Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
“A Psalm of Life” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
ESOEBO — pron. e-SO-bo; acronym for Eclectic Selections of Everything But Opera.
Longfellow’s opening lines immediately come to mind when when I hear Chuck McDowell’s songs. His work can seem deceptively simple and light, hiding complex undercurrents of meaning. Or it can be dark, concealing a sly playfulness. You just never know. Things are not often what they seem and that’s the beauty of this album.
Having had the pleasure of hearing most of these ten songs performed live, it’s a treat to hear the full-blown studio versions. Knowing what I do about the origin of some of these, it makes the listening experience that much sweeter. Nonetheless, inside knowledge doesn’t preclude pure enjoyment of McDowell’s sly and nuanced craftsmanship.
When playing live, ESOEBO is most often Chuck McDowell and Gail Burnett, joined occasionally by local musicians. On this album, their fourth full-length aptly titled IV, there are some heavy hitters. Produced by longtime collaborator Phil Madeira (veteran singer/songwriter and leader of the Red Dirt Boys, Emmylou’s backing band) who also contributes guitars, lap steel, piano and Hammond B3, the list of stellar musicians includes Will Kimbrough (guitars, mandolin), Chris Donohue (bass), Bryan Owings and Dennis Holt (drums), the legendary Bill Kirchen (electric guitar on “For The Money”) and ESOEBO cohort Gail Burnett on cello and vocals.
The haunting opener “Hardwired for Trouble” is a slinky serpentine tale of original sin and troubled pasts shadowing future generations. “Blue Moon” co-written with Madeira, takes a rather innocuous incident in a beach bar involving the absence of a certain beer amidst an all-protein diet and the overwhelming presence of the bar’s fresh bread, contorting the entire scene into a dark dream. “Some see trouble coming a million miles away. If it’s close enough to touch, it’s close enough to taste.” With the insider imagery, the song takes on a new depth while still open to interpretation.
“Hot Stuff” (aka “The Ambien Song”) is a galloping jazz tune with guitar worthy of Django Reinhardt. “It’s all my fault, I drifted off, I left you unattended. Things heated up and I got burned, now I’m in need of mending.” Jilted lover or drug-induced appliance mishap? Who cares? It’s an infectious number that sticks in your brain for weeks.
“Some Things Said” (co-written with Jonathan Richardson) is a straightforward narrative on the common thread of difficult father/son relationships that features an astute twist on the goldfish-in-a-bowl metaphor. The narrative arc is layered with vivid imagery sung in McDowell’s soulful baritone, with Burnett’s atmospheric cello making the tale all the more heartrending.
“Jubilee,” (a halleluja metaphor based on a Mobile Bay aquatic phenomenon – maybe?) “A Little Bit Like Saint Paul” and “Suffer No More,” all co-written with Madeira, are like hymns at the church your cool Christian friends attended, with Madeira as organist and McDowell as preacher.