American music is a product of the war between the sacred and the profane. Early rockers, like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Elvis, happily purveyed a sound that was named for the carnal act itself, all the while struggling with their strong ties to religion. Soul music sprang from gospel tunes largely by lyrically replacing the love of the Lord with the love of a good/bad woman or man; Al Green has spent his life reconciling church and bedroom. The majority of this conflict takes place in the South where the wounds of this war remain fresh, even today.
Though the members are based in the New York metropolitan area, Swamp Cabbage's music incorporates a smorgasboard of Southern styles. The ten songs on their second record, Squeal, encapsulate the sin and redemption that typifies the music from below the Mason Dixon line, if not Southern consciousness itself.
The opener, "Jesus Tone," bemoans the fact that the singer can't do anything without what he perceives to be the Son's stamp of approval--be it on his guitar tone, his amplifier, his workman hands or his preacher mouth. After a Little Feat style rocker that asserts, "I come from down, down, down in Dixie / I got a thingamajig for your broke do-hicky" ("Dixieland"), "Feedbag" extols the virtues of eating, in a manner that hints at Billy Gibbons backed by Howling Wolf's band.
Walter Park's guttural vocal style often begs comparison between Swamp Cabbage and ZZ Top. I have been guilty of shorthanding the band as ZZ in the swamp, but on this record the resemblance recedes into the background behind drummer Jagoda's infectious second-line grooves and Matt Lindsey's snaking, tuba-toned electric bass lines. And though guitarist/vocalist Parks' voice may occasionally reflect Gibbons, Dusty Hill, or Tom Waits for that matter, his guitar style is truly unique, with licks incorporating ragtime, blues, pedal steel, and banjo, all with a tone that would have definitely warranted the Nazarene's approbation. Instrumental cuts like the Meters-like "Sopchoppy," the Jerry Reed meets the Dirty Dozen "Purdy Mouth," and the ragtime workout "Softshoe," help make Squeal a must own for lovers of premium picking.
Like Gibbons, Lyle Lovett, and Townes Van Zandt, Parks is a sophisticated son of the South, a combination that allows him to cast an ironic eye on the eternal battle between the soul and the body. "Poontang" relates a tale of being led to the light by a double-D cup, while "Delegation" mildly mocks those who think religion is a substitute for right living, not a guide to it. If the lyrics occasionally maintain a bemused distance from their subject, the music is right there in the funky fray. Swamp Cabbage is working hard to keep the beatification versus booty battle alive and well in the new millenium. • Michael Ross