Review: X Frontman John Doe Returns to Acoustic Folk for These Poetic Old West Fables

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

John Doe
Fables in a Foreign Land
(Fat Possum)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

The front cover is tagged only as John Doe. But the back credit is more illuminating. It reads, “Performed live in the studio by the John Doe Folk Trio.”

There’s no questioning the X frontman/singer/songwriter’s folk bona fides this far into his career. After all, he was a founding member of The Knitters, the all-acoustic offshoot of X who released their country-infused debut in 1985, followed by another shot at that sound twenty years later. Additionally, in 1995 X stripped down their propulsive punk, reimagining some catalog songs in a less aggressive format for a set they titled Unclogged, a play on MTV’s Unplugged series of similarly styled music.  

Despite the on-again-off-again nature of his initial band, Doe has had a prolific career. He first went solo in 1990 and followed with about 10 more solid albums that balanced rock, singer-songwriter compositions, and occasionally delicate material, all featuring his sharply penned poetic lyrics and immediately recognizable dusky vocals.

He returns after the successful X release in 2020 with a follow-up of sorts to The Westerner in 2016. As the back sleeve notation implies, this folk trio performance is captured live in the studio with no overdubs or sweetening. Doe is joined by Kevin Smith on bass and percussionist Conrad Choucroun with occasional fiddle and accordion for a lyric-heavy journey framed in old West concepts. While few of the 13 tracks jump out, Doe is in rugged storytelling mode, singing his descriptive words with stripped-down accompaniment that spotlights his expressive, at times dour yet dramatic vocals.    

Song titles such as “Missouri,” “There’s a Black Horse,” “Travelin’ So Hard,” and “The Cowboy and the Hot Air Balloon” set the tamped down Wild West tone even before hearing a note. There’s tenderness in songs like “Sweetheart” where Doe takes the voice of a man reuniting with his partner after she gets out of jail. In the chilling “Destroying Angel” he’s the protagonist who might regret murdering his wife and leaving her to die in the winter snow (I stuffed her full of death caps and I killed my angel dead) against an upbeat strummy melody.  

Los Lobos’ Louie F. Perez Jr. brings Spanish lyrics to the tale of hotshot faker “El-Romance-O” and Doe takes us into Tex-Mex territory for “Guilty Bystander,” a riveting treatise on slavery that ends with I am not a master/You are not a slave/We are only human/We must not surrender.

Obviously, this isn’t something you’ll play to fill the dance floor of your next party. But neither is it a total downer. Rather Doe unspools these tales with class and restraint, conjuring short aural films with appropriate acoustic outlining as the spacious, rootsy backing creates an atmosphere where they thrive.

It’s a long way from Doe’s punk beginnings but another example of one of America’s finest lyricists and most compelling singers at the top of his game.  

   

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