John Doe: The Westerner

john doe - the westerner

John Doe
The Westerner
(Cool Rock Records/Thirty Tigers)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The frontman and co-founder of X has been releasing solo albums longer than the L.A. band that put him on the map was recording. Since the debut under his own name in 1989, Doe has churned out nine discs of original material. Most, like this one, showed a softer, less aggressive approach than that favored by X’s Hollywood blitzkrieg punk attack.

Even though this is Doe’s first album in five years, he’s on a bit of a roll of late. He’s the author of a new book about the history of L.A. punk, is coming off another X tour and saw a career spanning compilation of his solo work on 2015’s appropriately titled The Best of John Doe This Far. This ten track, predominantly acoustic based set is a song cycle of sorts as most tracks reflect his relationship with the late author Michael Blake, best known for his first book, 1988’s Dances With Wolves.

But you don’t need to know that to enjoy another tough folk/Americana album, led by Doe’s rugged, dusky vocals and incisive lyrics. Blake lived in Arizona so perhaps that explains the appearance of that state’s Giant Sand frontman/founder Howe as part of the production team. While most of the material is more laid back, a few mid-disc rockers such as “My Darling, Blue Skies” and the chugging “Go Baby Go” featuring Debbie Harry, taking what would have been Exene Cervenka’s duet role if this were an X tune, show that Doe at 62 still has plenty of fire left.

But it’s the sweeter/edgier ballads that are most striking. Songs like the yearning “Alone in Arizona” with its reverbed, almost spaghetti Wester guitar and the closing “Rising Sun” that describes Blake with bittersweet lyrics “in his dreams he still flies/in his dreams he still rides” (horses played a large part in Doe and Blake’s relationship) capture a raw, passionate Americana vibe that feels honest and emotionally driven. The low boil Latin percussion of “Sunlight” is another poignant touch that makes this album one you’ll want to play at least a few times to feel comfortable with.

Like most of Doe’s solo work, this one grows on you. But his is clearly one of the most distinctive and passionate voices to emerge from any American punk band, one that is as comfortable with the more in-your-face attitude of his legendary work with X as this folkier but no less edgy music.