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Jon Wahl and the Amadans - Sour Suite

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Artist: Jon Wahl and the Amadans

Album: Sour Suite

Label: Birdman

Review date: Jan. 23, 2003

Wahl's Street Journals

You've got to admire Jon Wahl's perseverance. The L.A.-based musician has been at it for years now, but he's never managed to shed the "critically acclaimed" tag and enjoy anything approaching the broader success he deserves.

Since leaving the Pontiac Brothers in the mid-'80s, he's lent his multi-instrumental talents (sax, guitar, drums, harmonica, keyboards) to numerous acts, from the Bassholes, the Red Aunts, and Midget Handjob to Bad Religion, Slowrider, and Wayne Kramer. But, of course, his main gig was as frontman for Claw Hammer, a phenomenal live act whose mad punk hybrid of hard rock and blues didn't always fully translate to the studio. After two albums for Interscope, the band went on what now seems to be a permanent hiatus and Wahl set about recording his solo debut.

Claw Hammer aficionados will remember Wahl as the frazzled, wailing presence at the center of fast 'n' loud songs that, while highly disciplined, frequently seemed only seconds away from chaos. Aside from the noisy guitar-fueled "Maybe," however, Sour Suite is less rock-oriented than much of his work with Claw Hammer. Written mostly while walking the streets of L.A., these songs find Wahl in a quieter, slightly more restrained mood. That's not to say that he forgoes the eccentric sensibility of his previous recordings; rather, his distinctive surreal vision is preserved and fleshed out in rootsy, off-kilter numbers that showcase, more than ever, his talent as a writer and performer.

Wahl's vocals with Claw Hammer usually left little room for compromise: either you loved his often manic, pained delivery or you simply found it painful. Here, he shows more range. On the Appalachian-tinged ballad "May the Road Sing with You," complete with viola and piano, and the short and sweet "Florita," he sounds rather like Bryan Ferry's dissolute southern cousin. (Actually, Wahl's got some version of the Bryan Ferry look going on in the liner photos: he's smoking pensively and sporting a suit jacket, albeit standing in a bathtub, under a running shower.) With its Eno-esque synth, "My Song" conjures up the full-on early Roxy Music sound, although you'd never catch Ferry crooning lines like "My song is the salmonella journeying through the bowels of music and the guts of time."

Wahl reworks a couple of old standards here with considerable success. "Blue Moon" (re-titled "Blooooo Mooooon") is given a Tom Waits-ish makeover with dark clockwork rhythms and a slightly bizarre edge thanks to Wahl's vibrato, as well as his oddball supplementary lyrics. "Tennessee Waltz" is performed without a shred of irony, complete with a late-night jazzy sax solo.

Although on Sour Suite Wahl might sound down, he's certainly not out – a point that's made emphatically by standout tracks like "Southern California Dreaming" and "She Was Plastic," which bring country-blues inflections to Wahl's familiarly skewed, ambivalent portrayals of his urban surroundings.

Wahl's Claw Hammer oeuvre often raised comparisons with that other Jon (Spencer), inasmuch as their records display a similarly warped, parodic punk homage to the blues. While Sour Suite continues to bear out such comparisons, it also suggests that there's more to Wahl's repertoire than there is to Spencer's, which has become something of a one-line joke. There may be as much irony in Wahl's crooner pose as in Spencer's, but there's also a sense that he's genuinely able to lose himself in a broad range of musics rather than always having to be the knowing, self-referential frontman.

By Wilson Neate

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