Since then, the Devil’s House Band has disbanded (with a final document: Live at Gabe’s), but the credits on Pardekooper’s new album, House of Mud (on Iowa City’s Trailer Records), suggest that one ought to expect more of the same rocking roots music. It’s a bit of surprise, then, that the new album feels so different. Its stripped-down sound is a touch more country, more personal, and more downbeat.
Devil’s House Band-mates Atom Robinson (bassist), Matt Winegardner (drums), and Marty Letz (pedal steel guitar) are back, and the legendary Bo Ramsey sits in for a track. Johnson County Snow producer Dave Zollo plays organ on another track, and Teddy Morgan co-produces (with Pardekooper) and sits in on guitar. The only thing that would seem to be missing is House Band guitarist Dustin Busch.
It would be unfair to fault House of Mud for being a lesser effort. While Johnson County Snow was immediately accessible, a tight collection of 10 sterling tracks, the new album forces a listener to pay closer attention. The music breathes more, giving greater force to Pardekooper’s unvarnished, often weary voice and downtrodden stories. The focus this time is on the narratives, and once again this local cowboy proves himself a master of the plain-spoken, evocative, and efficient lyric, literate and full of imagery from rural and family landscapes.
The unsentimental title track is a perfect example. The title suggests a frail abode of earth and poverty, and in four verses, Pardekooper sings just eight different lines. The minimalist approach perfectly captures the mindset of an old loner: “Won’t someone please take my poor dog / He stays awful quiet and he does not eat too much.” The lyric is grounded in real life but suggests an isolation so severe that the narrator can’t even find somebody to perform a single act of mercy. Pardekooper’s plaintive, note-bending guitar provides a perfect complementary lead.
“Hayseed Girl” features uncharacteristic but welcome poppy, breathy vocals over a simple, percussive tune. The lyrics are incongruously bitter, describing a worry-free lover whose lack of concern extends to her man: “She’ll take you down, to the river, and lay you down on sheets of linen / You won’t shower, she won’t care, she lets the ribbons fall down from her hair / Then tears your heart to pieces, and leaves you crying on the ground.”
“Tell Me Quickly” is more complicated, bordering on inscrutable but powerful in the dexterous way Pardekooper hops from sharply drawn image to sharply drawn image: “Cause all I really need is those little bees / To pollinate my little trees / That come up to my daughter’s knees / She falls down laughin’ with the glee / That only children understand.”
Ramsey’s guitar provides an alluring accompaniment to Pardekooper’s tale of temptation on “Can’t Go There”: “She’s sittin’ there like fruit that’s been ripened on the vine / And she’s watchin’ you get weaker almost every single time / Thinking you might have something she could really need / Something more than sensual that she ain’t ever seen.”
House of Mud’s 10 tracks are uniformly strong, and the whole only suffers in comparison to Pardekooper’s previous studio effort. The absence of the Devil’s House Band guitarist is felt not only in the tempo of songs but their urgency. I doubt Busch would have added much to these songs, but it’s clear that Pardekooper writes with his sidemen in mind. Johnson County Snow was a band record, with the House Band playing Crazy Horse to Pardekooper’s Neil Young. House of Mud is a solo effort, and without a doubt it’s a confirmation of Pardekooper’s gifts. That it doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessor is no sin at all.
Kelly Pardekooper will perform at Gabe’s Oasis in Iowa City on July 25 with Teddy Morgan and has a few Iowa City-area gigs slated for mid-August. For a complete tour schedule or to order Pardekooper’s recordings, visit his good-humored Web site: (http://www.kellyp.net). The site also includes lyrics to many of Pardekooper’s songs.