Listening to Pokey LaFarge’s ninth album (first for New West Records, and first I had ever heard) had a very strange effect on me. I knew the sound had me interested right away but, before even the A-side if the album had played through, I had already picked up my laptop and found out everything I could about the band. I looked up all their websites and social media accounts, read about all their albums on wikipedia and otherwise found all the information I could/ After I’d gone front-to-back with the album the first time, I also went to youtube to see what other music and media I could find by the band as well.
I did not do these things just to research the artist for this review. I did it because I wanted to learn everything I could about Pokey LaFarge. I was completely hooked and won by what I heard on Rock Bottom Rhapsody.
As good as Rock Bottom Rhapsody gets though, and as quickly as it does prove to fall into that rhythm, that doesn’t mean it does not take a minute (and a half) for the album to get settled – in its own unique way. In this case, the A-side of Rock Bottom Rhapsody opens gently with a very well appointed string section that doesn’t exactly offer an overture for the proceedings so much as it simply sets up the mood and theatrical backbone of the proceedings. Here, the strings wistfully present an introduction which helps listeners become comfortable with the more dramatic sonic movements that Rock Bottom Rhapsody has coming, but without touching into the nuts and bolts or the nitty gritty of what’s on the way. Rather, like Tom Waits did in his early career with Bones Howe’s help, Pokey LaFarge used strings in a conventional way to warm listeners’ hearts and dampen their eyes; the strings fuel a romantic centre. The result, as was the case with Waits’ early albums, imbues the album with a sepia-tone coloring which makes it feel warmly remembered and time-honored – and will have listeners relaxed as the cut fades out. It also proves to leave listeners ready to follow into End of My Rope when it starts, in follow-up to the opener.
In great contrast to the album’s opening instrumental track, End of My Rope begins with much more verve and energy. There, the more folk-rockist start (acoustic guitar, stand-up bass, spare drumming and, eventually, keyboards which sound a lot like a Wurlitzer) feels instantly energetic and will have the undivided attention of those who were relaxed or otherwise comforted by “Rock Bottom Rhapsody” immediately – in fact, the change is so perfect and dramatic that listeners will be hanging on every word and every note, all along the way. Because of that, lines like “Growing up was easy – for some, but not me/ Getting older is the same old story” feel like a call to arms or to action without being explosive or trying to shale listeners violently. It’s a really understated tone, but a very infectious one for the right ears too and will have those who hear it in to see where the music might go, without question.
…And it’s right after “End of My Rope” that listeners get hit HARD and (in many cases) knocked into love with Pokey LaFarge because of “Fuck Me Up.” Simply said, “Fuck Me Up” represents all that is best about Pokey LaFarge at this moment in the band’s development – the country and rock elements that the band loves to intertwine so well with the explosive drums, carefully offhanded keys, bottomless stand-up bass and the singer’s own sweet but underhanded vocals (the only easy comparison would be to call that voice the lovechild of Jerry Lee Lewis and Brenda Lee) – turned up to spectacular decibel levels so that no one can miss the point. Every damned sound and each microtome of “Fuck Me Up” seeks to play with listeners – in a goodhearted way which knows that no one is fooling anyone – but it works because it comes off as sweet rather than severe due to the singer’s Southern accent and loping rhythm. That combination is a perfect and sharp hook cast along to sink DEEP into listeners, and will pull them along effortlessly. The sort of exhausted tone of the title lyric lands with a grace that is just impossible to fake; “Fuck Me Up” is the hit that is destined to introduce a lot of new fans to Pokey LaFarge.
After “Fuck Me Up,” Pokey LaFarge keeps the hits coming as “Blue Bird” crosses a mid-Nineties alt-rock swing and swagger (think Eels or Soul Coughing) with the band’s standard blues/country/rock mixture to excellent and otherworldly effect before the strings which opened the album return for “Rock Bottom Reprise” and then winds the side closed with the magical hard-luck-and-love-at-the-counter image of “Lucky Sometimes.” There, Pokey LaFarge treads close to Tom Waits again as the singer sits on top of a piano, but factors in a little of the sweeter side of The Rolling Stones too [the melody comes close, at times, to sounding like “Time Is On My Side” – ed] in order to leave listeners dew-eyed as they close the side. While convention often dictates that the cut which ends the A-side of an album should be explosive and sell listeners excitedly on sticking with the album for the B-side, “Lucky Sometimes” plays against type, slows things down and ensures that listeners will want to find out where the band is headed next; they’ll want to know if the rabbit hole runs deeper.
What listeners find, after they flip the album over and sink their needles into the B-side, is that Pokey LaFarge isn’t quite finished with the wistfulness or sadness on which the A-side ended. “Carry On” holds true to the sense of resignation that its title implies as the sadness of the song’s guitar figure compliments lyrics like, “Tell me baby, why should I carry on” and the repetitive nature of lyrics proves to be increasingly affecting. That broken-hearted vibe endures through “Just The Same” but turns resentful and angry as “Fallen Angel” flips the script on heartache (check out hard-hearted lines like “You can fall in love with heaven, you can fall in love with Hell/ Oh, sometimes you never know where you’re at until you’re dead”) and the energy in “Ain’t Coming’ Home” increases as the LaFarge admits to drinking his troubles away.
As energetic as “Ain’t Comin’ Home” does prove to be, it doesn’t stop the members of Pokey LaFarge from succumbing to sadness again, for the rest of the album’s running. “Lost In The Crowd” sees the return of the wailing and sorrowful back-up singers which appeared on the A-side of Rock Bottom Rhapsody and, while the sails in the song deflate as it progresses (never to be filled again as the instrumental “Rock Bottom Finale” quickly ushers listeners out with some tinkling piano), listeners will find that as potentially anti-climactic as the end of Rock Bottom Rhapsody is, it doesn’t leave listeners wanting. True, it could be argued that some moments could be improved (the number of instrumentals on a single-disc LP leaves listeners wishing for more), but that fact combined with the genuinely triumphant performances and tone of Rock Bottom Rhapsody definitely leaves listeners won, glowing AND wanting more.