A “Gypsy Porch Swing” in 100 Degree Heat Kind of Psychobilly Folk Grass
A Review of Jonathan Warren & The Billy Goats’ Latest Album, Cletus:
What is Progressive Psychobilly Folk Grass? Among other things, Jonathan Warren & The Billy Goats say that “it’s a goat chewing on a can” and “southern Appalachian, gypsy porch swing.”
On Cletus, Jonathan Warren & The Billy Goats’ fifth full length album, the band is more focused on their artistic vision than in their previous rowdier “made for foot stompin’” albums, making this release more of a concept album that explores painful emotions attached to what the band’s been through. The ban is based in Boise, Idaho, and was written and recorded during one of frontman Jonathan Warren’s tumultuous relationships and the darker, more despairing themes of loneliness and heartache throughout the album reflect this. The band also lost their original bass player and namesake of the band, Billy Kaiser, and his death further impacted the mood of the album.
Warren’s sinister billy goat drawl is especially pronounced on the first song, “Queen Anne Hill.”
On tracks like “Not the Only” and “Sense of Lonely” the less distinctive, clearer supporting vocals of his bandmates provide a nice counterpoint to Warren’s very distinctive voice.
Musically, there are great guitar solos and the expected folkgrass instruments of banjo, fiddle, and upright bass. However, there are also some particular tracks with unexpected flair that give the album a nice bit of diversity to keep the listener engaged throughout. “Follow” is an unrelenting psychedelic downpour written by the Billy Goats’ banjo player, Stephen Morningstar. The growling, almost constant electric guitar in the background is like a didgeridoo in all its formidable strength. Warren wanted an eerie mood for the song “Done Fell Down” and found it through the use of an old slightly out-of-tune piano, which he plays to achieve a ghostly effect for this lazy, inebriated song. Similar in its ethereal qualities is “Decision,” which not only boasts a great guitar solo, but also manages to somehow be a rather dreamy track although with the driving bluegrass element still keeping the beat, while one of the highlights in “Salted Air” is at the end when the tune slows down at the bridge and there’s an echo-like thunderclap of a drum beat effect.
When describing the lyrics on Cletus, critics Pen’s Eye View say that they “hit home without apology and sometimes without warning.” A sad, weeping violin accompaniment for “If You’re Going, Go Then” helps convey the painful message of “her fickle heart” also heard in the lyric “I said hello, she’d already practiced good-bye.” The friendly picking of the banjo on this album is bittersweet–the one attempt at adding some kind of happiness to these songs of heartache. “Sense of Lonely” is the perfect example with the lyric “I put on a smile and I hope you will see me.”
Perhaps the most straightforward track and what seems like the lead single for the album is “Stayed Too Long,” in which Warren’s vocals fluctuate from low, husky, and sinister to a higher pitched nasal twang. There are also ghostly background vocals at the end that practically sound like they come from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion attraction. Keeping with the theme of the album, this track is about a relationship gone bad and their eye-opening music video for the song shows me exactly how bleak things have gotten.
It turns out that Cletus is actually the name of Warren’s dog. “He has seen me at my worst and hasn’t run away yet. The least I can do is name an album after him,” he explains. There’s something to be said about the loyalty of man’s best friend making it easier to overcome a lot of life’s struggles.
Jonathan Warren & The Billy Goats’ latest album is available at jonathanwarrenmusic.com.