Virtuosic and creative Americana
In the American musical canon, the greats are so numerous that they are often forgotten. But among the Guthries, Nelsons, Carters and Cyruses, John Doe sticks out like a sore thumb. Though his stage name is ironically elusive, Doe is a memorable act—having collaborated with bands like The Sadies, Dave Grohl and Garbage. Once listeners stumble upon Doe’s mythic vocal and compositional talent they will not be able to tear the man from the legend. This is true especially of Doe’s latest effort, Fables in a Foreign Land.
In the opening track on the album called “Never Coming Back,” listeners are whipped by windy effects before the band picks up with a hotly practiced, surprisingly poppy tune. It is easy to pick out Doe’s punk roots, as the progressions are darkly seductive; strummed, pushed acoustic over boogie-woogie drums and a tuned-in bass promise the album’s integrity toward musicianship while the belted lyrics are any listener’s best primer to Doe’s vocal talent.
The tone changes entirely with “Down South,” as Doe’s introspective lyrics, simple country-western progression and a warm, kindly fiddle unapologetically make for a curious about-face. In the chorus, lyrics like “Look at that sky / look at them clouds / I hope it don’t rain” exemplify the musician’s personal journey—especially the wisdom that follows from Doe’s various life experiences in different parts of the United States.
The spacey, creatively composed track “See the Almighty” continues the motif of rain, but from a providential perspective. Drums and cello dominate above the pretty plucked guitar in this track, making the tune a bit of a slow-rocker. Its nebulous refrain “See the Almighty / See the Almighty” feeds into the pensive weight of the tune. The next track, called “Guilty Bystander,” is by contrast intensely upbeat. Featuring an accordion, jug-bass and a tempo in three, this song plays as more of a carnival sideshow piece—perhaps intended for the jesters that its lyrics seem to implicate. With lyrics like “Who do you serve? / Do you serve yourself? / Open your eyes / And save someone else,” listeners get the feeling that life is a messy endeavor–that humanity is constantly tripping over its own feet in trying to reason its own existence.
“There’s a Black Horse” is a low-and-slow acoustic blues tune, keeping consistent with the repetitive and imagistic nature of some of the other strong tunes on the album. It is worth noting while reviewing this tune that John Doe is not as much a product of the seventies folk scene as he is a trustee of its Americana soul. According to the American Songwriter blog, John Doe finds his genius in songs that are “saying something a little different” than what he has said before, and this album’s twisty genre-bending is a testament to his curiosity.
Mid-album tunes such as “El Romance-o” present as b-sides, while others efforts like the crooner titled “Missouri” pick things right back up. On the latter track, Doe and the band are tuned in as the music leans a bit more forward—ultimately anticipating hot-lick hits like “The Cowboy and the Hot Air Balloon” and “Travelin’ so Hard.” In the last stretch of the album, “After the Fall” is another tune that testifies to Doe’s musicality and spirit. A semi-biblical allegory, the song depicts the loving relationship between a father and daughter amidst a war against “self-righteous,” “relentless,” “fearful,” and “vengeful” enemies.
The final track on the album called “Where the Songbirds Live” is a groovy, swaying tune to take us out “where the water runs clear to the sea” — looking over the horizon toward Doe’s next album. The drums pick up an easygoing shuffle while the bass-forward mix keeps listeners engaged; the strummed acoustic buzzes along in the tune with a simple bluesy riff. Musically and lyrically, the song is easygoing and fittingly Americana—a genre which John Doe deftly commands.
In Fables in a Foreign Land, first-time John Doe listeners will be humbled by the artist’s virtuosity and creativity. While most of the album’s tracks fit into the Americana and Alt-Country genres quite easily, none are on-the-nose; the album keeps listeners guessing and enthralled through shifting tempos, thoughtful progressive compositions, and profound lyricism. And though Fables is a fine album, more mobilized listeners will be thrilled to find out it is only one of the myriad Americana artifacts associated with the fabled John Doe.