Review: David Serby – Poor Man’s Poem (Crooked Mile, 2011)
David Serby – Poor Man’s Poem (Crooked Mile, 2011)
David Serby’s 2009 release, Honkytonk and Vine, was a welcome blast from Los Angeles’ honky-tonk past. The pointy-toed cowboy boots he wore on the album cover were matched by twangy country two-steppers that recalled the mid-80s Southern California roots renaissance of the Blasters, Dwight Yoakam and others. His follow-up retains the country melodies, but drops the rhythm-driven honky-tonk in favor of acoustic guitars, accordion, mandolin, banjo, dobro, fiddle and harmonium.
The ten songs essay the economic and social concerns of nineteenth century workers, but find repeated resonance with contemporary issues: union turmoil, damaged soldiers returning from war, displaced populations, and investors swindled by financiers. Though the specifics have changed – Iraq rather than Gettysburg, gentrified neighborhoods rather than the Sioux Nation, computers rather than assay offices – the results are despairingly the same. But so too is the spirit and bravery that Serby’s characters demonstrate, as miners return to the dark recesses of their work, and a destitute teenage mother turns from tears to a hopeful prayer.
This is an imaginatively written record, the sort that Johnny Cash pioneered with his historical travelogues at Columbia. The CD package is superbly finished, with the cover’s weathered edges complemented by the booklet’s vintage typography and poster reproductions. Those looking for another whirl around the dance floor may be disappointed by the introspective nature of the project, but anyone who enjoyed the craft of Serby’s earlier releases will find even deeper artistry here. Where Honkytonk and Vine spun clever song titles into smoothly rhyming lyrics, Poor Man’s Poem tells stories from the characters, and in doing so reflects on the struggles we all face today.