For rock music fans of the 1970s, Kinky Friedman was the oddest of guilty pleasures. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen had drawn many to roots music with “Hot Rod Lincoln,” and then burrowed into the stonersphere with “Seeds and Stems (Again).” This led many listeners to country and folk, and with Friedman’s 1973 debut, Sold American, humor, satire and pathos, often at the same time. Even the names – “Kinky” and “Texas Jewboys” – implied a level of irreverence that didn’t prepare listeners for Friedman’s perceptiveness. His broad, comic approach often obscured the deeper layers on first pass, but his resolutions always turned out to be parable rather than punch line.
Following a trio of 1970s albums, Friedman released a 1983 solo effort, Under the Double Ego, and then turned to novel writing (with sides of politics and distilling) as his main occupation. He still performed, released a few live sets, and dropped in on his own tribute album, but it’s been 32 years since his last full studio collection. Other than the previously unrecorded title track (co-written with Tim Hoover, and dedicated to Tompall Glaser), the song list is all covers, selecting songs with special resonance from the catalogs of Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Lerner & Loewe. The latter, “Wand’rin Star,” was originally written for the stage musical Paint Your Wagon, and turned into a surprise UK hit single by film actor Lee Marvin!
At 70, Friedman’s voice sounds more aged than the decade-older Nelson’s as they duet on the opening “Bloody Mary Morning.” But that same weathering conveys a lifetime of wisdom gathered between Friedman’s 1970s originals of “Lady Yesterday” and “Wild Man From Borneo” and today’s covers. Friedman cannily interprets “A Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” more as a hushed confession than Tom Waits’ Satchmo-inflected original, and he returns Zevon’s “My Shit’s Fucked Up” from its mortal ending to the lyrics’ original lamentation of aging. Mickey Raphael’s harmonica adds a mournful sound to several tracks, including a properly haggard rendition of “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.”
These quieter, low-key performances offer an uninterrupted helping of Friedman’s introspective and empathetic sides, and the song selections – particularly the closing pairing of a show tune and a popular standard – reveal a streak of nostalgic sentimentalism. An album of covers provides insight into a songwriter’s tastes and influences, but it’s not a substitute for fresh reflections on today – and today’s society could really use a helping of Friedman’s audacious wit. Hopefully, this studio project will have been sufficiently enjoyable to spark a new round of songwriting. [©2015 Hyperbolium]