Who is the real Afton Wolfe – will he please stand up!
Afton Wolfe has something of a problem, possibly because of something of an identity crisis.
Afton Wolfe is a singer/songwriter delivering slow to medium-paced songs, sometimes piano-led, in a deep, gravelly voice, while wearing a pork pie hat. Do we see where this is going?! Add to these facts that his producer for this, his debut solo recording, is Oz Fritz, who has recently recorded with Tom Waits, and you start to wonder what’s going on here. Then there’s the back story. According to the publicity sheet, Wolfe hails from Mississippi and this is significant because “Born in McComb, and growing up in Meridian, Hattiesburg, and Greenville, Mississippi, the roots of American music are in his DNA”. In addition to his DNA claims he, apparently “spent his musically formative years in and around New Orleans, where the humidity of the Mississippi combined with the Cajun seasonings, the jazz, zydeco, creole, and gospel music and his Mississippi roots coalesce to add resonance and depth to his blues/country/rock influences”. It all starts to sound a bit like an exercise in ticking boxes – a Tom Waits style, Americana album by numbers kit.
Obviously, Wolfe has a distinctive singing voice and that’s not something he can change, probably. But why go to such lengths to exaggerate the association? He could wear any sort of hat, why the Pork Pie? Why choose a producer who has worked with Waits if you’re not expecting to be compared to him? The whole thing just seems a little strange. There’s a feeling that you’re playing some sort of Americana bingo and you just need a reference to Dr. John to be able to shout “House!” and collect your Gibson toaster!
The fact is that it’s not a bad album and there are some good songs here, a number of them written by Wolfe himself. He’s gathered a solid set of musicians around him and the songs are well delivered, once you get past that “not quite Waits” delivery, but you can’t help but think he’s either made an error of judgement or he’s trying to profit by association, given the style and approach of the album.
The album gets off to a strong start with the track ‘Paper Piano’. It’s a rousing romp of a song involving a honky-tonk, bar-room style piano and a horn section, with some particularly nice trombone playing from one Joey Dykes. It’s a fun song about childhood and nostalgia, with some good imagery that works well and a strong chorus – “And did you never play a Paper Piano?/ And did you never ride a bike with no wheels?/ Did you never use a milk jug for a baseball glove?/Could you ever know how happiness feels?” It does establish a tone for the album and is a good choice for the opening track.
The next track to grab attention is third cut, ‘Dirty Girl’. It’s a greasy, twelve-bar blues with featured slide guitar but, once again, there’s that by the numbers feel about it. It’s not a bad song and it’s well played by all, but the lyrics about a road trip through the southern states don’t come across as particularly original. “Dirty Girl, Dirty Girl, come with me to New Orleans./ When we get there we’ll get some Good Voodoo/ Some tasso and trombone, some gator too”! There’s that heard it all before feeling and that extends into the next track to stand out, the fifth track on the album ‘Cemetery Blues’. This track has a ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’ vibe to it. Written by the late Billy Wayne Goodwin Jr., a songwriter from Macon, Georgia, who died back in 2017, this recording features the writer’s voice, taken from his original demo recording, counting in the song. It’s a suitably spooky piece, sounding like it’s coming from a deep hole and it’s one that suits Wolfe’s voice well. It’s almost a grunge take on R&B, if that makes any sense at all, and really is a track that makes you take notice. Next up is, to these ears, probably the best track on the album. ‘Mrs Ernst’s Piano’ is a really well-written song. Coming from the pen of Truckstop Honeymoon’s Mike West it’s, on the surface, a simple song about a neighbourhood piano teacher – “Now, Mrs. Ernst gave piano lessons Sunday afternoons/ to the children of the neighborhood. She’d teach simple tunes./ At the old pianola, they’d hammer and they’d pound,/ while Mrs. Ernst’s husband read the paper with a frown”. In fact, it’s a clever song about the nature of change, particularly in respect of racial tension and civil rights. The arrangement has an almost klezmer feel about it, with some fine clarinet playing, apparently by Seth Fox, and one of those choruses that nags at you – “The neighborhood was changing./ They say it was going down./ They were putting up new houses east of town”.
This is a difficult album to fathom. It’s very well produced and all the musicians put in a great performance. Wolfe himself contributes some nice guitar work (at least he’s not the piano player – apart from one song!) and his voice does grow on you in its “not quite Tom Waits” way but it’s so hard to understand what the album is trying to say. Is it a form of pastiche? The songs are good but all have that slightly predictable air about them, though they are drawn from a variety of sources. It feels like an exercise in ticking boxes, given the style of the songs, Wolfe’s delivery, and many of the song lyrics. Take album closer, ‘O’Magnolia’ as a final example. Apparently written as a potential future state anthem by Wolfe himself, it addresses the need to change the state flag and lose the association with the Confederacy. Another good song but, this time, we get the gospel choir approach and references to the stars and bars, slavery, Choctaw Indians and, of course, Magnolias. Another good song with great vocals from the “choir” and Wolfe himself turning in a good performance but, again, you find yourself wondering if this song came from the heart, from the head, or from some voice saying “there’s money in that there Americana…”.
After a number of plays ‘Kings For Sale’ remains a perplexing album for this reviewer. Perhaps, when something is this confusing the best thing to do is to focus on the music and the music is good.
Is this some Seasick Steve type approach to making an “authentic” roots sound? That’s the big question. If it is, it’s at least as accomplished as Steven Leach’s hobo blues. Is Afton Wolfe the new Tom Waits? He certainly has the sound nailed down, though he lacks the great man’s originality, both as a writer and performer but then, Waits is a true one-off – being number two wouldn’t be so bad, would it?!
Listen to the album and make up your own mind, if you can – this is an album to keep you guessing!