Friday, March 25, 2016

Album Reviews # 61 Green on Red - Gas, Food & Lodging

Rock critic dean Robert Christgau didn't much care for Gas, Food & Lodging. Formerly a supporter of the band, he took against the distinctively new sound of their second album proper in his review of the time in the pages of Village Voice.

They used to be fun, partly because you couldn't tell whether they knew how risibly their wacked-out post-adolescent angst came across. So now they unveil their road/roots/maturity album, which extols heroic dreams and revives Americana - drunks, murderers, husbands who've "passed away." Fun it's not. And in addition to the melodies thinning out, as melodies will, the playing's somehow gotten sloppier. B- 

It's an interesting review. Formerly at least loosely affiliated to the Californian Paisley Underground scene, with a distinctly psychedelic sixties garage feel to their sound, Gas, Food & Lodging clearly saw Green on Red choosing a particular fork in the road. It was to prove a sensible one, career wise, for while their contemporaries in that particular scene were to founder one by one, Rain Parade, Long Ryders, Dream Syndicate and True West, Green on Red endured well into the nineties and then onto solo careers for main men Dan Stuart and Chuck Prophet that still must pay the rent. I'll try to assess the aesthetic merits or otherwise of that decision here.

I bought Gas, Food & Lodging at the time of its release in 1985. Clued up by interviews from R.E.M. on their first visits to the UK to the Paisley Underground scene, I steadily began to acquire the records by the major players coming out from that scene and getting a reasonable amount of attention from the Melody Maker and the alternative evening TV programme, The Old Grey Whistle Test. Gas, Food & Lodging was a slightly less amenable record than many of the others. Not trying to be likable, rather opting for edgy and wired, Christgau was quite right about it being thinner on melodies while compensating in terms of attitude.

It's quite clearly life viewed from the bottom of a glass at the end of an evening, worse for wear, in a dimly lit bar somewhere in mythic America, with a potential nemesis crouched on the same bar a few stools down. Not altogether authentic, Green on Red are trying on clothes here, much as Tom Waits had a few years earlier, they wore them in only properly after long gigging slogs up and down the American highway. 

It's the America of Peckinpah, Ford, Steinbeck, Hammett and Cain, filmic and wide-screened and hell-bent on trouble. At least that's what they're aiming for though not every shot hits home. As I've suggested the band's sound still needs filling out and much of the grittiness that's hinted at here comes from the pages of paperbacks rather than lived-experience. It would come with time.

Nevertheless, it certainly has its moments and you can see why it's come to be remembered as a pioneering record, guiding american guitar bands back to Americana as Christgau suggests. I'd go for This I Know and Easy Way Out for starters as moments where heart wins out over head and the band show themselves as capable of an independent vision distinct from their book, record and video collections.

While Stuart is not quite the ice-cold killer he'd like to sell himself as here, he certainly sounds as if he's putting in his time at the bar. Both he and his band come across as drunk for a good deal of the time over the course of the record and that's just as it should be. They're embracing a certain vision of dissolution and loss that's deeply American, going back to the frontier days and rearing its head every decade since.

Neil Young is the obvious, ever-present musical touchstone. Young himself is absolutely ragged and inconsistent in terms of his outputs, not everything seems to fit, even on his very best records and Green on Red take up that template. Songs don't necessarily follow one another or slot together, all snapshots from the dreamlike and endless American road. 

So Gas, Food & Lodging is the sound of Stuart sharpening his pencil and the band working on their licks. Not a perfectly realised vision but a prototype for where they saw themselves a few years down the line. Christgau is right to the extent that it's not much fun, but then overall its work in progress. The band were intent on survival and psychedelicisms and garage moves alone weren't likely to get them there. They chose the road and were right to do so. This is not a perfect record by any means but in its own way, it is an important one.

Here's an alternative judgement from Christgau's, perhaps the appropriate, historical one  from a 2003 review from Uncut. 

'For a band whose significance as path-beaters between early ’70s outlaw country and early ’90s No Depressionism grows ever more indelible, Green On Red’s back catalogue has been appallingly mishandled. Gas Food Lodging from 1985 (which was an Uncut Classic Album in October 2002) remains a defining example of howling country-punk, featuring Dan Stuart’s vicious rasp. On the likes of “Hair Of The Dog”, the music joins the dots between Merle Haggard and The Replacements.'

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