Trouble is a Lonesome Town / Thriftstore Masterpiece (Album Review by John Koch)
by Teemunny Published on Monday, July 8, 2013
In 1963, Lee Hazlewood released his debut album, Trouble is a Lonesome Town. Hazlewood recorded Trouble as a demo for a label that ended up releasing the album simply as it was. The songs, which feature Hazlewood’s voice over an acoustic guitar, tell tales of a place called Trouble and its inhabitants. The production was spare, but it emphasized Hazlewood’s persona as an urban cowboy deeply familiar with the types of characters who end up on the wrong side of the tracks.
The album gained somewhat of a cult following over the following decades, in equal parts for its down-to-earth songwriting and for its kitsch. One admirer of Trouble is Charles Normal, who first stumbled upon a copy of the LP while shopping in a Norwegian thrift store. An active bandleader himself, he had one of those experiences upon listening to Trouble in which you feel compelled to tell all of your friends about the amazing new record you’ve discovered.
In Normal’s case, his friends happened to be none other than Frank Black of the Pixies, Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, Courtney Taylor-Taylor of The Dandy Warhols, and Pete Yorn—and that’s just for starters. Not your average bunch. Together they responded to the music of Trouble in a not-so-average way: they formed the musicians’ collective Thriftstore Masterpiece (their name being a nod to Normal’s discovery of Trouble) and set themselves to the task of fully realizing Hazlewood’s unfinished work on that album, nearly 50 years later.
Polishing a beloved rough recording comes with a real risk of killing the magic that made the original so well-liked in the first place. If it isn’t necessarily a common occurrence, it is a well-established fact that “off-the-cuff” records can become both critical and fan favorites. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon are two examples that come to mind. There are many reasons for their charm—a sense of intimacy that makes one feel as if one is listening in on unadulterated moments of genius; an honesty that doesn’t need to hide behind layers of production; and an incompleteness that spurs the listener’s imagination.
With those thoughts in mind, I couldn’t help but use Hazlewood’s original version of Trouble as a benchmark for measuring Thriftstore Masterpiece’s update. Upon first hearing the Mariachi-band horns and surf guitar of Long Black Train (featuring Frank Black), I was concerned that Thriftstore Masterpiece’s update might be less a realization of Hazlewood’s vision and more an appropriation of it for today’s ironic generation.
However, there is no hard and fast rule banning horns from genuine music, and they actually enhance the album’s second song, Ugly Brown (featuring Charles Normal). When you hear Normal’s spoken-word introduction give life to the name Emery Zickafuce Brown, you know you are in for a treat. How ugly is Ugly Brown? “If we had one of those Mister America contests in Trouble, and Emery Zickafuce was the only one to enter, the best he could hope for would be fourth place.” The horns create the atmosphere of a parade in which Ugly Brown revels in his notorious ugliness, especially in the final lines of the song:
Nobody comes looking for me,
But if they call me,
You know they’d call me,
They always call me,
They call me Ugly Brown,
At the opposite end of Trouble’s beauty spectrum stands Anna Mae Stillwell, the subject of Look At That Woman (featuring Courtney Taylor-Taylor), which is also the most brooding and moody piece on the album. The song is written from the perspective of a man who can only look and obsess over Anna. The stormy electric guitars and the soft singing are a throwback to ‘90s alternative rock. The connection may only exist in my mind, but the song made me think of Ash’s Goldfinger, an underrated classic from that era.
We All Make the Flowers Grow (featuring Kristin Blix) is a sweet-sounding tune (yes, with horns) that just happens to be about death, and acceptance of it:
Short men and tall men,
And all the rest,
Please don’t blame me,
I didn’t start this mess,
Some of us stay,
Some of us go,
Sooner or later, we all make the little flowers grow,
Issac Brock’s involvement with this project stood out to me because of the immediate associations I made between Trouble and the Modest Mouse album The Lonesome Crowded West. I assumed his voice would carry some of the darkness and impending doom found on that album. Instead, his vocals are a tad bit silly—yet enjoyable—on The Railroad. He plays a proud, hot-blooded railroad worker who likes to go out and have a good time.
The song that I think best captures the spirit of the album—and which ultimately won me over—is Son of a Gun (featuring Frank Black and Julian Clark). Beginning with a Santana-esque guitar riff, the leading vocals are surprisingly that of a child, Julian Clark, the “son”. The song is a duet with his father, the “gun”, Frank Black. It’s a fun and lighthearted tune about the social limitations that come along with being the child of someone who isn’t “a banker, a doctor, or a lawyer.”
