The duets on Henry Wagons' solo album range from sinister to funny while inhabiting the darker reaches of Americana, writes JODY MACGREGOR.
Wagons declared their love of Willie Nelson in their cover of the Wayfaring Strangers song named after him, but working away from the rest of his band on this album, Henry Wagons has gone further into Johnny Cash territory. Expecting Company? delves deep into the backwoods of Americana, into the spooky underside of country music where things get biblical – the place Beasts of Bourbon mapped out in The Axeman’s Jazz and plenty of goth-y Australian country bands inhabit to this day. Not every song on Expecting Company? is about sin and death, but the best ones certainly are.
Most of these are duets. In ‘Unwelcome Company’, Wagons and Alison Mosshart of The Kills and The Dead Weather are tormented all night by ratbag angels before having their revenge, accompanied by menacing rat-a-tat drums. Whether those angels are really just children I’m unsure, but the vagueness makes it more sinister. ‘I’m in Love With Mary Magdalene’ kicks off with a church choir but quickly turns into a tale of unhealthy lust (“Oh how it is I wanna desecrate your tender breast”) with Sophia Brous as the object of his affections. Instead of playing the temptress, she’s half-baffled and half-pitying.
‘Give Things a Chance to Mend’ steps back from the hellfire and damnation for a simple love song, with Nashville twang both on the guitar and in Wagons’ voice. Canadian Jenn Grant is the long-suffering other half of this equation, but it’s all a bit generic and unfortunately forgettable. The same can’t be said of ‘I Still Can’t Find Her’, the song that’s become stuck in my head every time I listen to Expecting Company?. The one collaboration that isn’t with a female singer, it’s about an absent woman and a family history that might conceal a dark secret. Then, out of nowhere, Robert Forster puts in a brief guest appearance to tell Wagons’ character to give up his search for the elusive “her” in explicitly un-American pronunciation that’s jarring in the way an Australian accent in an American sitcom is.
There’s something hysterically funny to me about this drive-by spot, as if Forster has just swooped in to tell Henry Wagons he’s going about things all wrong. It’s like Forster isn’t just telling the character Wagons is playing that his search is pointless, but that Forster’s telling Wagons the musician that he’s barking up the wrong tree, stylistically speaking. If even the wilfully, gleefully, gloriously pretentious Robert Forster told me to tone down the affectation, I would probably listen to him.
But I’m glad Henry Wagons didn’t, because the following ‘A Hangman’s Work is Never Done’ is the best song about hanging people since ‘The Lord Loves a Hanging’ from The Ren & Stimpy Show. That statement is not intended as a joke; this song is amazing. A desert blues freak-out that sounds almost like one of those great songs where Mark Lanegan takes over Queens of the Stone Age, complete with stoner-rock guitar, it’s all growly baritone anger and the executioner’s pent-up frustration. The Grates’ Patience Hodgson guests as the understanding woman he comes home to. It ends with a series of cut-short, choking death rattles, an idea that someone deserves a gold star for.
“There’s something about this dark side of country music that makes Australian musicians turn up the American-ness another notch.”
The final duet is with Gossling on ‘Give Me a Kiss’. While the song’s not supposed to be as creepy as what preceded it, Gossling’s singing voice – like a precocious six-year-old showing off how cute she is for an audience of visiting relatives – makes it so. It sounds like Henry Wagons is sleazing on Shirley Temple. “What you up to next week?” he asks. “Well, I think that I’m fwee,” she replies, and she really does say “fwee.” It’s aiming for playful flirtiness, but instead it sounds like an invitation to share some sweets in the back of a van.
Redemption comes in the finale, ‘Marylou Two’, which picks up where ‘Marylou’ from the Wagons album Rumble, Shake and Tumble left off: Henry and his acoustic guitar, sighing by themselves. It’s a coda to the earlier song, an extension added like a renovator realising if you knock this wall out you could get another room onto the back of the house. ‘Marylou Two’ is the only song here without a guest singer, which makes it even more effective at evoking a sense of loss. “Back at home, all alone.”
There’s something about this dark side of country music that makes Australian musicians turn up the American-ness another notch. Maybe it’s because it seems more exotic than our own backyards, and our roo-shooting, pig-hunting country cousins are harder characters for us to paint as figures of suspicion and fear. I could certainly imagine Deliverance taking place in Gympie, but I can’t imagine an Australian movie about it that isn’t a comedy. We’re afraid of Americans, but then so was David Bowie and he turned out alright.
'Expecting Company?' is out now on Spunk.