Friday, May 9, 2008

Head Full of Pictures

Jim Page dropped off a promotional DVD the Iraqi Children's Campaign did using one of his songs. He was sitting in on the editorial committee today. Artis invited him and he asked if it was OK that he was there. Is he kidding? The song is Head Full of Pictures, and the video is graphic in places. Here's a review I wrote when his CD by that name was new. It is the first CD of his that I truly love. The only one. Really. But I'm looking forward to others.
Lots of Seattleites think they know what Jim Page sounds like. Fast, leftist lyrics delivered in a nasally sneering style that moves most people down the sidewalk after just a song or two. Along with his frequent partner Artis the Spoonman, Jim Page has been this town’s musical equivalent of an IWW soap boxer for more than 25 years.

Here’s what many people don’t know: somewhere along the line, Jim’s music became more appealing. His vocal style mellowed, his songwriting broadened, the guitar work became tighter, but the hard political edge stayed sharp, slashing away at the denial and cant and outright horror that is American life in 2006.

Jim’s latest CD, Head Full of Pictures, released this year on the Whid-Isle label, is not to be missed. Backed by Hanuman’s Scott Law on mandolin and guitar, long-time session violinist and producer Billy Oskay, and Mark Ettinger on bass, Page has found a deeply layered folk sound to compliment his politics. The music gives the words a universality that, hopefully, will lift Page’s extraordinary songwriting to a new audience.

While there’s a bit here for everyone — a few love songs, a clever ditty about meeting one’s own clone, and a ribald conversation between Jesus and Buddha — this is fundamentally a war CD.

The opening trilogy of songs sets the tone, beginning with Petroleum Bonaparte’s loping bass line and spooky violin. “Hey George, what’s the body count? Does anybody know? When they’re brown and foreign do you bother or do you just let them go?” This moves into the title track, a song about PTSD (“I just wanna get numb and stay that way all the time”) that features first-rate mandolin and violin work from Law and Oskay over Jim’s driving guitar. Then comes Andres Raya, a jaw-droppingly perfect piece of songwriting that, if you’re anything like me, you’ll play about ten times straight before moving onto the rest of the CD.

Andres Raya was a Marine who, home on leave after a tour in Iraq, lured police into a tragic suicide-by-cop scenario that left himself and one cop dead, with another seriously wounded. Grainy video footage of the incident can be found online. Raya is seen, in a rain poncho with an assault rifle, moving “like a marionette on a slippery wire” across a parking lot, is if he’s caught up in a firefight in a war zone 7,500 miles away.

In Page’s deft hands, this becomes a story about a local boy from a dead end town who couldn’t live with what he’d become. “Some people have all the chances and some people have none / you lay down your burden where the river runs / reason and morality you can put them both aside / there’s flowers for Andres Raya in the alley where he died.”

There is also a Rachel Corrie tribute, about the 23 year-old peace activist who was crushed by a bulldozer in the Gaza Strip. Page captures the innocence, outrage, hope, and sense of personal responsibility that make the Corrie story iconic. “And I’d rather be dancing, dancing to Pat Benatar, but someone has to do something about it and here we are.”

The other standout is Something About Us, a Bruce Cockburn-ish meditation about the “blood all over Uncle Sam’s brand new shoes.” Page sings the long, dark history that stretches from the Indian Wars to Abu Ghraib. “There’s something about us / that we don’t want to have to face / there’s a killer instinct deep in this American race / just ask anyone who’s been on the other end of that leash / and they’ll tell you.” An African mbira and a simple guitar line played over Page’s percussive rhythm offers an appropriately haunted feel to the song’s unspeakable theme.

Head Full of Pictures is a brilliantly rendered political folk album that stands up well to repeated listenings and speaks passionately to the present. If you’re a fan of Jim Page, this is as good as he gets. If you’re not, forget whatever you think you know and get this one anyway. You won’t be sorry.

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