Saturday, June 11, 2022

Hoodoo Gurus carry on

Dave Faulkner's songs have always been there for me when I needed them. I vividly recall standing in a consignment store on Knox Road just off the University of Maryland campus in the fall of 1984 when I first heard "I Want You Back"—the top of my came off during the chorus; I'd been sent without realizing I'd needed the deliverance. Over the new few years, Hoodoo Gurus' songs soundtracked my agonizing relationship problems and my general twenty-something agita with incisiveness, "I Was The One" and "Bittersweet" in particular reaching me—and helping me—in my darkest moments. A decade later, in a different state, literally and figuratively, "If Only" from 1996's Blue Cave played on repeat as I wrestled with major life decisions and existential questions of self-worth. I sang it to myself for months like bible verse. (Of course Faulkner wrote songs that scored bliss, as well: "Something's Coming" from 1991's Kinky brings me right back to the heady days of the courtship of my wife. I see her walking toward me on my front porch, now, as I sing the opening bars to myself 30 years later.)

And last year came the balm of "Carry On," one of the songs that helped get me through the unhappy residue of the Covid lockdown and a pretty severe anxiety attack during which I came dangerously close to bottoming out. "Carry On," in its blend of shrugging vulnerability and cheery resolve, is a signature song on the new Gurus album Chariot of the Gods as it suggests to my ears a turn of sorts in Faulkner's songwriting. He's always been tuned to the cynicism, meanness, excesses, and two-facedness that pockmarks humanity, and he's sung about them with humor and wryness, but on the Gurus' recent albums that grim knowledge turned his smile to a sneer at times. He seemed to be taking a lot of stuff personally. 

There's a dark edge to some of Chariots of the Gods, too— "Answered Prayers" recounts harrowing emotional and mental abuse from the point of view of the abuser, and the audacious and moving title track is an anthropological lesson in the colonialist ravages visited upon Australia's aborigines (really!)—but that edge is softened by the album's buoyant and lively tone. The sadder songs ("Was I Supposed To Care?", "My Imaginary Friend") are balanced by the fun ones: "World Of Pain" is a hilarious account of a bender that ends in a bar fight, "Get Out Of Dodge" wrestles with the grossness of narrow-mindedness but in a rollicking, winking way, capped with a vintage Gurus chorus, and "(He Wants To) Hang With The Girls" is a rockin' and pointed celebration of living along the gender spectrum. Guitarist Brad Shepherd's "Equinox" is a beaut: a knocked-out paean to the wonders and surprises that the natural world can offer, in this case the titular earth/sun meeting which blew the songwriter's mind in 2021. "You never know what’s coming," he reminds us.

"Settle Down," though tinged with the melancholy image of falling leaves, warmly embraces a calming epiphany of personal rootedness. Faulkner's mentioned in several interviews that he's recently experienced a significant measure of personal growth, self-acceptance and comfort in his skin that'd been sorely lacking for decades. I hear that new-found vibe on just about every groove of this mature, optimistic album. "I am less patient with the idea of mincing my words," Faulkner said in March to Dan Condon and Caz Tran at Double J radio. "I had some things I wanted to get off my chest, so there was definitely a lot of purpose there. That kind of fired me up."

[Chariot of the Gods] doesn't feel like a jaded piece of work. It feels fresh to me. It's very alive. It feels like a reboot to me, I actually approached it that way in my mind.

Even when Faulkner pushes back against those who want to box him in—a career-long pet peeve of his—he reacts less acidly this time around. In "Don't Try To Save My Soul," his personal confidence is matched by the song's freeing gallop, and the overall vibe is: I won't be bothered anymore:

There is a place called happiness
They said, “Go seek it, boy.”
They didn’t tell me where to look
To find the real McCoy.
I stumbled ‘round for nigh on 40 years
To work out who I am,
Now I ain’t gonna change for anyone
‘Cause I don’t give a damn.
Such a hard-won contentment's reflected in the album's closer, too, the Lou Reed-esque, hilariously titled "Got To Get You Out Of My Life," Faulkner's strutting coolness so centered and assured. This album could be subtitled I Just Don't Care.

The album was conceived as a series of singles (as was the band's debut album nearly forty years ago) that were rolled out leisurely across 2020 and '21, which perhaps allowed Faulkner to focus more closely on his writing. The songs' arrangements are characteristically clean and tight, guitar-based, layered, but never fussy, and the band—rounded out by stalwart bassist Rick Grossman and new drummer Nik Rieth—is hitting on all cylinders, if a tad less loudly. (I attended a Gurus show at the old 9:30 Club in the mid-80s after which my ears rang for a week.) Shepherd hauls "I Come From Your Future" from his sack, a wah-wah-guitar stomp that hearkens back to "Mars Needs Guitars." The vinyl edition adds "Hung Out To Dry," a cool put-down that's impossible not to laugh along with in its mock sneer, plus two covers, a fun but superfluous "I Wanna Be Your Man" (that song's got legs; the Stones hauled it out the other night in Liverpool) and a jog through Dylan's "Obviously 5 Believers" from Blonde On Blonde, where Faulkner gets to imitate a mid-60s garage band imitating Zimmerman. Great stuff.

If the Gurus are indeed re-booted, after Faulkner's cheery pronouncement, then we can look forward to years more of affecting, smart, and powerful rock and roll. And here's hoping that the thrice-cancelled U.S. tour can be re-booted, as well. America needs guitars!

Band photo by Christopher Ferguson

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