Monday, February 25, 2013

Swamp Dogg's "Total Destruction To Your Mind" and "Rat On!"

The classic sound of '60s and '70s soul refuses to die. In recent years, the Brooklyn-based Daptone label has introduced monster talents like Sharon Jones, Lee Fields, and Charles Bradley to the public consciousness, while Patrick Boissel's Alive Naturalsound, once known for its reissues of Detroit ramalama and the first couple of Black Keys sides, has brought us latter-day wonderment from obscuro '60s soul men Andre Williams and Nathaniel Meyer.

Now, Alive's reissued the first two albums by Swamp Dogg -- surely the most eccentric and individuated of classic soul singers -- on CD and sweet, sweet vinyl. Born Jerry Williams, Jr., in Virginia, 1942, he released records under his given name beginning in 1954, and did occasional songwriting and production for artists including Z.Z. Hill before unleashing his persona -- a sly observer and social commentator, like Joe Tex gene-spliced with Frank Zappa -- on the world. If you haven't heard him, you owe it to yourself.

I remember seeing Swamp Dogg's 1970 debut album, Total Destruction To Your Mind, with its cover depicting the artist in his underwear, when it was new and thinking, "Oh wow. A record by a crazy person" (and this was years before Wesley Willis ever contemplated a musical career). I was reminded of the title track -- with its immortal opening line, "Sittin' on a cornflake, ridin' on a roller skate" -- a few years back when Eric Ambel, a fella that knows good songwriting, covered it on his Roscoe's Gang album.

Swamp Dogg's an impassioned shouter in the Otis Redding mold, and these two records have the extroverted energy and friendly blare of vintage Stax or Hi jams -- until you listen to the lyrics. "Friendship's like acid," he sings over a "Like A Rolling Stone" organ in "Synthetic World": "It burns as it slides away." And has there ever been a paean to lust with a line as great as "If I die tomorrow, I've lived tonight" (from "If I Die Tomorrow")? I think not.

Like Ray Charles, Swamp Dogg grew up listening to country music, and he likes to tell a story in song the way the best country songwriters do. (Indeed, he collaborated with Gary "U.S." Bonds on Johnny Paycheck's hit "She's All I've Got.") In "The Baby Is Mine," written in an era before the phrase "baby daddy" had entered the vernacular, he sets an example of paternal responsibility that young men of today would do well to emulate: "I'm not just a father, I'm also a man / I'm going to see my child every chance that I can / And as for the woman, she's his all alone / I'm not trying to break up that man's home." Then he turns around and puts the shoe on the other foot, with the bluesy cuckold's lament "Mama's Baby Daddy's Maybe."

The album's most outrageous lyrics, however, come from the pen of Joe South, he of "Hush"/"Games People Play"/"I played with Dylan, too" fame. "Redneck" chugs along to a greasy groove, except it's liable to break up the dance party with lines like, "But you never had much use / For all the niggers, dagos, and Jews." As if to pour oil on the waters, Swamp Dogg also covers South's cry for sanity "These Are Not My People."

Rat On! was the followup, improbably released on Elektra in 1971, replete with cover art of our hero triumphantly astride a white rat. Sadly, the disgruntled social commentary of "Remember I Said Tomorrow" remains on point 40 years later: "Tomorrow we're going to pass a law that will make everything alright...Tomorrow we're going to bring the boys home / The end of the war is on its way...Tomorrow you'll even have freedom of speech..." "God Bless America" takes an even more jaded view of the political scene, but ends with a heartfelt plea for coexistence.

When he's not addressing serious topics with more humor than Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, or Norman Whitfield ever did, Swamp Dogg can even play it straight. "I Kiss Your Face" is a convincing ballad on its own terms, and Rat On's version of "Got To Get A Message To You" is the best Bee Gees cover since Al Green took possession of "To Love Somebody."

A decade ago, Swamp Dogg was reduced to reissuing his albums on shoddily-packaged twofer CDs, albeit on his own label. More recently, he was shilling them as Bandcamp downloads. Here's hoping that Alive Naturalsound will go the distance and restore more of his catalog to vinyl availability. The world needs more Swamp Dogg now!


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