Momma, our little boy is growing up, that little boy being Keith Morris, the genius not behind but who put together The Crooked Numbers. In fact, the whole band is growing up, their collective genes immersed in Keith’s vision as if it were theirs, maybe because it is. It has taken two albums and a few years getting to The Dirty Gospel and the journey has been well worth it. I have lived the two previous albums— Songs From Candyapolis and Love Wounds & Mars— and thought, if this is it, it is enough. Good albums— solid albums, both. One day soon I am going to talk with Keith about those albums but a review of the new one is not the place for that. This is about the gospel. The gospel of Keith Morris & The Crooked Numbers.
Let me start by saying that my favorite track on the album, “Are You Free Now?,” almost didn’t make it. Morris had instead planned (and evidently recorded and mixed) a Bob Dylan track for the record, but Dylan’s legions of lawyers put the kibosh on that, saying they would rather he not release the song which Dylan has yet to record or release to the public. Somewhat crushed (they had, after all, spent a lot of time getting it right), Morris opted for the aforementioned track, a smooth, soulful ballad which reaches inside and wrenches your gut, it is so beautiful.
The Choir makes it— four voices dipped in sugar and honey in just the right proportions. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love harmonies and these ladies offset Morris’s lightly graveled voice so well, I fell into its black hole for at least a week, ignoring the rest of what will become one of my top album picks of the year, not because the rest of the album was not as good but because I needed to dig out of that hole before I could go on. Lightly soaring organ, a guitar from heaven, Morris’s voice and lyrics, and The Choir. It reminds me of when I first really “got” Cowboy’s 5’ll Getcha Ten album— how I sat by the turntable and lifted the stylus on one track, playing it over and over until I thought I had heard it right and then moved on to the next track to do the same. I am sure I will do the same with The Dirty Gospel. I just haven’t had the time yet. By the way, The Choir consists of Jen (Hays) Morris, Davina Jackson, Davita Jackson, and Samantha Reed. I mention their names because as good as they are on this album, they deserve to be credited. Their voices give “Are You Free Now?” that soothing spiritual edge.
The whole band deserves credit. Tom Proutt plays with grit and attitude I have not heard from him before, his guitar growling and barking and even biting at times. Bud Bryant and Stuart Gunter lay bass and drums bedrock so well you would think they were twins (the only twins in the bands are Davina and Davita, in case you are wondering), and Mike Kilpatrick fills in on guitar and lays out a superb pedal steel when called upon. And Morris? He’s a monster of a songwriter and has just enough Dr. John in his voice, among other influences, to carry each tune to the highest level possible.
There are others too. Charles Arthur plays organ and guitar on “Are You Free Now?,” Wells Hanley– a regular on the Charlottesville music scene, plays keyboards, Jeff Romano adds mouth harp, and Hector Barez, congas. Tom Proutt and Juliette Gunter, most likely related to Stuart, fill in with background voices. And one Nathan West rocks the drums on “Johnny Gilmore.”
I know Johnny Gilmore only by legend and wish I had met him. The musicians in Charlottesville loved him. The fact that he no longer walks among them makes no matter. He is still a presence, and a major one.
Morris walks his own trail when it comes to music and has for some time. When I first began to know him, Paul Curreri told me the story of Morris coming out of his basement after a winter hibernating only to hand him a cassette tape of his music. Curreri had no idea he could even play. The things we don’t know.
Outside of “Are You Free Now?” and “Johnny Gilmore,” the album contains eight songs as good and as intriguing. “Psychopaths and Sycophants” is brassy enough to almost make you hear horns, though there are none. “Issues (Raising Cain)” splits Southern and Native American roots, whether it was meant to or not. “Pale Moon” is straight out of the classic rock playbook, the song having that full-on guitar groove reminiscent of the best of the guitar bands. “Devil’s Stew” has that aura of Dr. John, as mentioned, and…
This is a huge step forward for both Morris and the band. Morris has never written a better string of songs nor has he really allowed The Crooked Numbers their heads until now. The band members are talented, but as a band their talents become immense. Stuart Gunter sees a method in Morris’s madness, citing a “rehearsal” which Morris actually recorded and used on the album. If walls in recording studios and rehearsal rooms could talk.
On a personal note, let me point out that Morris is a diehard Atlanta Braves fan and included a little love ballad he titled “Chipper Jones” because the Braves are a huge part of his life. Even during hard times. He included “Cross-Eyed John” on Candyapolis, a look at the world through the bigotry of John Rocker. It is a huge leap from Rocker to the Chipper, but what can I say? The man loves baseball.
Such is the enigma who is Keith Morris. Such is the man behind The Dirty Gospel. Who else could put together an album so personal and yet so universal?
I would say buy this album, but all he would do is go off and make another one, which come to think of it is not at all a bad idea considering the progress he has made. Here’s hoping he waits a bit, though. It takes me awhile to absorb each album he creates. And it is always incredible fun doing it.