CD Review: Rocket by Danny Barnes
Danny Barnes has been around. He and The Bad Livers made a bunch of records and helped Keep Austin (and the rest of the country) Weird for most of the 90’s. This trio of acoustic musicians led by Mr. Barnes, a banjo player, opened for the Butthole Surfers on an early tour. BS member Paul Leary produced their first record, and the punk crowd took them in when the acoustic crowd didn’t know what to do with them.
Mr. Barnes and Bill Frisell collaborated for a while, making a record called The Willies that received critical notice. Mr. Barnes has made several solo records, too, and played with a lot of folks – most mentioned are Tim O’Brien, Robert Earl Keen and Dave Matthews Band, but it’s a long list. Mr. Barnes is so much the musician’s musician that he even wrote the book on it. Well, actually, it’s an essay, but it’s impressive in at least two ways. First, it shows how well he gets it, and second, it shows how well he communicates what he gets. You can read the piece here.
Mr. Barnes is a songwriter of the first order, creating not-quite story songs that still manage to tell stories. These songs are generally full of characters from the fringes who are often enamored with other characters from the fringes and sometimes they have sex right there in the song. In his song TSA (from last year’s record Pizza Box), it happened right there in her car: “with her hair in a bun, her hand on her gun, we made love with the radio on.”
I’ve come to the Danny Barnes party late, so I imagine some folks just smile when I start raving about him, his insight into life and the music business, his musical ability and his songwriting skills. I was pretty happy to get in on the front end of his new record this time around and have the opportunity to listen for several weeks pre-release. Rocket is the second record John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band & John Mayer) has produced for Mr. Barnes (he also produced Pizza Box). Matt Chamberlain plays drums on the record – Mr. Barnes says he was “the most bad ass drummer we could find.” These guys, combined with the sounds of a prototype hard-body banjo Mr. Barnes calls the “Barnjo 15,000” (that name sorta sounds like one of Harry Potter’s brooms) went into a studio in L. A. to make Rocket. They came out with quite an album.
Rocket rocks. Most of the songs sound nothing like you’d expect from a banjo player, although there is a bit of acoustic banjo in places. The record even includes a tune with a funk beat and another with some punk heat. Mr. Barnes also covers the old T. Rex tune, Bang A Gong (Get It On). I have to confess that I’ve been a sucker for a cover since my early days, often skipping right to it with a new record, only to be disappointed because I’m wishing for something new but familiar only to find that I prefer the original. Not so with this one. I mean, I did skip to the cover, but I wasn’t disappointed. The song is well played, and the lyrics sound as if Mr. Barnes might have written them. “You’re built like a car, you’ve got a hubcap diamond star halo.” And the part that would really make it a Danny Barnes tune, “You’re dirty sweet and you’re my girl.”
The first cut on the record is Poison, a song about a trucker who’s a bit frustrated with his situation (understatement alert). “Been drinking that poison, but I want somebody else to die.” In a whispery voice Mr. Barnes sings about a girl from south of San Antonio (presumably dirty sweet) who “said she’d hold it for [him]” till he gets back from a run to Tennessee. Unfortunately, our trucker anti-hero gets in trouble for being overloaded and things go downhill from there. With a radio preacher in the background, this character tells us we better “lock up them locks cause I can sure enough spot a great big house that’s gots nobody in.” Mr. Barnes writes and sings about this stuff so well it makes you wonder how the hell he knows. He says that his characters “are on various sides of the life decision that they are not victims after all, but rather, the cause of their own misery. I’m just a regular person myself so I identify with a normal trip.” Fair enough, though there’s normal and then there’s normal and I’m not sure which one he’s talking about here.
Rocket has love songs, too. Fun even has the feel of a mainstream love song, until you listen to the lyrics about having fun at a funeral and at the hospital, “riding elevators going up and down . . . irritate the doctor until he comes around.” And while a bit less traditional in the love song department, Wine tells about a fellow who goes and pays his fine, then pulls the shades in a motel room with someone else’s girl. There’s that sex right in the middle of the song again. “She’s a fixer-upper, I’m a high tension wire.” The song is a rocker with a catchy chorus that starts, “Wine, wine, friend of mine, gather ‘round children and we’ll have a good time” and ends with “an 8-ball baby and a jug of wine.” Just a normal trip.
One of my favorites on the record is Low, the tune with the funk beat. When I first heard the song it made me think of polyester show outfits and some guy with a big afro wearing out a bass guitar. Mr. Barnes sings, “You talk to Jesus, he’s the one who would know, he don’t mind if you’re head’s hanging way down low.” Juxtapose this with S.O.T., the punk song that complains, “I’m sick of the same ol’ thang.” Listen to either of these and stay still, if you can.
I don’t buy a lot of rock albums, being more of an acoustic/singer-songwriter listener. So it was nice of Mr. Barnes, who plays an acoustic instrument, and happens to be a songwriter, to deliver some rock to shake up my playlist a bit. That said, Mr. Barnes also finishes the record with two tunes that would fit nicely if you need some after-work relaxing music. The second of those two, Safe, is a beautiful love song with a melody reminiscent of something very old. The song starts with one of the better introductions I’ve heard in a while, so long that I first thought that Safe might be an instrumental. The lyrics, when they arrived, were simple and pretty:
When the sun don’t shine
from behind your blinds
and the way is too dark to see
Safe and warm here inside my arms
darling, you’re safe with me.
Mr. Barnes is about 50, old enough to know and very clearly young enough to go. He seems at the top of his game with Rocket, unafraid to take us to the motel room, the sleeper cab or wherever the story and the music require. Rocket is a treat. Don’t miss it.
Rocket is being released November 8 on ATO Records.
You can follow Mando Lines on Twitter @mando_lines.