed as many as 30 of his fellow human beings. All sources agree that nine of the victims were law-enforcement officers. (Curry's life ended in a fatal confrontation with a Colorado posse in 1904.) Related largely in the first person, "Curry" appears to concern Curry's infatuation with one of the prostitutes he was known to frequent. You probably have to know his history to appreciate the dark humor in the farcically amoral self-pity that comprises the song's opening verse, where the singer is, so I infer, addressing himself:

Curry, they want to skin you
You never did nothin' to them
They priced out your head
Because they can.

"Thief River Falls River Thief" is the second song -- the other being Koerner's "Thief River Falls" -- to evoke the real-life small town tucked into Minnesota's northwestern corner, not far from the Manitoba border. "Thief," about dreaming (among other things), has, I swear, leaked into my own dreams. I do know I have awakened a few times with it swirling through my head. Shogren's music will do that to you.

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 April 2013

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