When he’s not working solo, John Wesley Coleman III plays guitar and sings in Golden Boys, a much-loved Austin band whose Whiskey Flowers set a standard for a certain kind of loosely strung, wildly played, country-and-Southern-soul influenced garage rock. Put them on next to the Oblivians, Reigning Sound or sometime tour partners Strange Boys, and Golden Boys’ sound made perfect sense, an amalgamation of Stax and the Stooges, Chess Records, Charlie Feathers and the Ramones.
Coleman’s second solo album doesn’t fall too far from the tree, his high, wavery vocals linking his songs to country and rockabilly, a barrage of fuzz-blistered guitars and wheezy organ tying him back to Nuggets-era garage. If anything, it’s a little less laid-back, a little more bad-assed, than Golden Boys. There’s a Who song bashing its way out of album highlight “Fields of Love,” a Clash guitar riff clawing up from the bottom of “Get High Babe,” and the album closes in a riot of straight up and down strumming with a cover of Swell Maps “New York.”
Lyrically, Coleman is an odd bird, a poet and an outsider artist who takes rock and country clichés like bad girls and tries to dance well past their logical extremes. His opening salvo, “Bad Lady Goes to Jail,” is, in musical terms, an off-kilter slice of classic rock, all power-chord guitars and rollicking Warren Zevon-style piano. It’s a happy song by the sound of it, the kind of thing that you put on while you’re getting ready to go out, maybe applying mascara or digging a pair of high-heeled boots out of the closet. But, whoa, listen to the words, and you might never go out again. There’s a girl on such a downspin that she can’t even steal her boyfriend’s car, because he’s too poor to gas it up. Similarly, the slouchy, catchy “Fields of Love” — the most obvious sing-along song on a very infectious album — seems, on closer inspection, to be about the work life of a prostitute. And what to make of the one true love song on the disc, a high lonesome crooner with Orbison-esque vocals and jangly, minor key guitars, that is, somewhat unconventionally, dedicated to basketball?
Coleman attacks even the oddest subject with a crazy glee, a “yi-yi-yi-ing” abandon that is as hard to resist as it is unsettling. There’s a vertiginous vibe to his bashed-out chords, his careening edge-of-control singing, his manic, pounding rhythms that makes you feel like you’re not on the firmest of ground, that perhaps you and Coleman are pumping your legs wildly, Roadrunner-cartoon-style, in the instant before you plummet down. And yet, you don’t fall. Bad Lady Goes to Jail is a giddy, exuberant, crazily appealing ride from one end to another, and a rickety tour de force that seems like it could blow apart at any minute, but never does.
By Jennifer Kelly