(Review by Steve Shafer)
If King Hammond (a.k.a. Nick Welsh) hadn't already used the title Showbiz for his last album (read our review of it here), it would have been a perfect fit for his latest tour de force, Dancing in the Garden of Evil, since several tracks specifically delve into the myriad challenges/pitfalls of being a musician chasing success and fame (see "Chutzpah!," "Parallel Road," and "Fuck Art Let's Dance"). And as if to underscore his versatility as a songwriter, KH seamlessly ventures into some decidedly non-ska genres on the album (even though these songs aren't ska, they usually contain distinct ska elements that are friendly enough to hook the skeptical ska fan, plus they're all simply amazing pieces of music in their own right). Indeed, very few ska musicians on the current ska scene seem to possess KH's songwriting chops or drive (in the last two years, he has written and recorded something like 75 original songs--all of them decidedly good to great to magnificent) or seem to relish making music (he plays most of the instruments on each of his records) and performing in front of an audience as much as he does.
There is also another more subtle, opposing theme to this record: failure. Failing to achieve one's dreams, to seize ripe opportunities, to opt for the right (moral) choices, or to make something out of one's life (see the title track, "Jet Black Tourniquet," "The Devil in Me," and "Downbeat on Upper Street"). The difference between the protagonists in the first batch of songs and the latter? The characters inhabiting "Chutzpah!," "Parallel Road," and "Fuck Art, Let's Dance" possess grit--lots of it. Failure won't stop them from picking themselves up to fight another day.
The melodramatic, spaghetti Western-ish, and mildly kinky "Dancing in the Garden of Evil" sounds like something you'd hear during the opening credits for a 1960s-era James Bond film (sung by Shirley Bassey, natch): "Dancing in the Garden of Evil/swimming in a sea of sin/I don't know where I'm going or where I've been /I was just a young boy/when I left my home/Bought myself a ticket to the last days of Rome..." Things aren't to be taken so seriously when you hear that the singer has encountered the "Marquis de Ska" on "hedonism row."
We then shift almost 180 degrees, from someone consciously--and happily--engaging in the most basest of activities to thoughts about God. The lush and eerily gorgeous "Bless You" is about thanking a higher power for all the things in life that the singer has come to understand, appreciate, and value: "One thing that I have learned/No love should be spurned/Bless you for what you've given me." But the dread of mortality lurks in the shadows, bringing it all into starker relief: "One thing I have to say/is don't waste a single day" and "One chance is all you get/there's no time for regrets." Young people may not be able to relate, but this is a powerful sentiment (that gnaws at one late at night) for those of us middle age and up--as the years slip by, you wonder if you've made the most of your life. A similar, but more mournful, reckoning is portrayed on the semi-acoustic California rock (as interpreted by Super Furry Animals) track "The Devil in Me." This one is about having enough life experience to look back and experience profound remorse at the hurt you inflicted on others.
The brilliant, slightly Slavic/minor-key ska centerpiece of the album is "Chutzpah!" It's part primer in how to succeed as a performer, but mostly a boastful put-down to all challengers: "You can sing and dance and smile/get them rocking in the aisle/But in my heart I believe/You'll never be as good as me/You've gotta have chutzpah/You've gotta have style/You've gotta have chutzpah/to walk that mile/You've gotta have chutzpah/and minds like whores/You've gotta have chutzpah/if you want that applause/That's what gets me on the stage/Gets me so this fool can rage...So bring out the whores/bring out them whores/bring out them beer swilling, dope smoking whores..." Interesting that KH brings up the almost Faustian bargain he and his fellow performers have to enter--literally selling himself (and then self-medicating himself)--to be a success.
"Jet Black Tourniquet" is a Tom Waits-y, film noir portrait of a woman barely enduring all of the miseries life and other people have heaped upon her ("She walks through the valley of the self-abused/where everyone knows her name/Love is the thing that she's never had/It's always been the same"). And when the day comes"when there's nothing left to say," the tourniquet can end it all (by hanging or overdosing?). The brighter ska ditty "Sweet Like Sugar" sings the praises of a very much loved (and lusted after) woman: "She's cool, she's hot/She's everything I'm not/That's why I'm dumbstruck/and can't believe my luck/'Cause she's sweet/sweet like sugar."
"Hole in My Pocket" is the ska/early rock/country version of the traditional German/Pennsylvanian Dutch folk song "Hole in My Bucket" you would imagine Nick Lowe or Dave Edmunds recording back in the late 70s. Instead of hauling water with a leaky pail, the singer is trying to keep up with paying for all of his lady's expected bling: "As the principal gets bigger/I can't afford the vig/there's a hole in my pocket/and it's getting big/It's getting bigger baby everyday/'cause you want designer clothes/and I had to pay."
"Parallel Road" is an impressively shimmering Soul II Soul-like track (the one ska element here is a little melodica riff at the opening, like at the start of Bowie's "Golden Years") about following one's artistic vision at great personal expense, but not quite finding success (yet): "I've been traveling parallel roads/Stay true, like momma say/True to your soul/Trace the dream/and follow your goal/Still I travel parallel roads...I've been traveling so many years/Right turn on heartbreak/Left turn on tears/Like burning everything/my life's in arrears/Still, I travel parallel roads." A perfect pop song that would be in the Top 10 in an ideal world.
Dial the calendar back a couple of decades and The Cars/Buzzcocks hybrid "Fuck Art Let's Dance" would fit perfectly with the New Wave invasion of MTV and modern rock/college radio stations across the nation (and the ska connection here is, of course, that this was Madness' motto in their early days). KH sings, "Life can be a bitch when you're sitting in the artist's chair/Your searching for a hook and the melody's going nowhere/You say you have a different god/Your inspiration's heaven sent/But where have all the angels gone when you have to pay the rent?/So you say, "Fuck art, let's dance!" Sometimes you just have to give in to fun and hope the inspiration comes later (or from an unexpected source).
The capper to the album is the decadent, decaying sham elegance of "Downbeat on Upper Street" (dig the harpsichord in there!). It's the protagonist of "Dancing in the Garden of Evil" come out on the other side of life; old, washed up, and wasted. Like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge's poem, the man has been through a hell of sorts (of his own making) and back, and seems to exist only to wander from drinking establishment to hotel pub to recount his frittered away life and get drunk: "Buy me an ale and I'll tell you a tale/of darkness, deceit, and despair/Of women who lie and of love that will die/a brandy and I will share/The only time I feel better/is when my glass is full/Downbeat on Upper Street/Drinking my life away/A toast to the friends who betray/I'm drinking my life away." All the trappings of wealth and high society amount to nothing when your friendships and romances were superficial, disposable, and meaningless. And going to seed rarely sounds this good.
Don't let this album pass you by...King Hammond's Dancing in the Garden of Evil is another artistic coup from one of the most talented and hardest-working ska musicians out there!