The vibe that runs through Thriftstore Masterpiece’s Trouble is a playful one afforded by the original; one that, in the final analysis, makes my initial comparisons to Pink Moon and Nebraska—brilliant yet rather tortured albums—inapposite. Trouble’s July release is in tune with the season, as it makes a great album for relaxing in the shade and imagining the lives of the characters to the sounds of the music, perhaps over a cold beer. However, there’s no need to imagine Trouble with too great effort—like the introduction to the title track, Trouble Is A Lonesome Town (featuring Larry Norman), advises us, “You can take three steps in any direction and be there.”
Reviewed by John Koch
1. Long Black Train – featuring Frank Black
2. Ugly Brown – featuring Larry Norman
3. Son of a Gun – featuring Frank Black
4. We All Make the Flowers Grow – featuring Kristin Blix
5. Run Boy Run – featuring Frank Black
6. Six Feet of Chain – featuring Pete Yorn
7. The Railroad – featuring Isaac Brock
8. Look at That Woman – featuring Courtey Taylor-Taylor
9. Peculiar Guy – featuring Eddie Argos
10. Trouble is a Lonesome Town – featuring Larry Norman
I first came across the record around the turn of the millennium while living in Oslo, Norway. I found it in a secondhand junk shop and it struck a nostalgic note somewhere within me. It made me homesick for the panoply of Americana I had experienced while slumming it in the Southwestern border towns and California desert whistle stops I drifted through when I first started playing music on the road. The record didn’t leave my turntable for months. Years later I started to envision the record as a more orchestrated statement and began recording the basic tracks in my studio.
I had just finished a tour playing guitar with Frank Black and asked him if he would sing a couple of the songs. While we were recording his vocals in his living room, he asked if his 8 year old son Julian could sing the first verse on “Son of a Gun”. It turned out to be my favorite moment on the album.
My brother, singer Larry Norman, also lent his voice to a couple of the tracks, but when he passed away from a heart attack in 2008 I fell into a deep funk and put the project on the back burner. I couldn’t bring myself to harmonize with his vocals … it was just too emotional to deal with. It wasn’t until much later, prompted in part by Isaac Brock, that I fired up my recording gear, dusted off the tapes and hard drives, and began to finish it yet again. I went through my address book and started calling friends who happened to be in possession of great voices to see if they were interested in joining in.
As it turns out, Portland and Salem are far from being lonesome towns, and I feel privileged to have so many talented drinking and thinking buddies living in my Pacific Northwest neighborhood who were willing to take part in the recordings. When the songs were done I still needed a narrator to re-enact Hazlewood’s original saga, but I couldn’t think of a single person with the right voice. Then, one afternoon while sitting on my threadbare couch watching an Adam 12 rerun on some channel with triple digits, there was a knock on my door. It was my mailman Jerry, who intoned in his lilting drawl, “Howdy, I got a package here for ya.”
“Dude!” I said, “You wanna be on a record?!?”
It took quite a while to put together but here at long last it is. An album six years in the making. My own personal Chinese Democracy. My interpretation and production of Trouble is a Lonesome Town.
SideOneDummy Records is excited to introduce Thriftstore Masterpiece, an all-star music collective devoted to paying homage to the underdog records of years past. The star-studded group will release its first album, a revival of Lee Hazlewood’s 1963 debut Trouble Is A Lonesome Town, on July 9, 2013.
Brought together by producer/bandleader Charles Normal, Trouble Is A Lonesome Town features a prestigious lineup of artists including Pete Yorn, Frank Black (Pixies), Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse), Courtney Taylor-Taylor (Dandy Warhols), Eddie Argos (Art Brut) and several others. To make this unique collection of re-invented tales even more special, the album will be released on what would have been country singer and original artist Lee Hazlewood’s 83rd birthday.
Producer and mastermind Charles Normal first stumbled upon Trouble Is A Lonesome Town while perusing a thrift store in Norway in the early 2000s. After falling in love with the album, Normal decided to record it as a more orchestrated statement, along with friend Frank Black (Pixies) and his brother, singer Larry Norman. The project stalled when Norman passed away of a heart attack in 2008 but thanks to the prompting of Modest Mouse front-man Isaac Brock, Charles rounded up a few more talented friends to finish what he had started.
Now, several years later, Charles’ vision of Trouble Is A Lonesome Town will finally get its much-deserved time in the spotlight.