Pokey LaFarge has been a busy man in his 14 year recorded career and, ‘Rock Bottom Rhapsody’, is his 9th album, the last being recorded in 2017. His current offering is his first on New West Records and produced by Chris Seefried who also co-wrote several of the songs. LaFarge recounts the story of the album thus. In 2018 he moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles and entered a time of downward dissolution. Many of the songs were written in that time and, ‘Fuck Me Up’, certainly encapsulates all that needs to be said about that period and is probably one of the stand-out tracks. During the recording of the album, it seems LaFarge had a spiritual awakening or found God as we might say. He makes the point that the man who wrote the songs is not the man who sings them now – and probably just as well.
“Things started to unravel in my mind. I was letting evil spirits and demons rule me, and I came into certain agreements with them, and it took me down. The reality of the situation is that I hit the closest to rock bottom that I ever had, and I’ve definitely had some hardships in my life”.
LaFarge is another artist for whom multiple claims are made in terms of inspirations. However, on this occasion, you can pretty much hear every one and perhaps there are a few others to add. The album starts with a wordless offering of violins, cellos and viola – which is reprised halfway through, and at the end of the album with a little added piano and applause. It may well take the listener by surprise and bears little relation to the rest of the music. There are points at which the album has the feel of a soundtrack – perhaps some outtakes to the soundtrack of Coppola’s, ‘Cotton Club‘.
Things move on with the rockabilly sound of ‘End of My Rope’ – LaFarge assuring us that he is “a long way from normal”. ‘Fuck Me Up’, comes next with a rather rough edge to the vocal, which may or may not be deliberate, but is in contrast to the rest of the album and is not a bonus. A repetitive piano refrain and a catchy chorus drive things forward nicely.
‘Bluebird,’ is a foot-tapping finger-clicking account of a romantic interlude and, ‘Lucky Sometimes’, further reminds us that, ‘Even Bums Get Lucky Sometimes’, with more solid piano. The jazz influences are clear though, ‘Carry On’, illustrates one influence that seems not to get a mention, Doo-Wop, complete with the appropriate backing vocal. ‘Just the Same’, features a lovely guitar intro and a loping beat that switches proceedings back to a more gentle country croon – that of a ‘New Man Now’.
Switching the mood completely, ‘Fallen Angel’, has a driving martial beat and could be an outtake from Cabaret as witnessed by Christopher Isherwood just before he bids farewell to Berlin. ‘Storm a Comin’, is one of the weaker tracks (though on a strong album) and, ‘Aint Comin Home’, is another tale of excess before the albums vocal tracks finish with LaFarge’s best homage to Calexico on, ‘Lost in the Crowd’, which reflects on different kinds of anonymity.
It’s an excellent trick to bring together so many stylistic variables in one coherent whole – often attempted and seldom achieved. As well as the Doo Wop and Weimar echoes are Jazz, Ragtime, Swing and Vaudeville all wrapped up in one delightful smorgasbord. The musical heritage of St Louis is very much about all these genres and all feel present here in some measure. The sense of Riverboats and gambling is not far away and if LaFarge sports a pair of elasticated sleeve holders and a weskit it would be no surprise. Its all tremendous listening and artfully done. The one influence harder to detect, which seems to have been fundamental to LaFarge’s musical make-up, is Country Blues – a style of which he seems very fond. No matter there’s plenty of interest on offer elsewhere on an excellent album that offers a singular artistic style whilst at the same time incorporating a number of delightful influences and styles.