Darrin Bradbury’s Talking Dogs & Atomic Bombs spins in the echo of John Prine’s “speed of the sound of loneliness”. That said, this music doesn’t create the pathos of Sam Stone’s kid singing about “the hole in daddy’s arm”, but it does vibrate with rough neck vernacular tunes that flow like the Mississippi with deep mud, sawdust, dark humor, downhome tales, a few lies, a little truth, a bad election, and some weird form of doomsday optimism – all of which throb into the pulsed heartbeat of Americana folk music. This album is a “not bad” and even “pretty good” addition to that songbook.
I suppose Mark Twain is to blame, that and the invention of the spittoon.
The title song sets the tone. The vocals are matter-of-fact, indifferent to the troubles of the world, and ready for a quiet and clever coffeehouse. Dogs talk; cats don’t; the weatherman is uncertain about the rain, and “the microwave and the atom bomb are distant cousins”. This song chugs with calm rocking front porch advice from someone whose favorite baseball team just isn’t going to win the World Series any time soon.
Talking Dogs & Atom Bombs is filled with weird symbolic tangents. ‘Breakfast’ is a drawl of a song which debates squirrel love (and has a tragic ending!). It then imagines mail from some far away dream. And cereal becomes important. I suppose that justifies the title. ‘Hell’s More Or Less The Same’ continues with a Dylanish ramble that dances like a Jimmy Buffet song and sings, with wisdom far removed from ‘Margaritaville’, that “Hell’s more or less the same”, with or without a paid-up confessional bar tab.
‘The Trouble With Time’ gets psychological. Lots of two-edged swords in life. There’s a plain admission that the singer “tripped on his pants and fell on my head”. This tune is tough life, with a great sober melody and a glimmer of hopeful redemption in the idea that “Sometimes I walk through the bad just to walk with you”. Oh – talk about hopeful redemption, Margo Price adds backing vocals.
By the way, Darrin pulls off the modern artistic legerdemain which takes the very mundane stuff that’s seldom noticed, and elevates it to very mundane stuff that, for some odd reason, now seems less mundane, and possibly important. ‘Strange Bird’ is a prime example: It’s a brief conversational tune with a bird that “couldn’t fly”, and the lyrics pinball bounce around the brain to include Walter Cronkite, Coca Cola, Algiers, Dwight Yoakam, Judas Priest, crack cocaine, Captain Crunch, and (of all things) an RCA TV. Connect all those dots at your own peril! Sometimes, Bob Dylan did the same thing.
‘The American Life’ is a centerpiece of the record. A church organ frames the lyrics that paint a Big Mac portrait of Americans, with “political fried chicken”, “stadium churches”, and a “God blessed ignorance”. But this Dorian Gray image is rescued, in a really decent denouement that finds pathos in the “saddest brown eyes I’ve ever seen’ in the faces of “two attendants behind the Texaco counter”. The song parachutes with a soft landing.
That pathos is obviously absent from two songs, ‘So Many Ways To Die (Frozen Pizza)’ and ‘Motel Room, Motel Room’. The former sadly resigns from life without a punch line. And the latter, let’s just say, will never be used as a theme song for a Holiday Inn advertisement. This song has a dark depth, and, perhaps, is the most realistic voice on the record.
My friend, Kilda Defunt, often says, “Sometimes the clown just doesn’t feel like being funny anymore”.
Two other songs, ‘Nothing Much’ and ‘This Too Shall Pass’, rekindle the John Prine connection. That is high praise.
And then there is the final song, ‘Dallas 1963’. Now, very few things are sacred in America, but this day is still seared with 9/11 votive candles. This is a brilliant comment on the assassination. It’s a psychological Jungian dream in which the dreamer becomes Lee Harvey Oswald. I am reminded of (the great) Phil Och’s song ‘The Crucifixion’ that delves deeply into the human soul and simply says, “Beneath the greatest love is a hurricane of hate”. Thankfully, the song ends with a happy melody as his wife quells the fear with calm assurance that echoes the barbed and always current American sentiment of Frank Zappa’s tune, ‘It Can’t Happen Here’.
Talking Dogs & Atomic Bombs works as a unified whole, set in an American morning that always sips yet another cup of Starbuck’s coffee and contemplates the humour and sadness found within of all our collective (and sometimes unconscious) dreams.
Artist’s website: https://darrinbradbury.com/
‘Breakfast’ – live on TV: