Following on an arresting pair of earlier CDs, James Isaak returns with a nonet of category-straddling original songs (including a Woody Guthrie cover) steeped in several traditions: folk, protest, country, urban angst, etc. The opener is his strangest cut yet, a schizophrenically detuned semi-hallucinatory protest number, Judgement Day Whiskey Blues, that seems more like the after-effects of a bad PCP trip than his usual laidback slowburn. Not sure what to make of it, so radical was the entire episode, that the follower cut, Will I Be Mourned, thankfully sedated my hopping nerves back down into his trademark of beautifully sorrowful reflections, this time strongly reminiscent of a stripped-down JP Jones. That flowed into Blame the Monkey, a walking blues cut shifting tempo and mood, finally, for me, beginning to indicate where to place his arresting voice: somewhere between Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, and the aforementioned Jones, emphasis on the lattermost…while still completely Isaak's own. Too, this song again demonstrates how richly the guy can invest a very simple composition with depth and clarity. Butt it up against Better Days, where he carefully utilizes the negative spaces folk music is so often filled with, and the deftness of his technique becomes a thing to marvel at.
That was also when I understood why the lead cut was as it was: Isaak wanted his audience awake and wide-eyed, ready for the new disc. Judgement Day provides a very strong contrast for the haunting On the Eve of Deployment, a song about the Everyman's confused lament on being caught between the government's devil and life's deep blue sea, worrying about having enlisted in the armed forces for a country he no longer recognizes. This single track has powers that more celebrated protest minstrels like David Rovics can't begin to plumb, emerging from the soul of the lower class soul that politicians love to prey on, climbing to a blinding misery that may finally have cut deeply enough into the American psyche…if recent mounting collective outrage over Mad Monkey King Bush and his crime cabal is any indication. The refrain, "I know that I won't come home" is mournfully delivered with an undercurrent of deep longing for a mythical dreamland never seen, the fairy tale outlined in grotesque history books that are no more than propaganda, and it forces the listener to pause, mute, looking in the mirror, understanding that a mere slip of birth may have landed oneself in that desperate position. Indeed, there but for the grace of God go we all.
The entire remainder of the disc keeps that lamp lit, as does Isaak's whole catalog, nailing the ear down to the experience of real life in existentially unhedging terms, unflinchingly delineating the hours we live, not the TV we watch. He returns to the 60s, the time when Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Mickey Newberry, and the vanguard of philosophical troubadors were crafting the 20th century's blood, tears, and literature. Nor does Isaak relinquish this sobering mood when he closes on This Land is Your Land, a threnody here, not the upbeat exultation most have performed it as. In it is a much more modern warning: keep treading the path we're on and this land may no longer be made for you and me, it may fall under the weight of corruption that has come to call itself America, its rulers and business thieves. Trevor Lloyd's gorgeous violin lines only vault that sentiment into the meditation wanted, especially when "I saw a sign that said Private Property" arrives, countered with the much more famous "This land is your land, this land is my land / This land was made for you and me", a sobering thought that comes in the last minutes of a very rewarding CD.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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