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Holly Golightly & The Brokeoffs - Medicine County

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Artist: Holly Golightly & The Brokeoffs

Album: Medicine County

Label: Transdreamer

Review date: Apr. 26, 2010

Holly Golightly has been mining pre-war country, blues, rockabilly and early rock for a couple of decades now, starting with Billy Childish’s Thee Headcoatees in 1991 and beginning a string of 14 solo albums in 1995. Along the way, she has collaborated with a really diverse group of artists -- everyone from Rocket from the Crypt and Mudhoney to Dan Melchior to Jack White – though the common denominator seems to be some connection, however attenuated, to the blues. Her best and most lived-in partnership, however, is with Lawyer Dave, the other half of the Broke-Offs. Medicine County their third album together, was recorded at home in Georgia over a period of months. It is permeated with both the homespun warmth and weirdness of the backwoods.

Even given the traditional palette, there’s quite a variety in the arrangements, from the blue-grassy, string-band glee of “I Can’t Lose” to the stripped blues stomp of “Two Left Feet” to the electrified blues of “Don’t Fail Me Now.” Nothing seems fussed over or labored. Though apparently, Golightly and Lawyer Dave had more time to record Medicine County than their previous album, nothing has been allowed to go stale. The sound is warm and loose and open-ended, like a particularly good live performance.

The trick with this type of deeply traditional songwriting is to express one’s love for older forms without letting it turn to worship. Golightly, though a serious collector of old records and songs, has a knack for letting her material breathe. She brings out the rugged eccentricity in her material whether it’s archival (“Blood in the Saddle,” “Jack O’Diamonds”) , borrowed (“Murder on My Mind” from Wreckless Eric and “Escalator” from Tom Heinl) or original. She allows a certain rough-kicking country humor to break through, even in the most death-and-jesus centered of songs.

Consider, for instance, the scratch blues gospel of “When He Comes,” song that is almost entirely comprised of slide and washboard and boots thumping on the floor. It’s about the rapture, a serious subject in rural Georgia, yet told from a cockeye, half-baked perspective. Where will you be when Jesus returns? “Looking for a toilet and we cannot see the sun,” Golightly speculates, but also, “ready for the rapture and memorizing scripture, when he comes.”

Golightly goes for a surreal gallows humor in her covers, as well. “Murder on My Mind,” one of the album’s best, mines all possible goriness from Wreckless Eric’s song, with Golightly imagining hangings and a knife through the spleen. And in Tom Heinl, the deep-voiced, deeply odd country songwriter, she has surely found a soul mate. His hollow baritone transforms the traditional “Blood in the Saddle” into a gothic horror show, and his song, “Escalator,” a first-person re-imagination of a kid’s fear of the moving stairs, is dead serious and all the funnier for it.

Not all the songs are humorous. Opener “Forget It” is a chilling noire of organ, slithery western guitar and a tango-dancer’s stops and starts. The organ, possibly the one borrowed, according to the notes from Peggy “Squirrel Hair” of the local church, becomes a main character in this song (and others, especially “Dearly Departed”). It swirls and squeals bubble up under Golightly’s voice, here shadowed by ghostly doubles. “Jack O’Diamonds,” at the end, is another straight-faced highlight, its clock-ticking rhythmic regularity (banjo, string bass, sticks on rims) set against vocals that bring out the eeriest sort of human longing. It’s an old song, but nowhere near worn out, as Golightly and her band bring it to fluid, moving life.

By Jennifer Kelly

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