A Pirate Looks At Forty: Todd Snider’s Peace, Love and Anarchy

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B-side collections are often difficult propositions, unless you’re the kind of slaverous, slobbering fan who bought every single from Born in the USA on 45 – or, God help you, cassette single – so you could collect all the B-sides (and the picture sleeves, of course), or who paid full price for U2 The Best of 1980-1990, just so you could have the bonus limited edition B-side compilation. Otherwise, these sorts of releases dot the landscape where obsessives build giant vinyl houses and erect external hard drives the size of missile silos, wherein they amass impossible collections of MP3s. To infinity, and beyond.

Peace, Love And Anarchy is an outstanding collection of, as the title says, rarities, B-sides and demos, and hopefully the first of multiple volumes of unreleased Todd Snider music from Oh Boy Records, John Prine’s label and Snider’s home for half of the eight albums he’s put out since his 1994 debut, Songs for the Daily Planet. Prior to The Devil You Know, released in 2006 on New Door (Universal) and voted one of the best albums of 2006 by Rolling Stone, NPR, No Depression and Blender, Snider released four well-regarded albums on Oh Boy, including Happy to Be Here (2000), New Connection (2002), Near Truths and Hotel Rooms Live (2003) and East Nashville Skyline (2004). Other than That Was Me: The Best of Todd Snider 1994 to 1998, released by Hip-O in 2005, Peace Love And Anarchy is Snider’s first compilation album. Snider worked with Oh Boy in selecting these songs for Volume 1.

Charm was one of the crucial components of postwar popular music. Listening to popular vocal music from the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, singers like Nat King Cole, Bobby Darin, Blossom Dearie, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra all had charm to burn. When the Beatles first conquered the modern world, charm was the point of the sword each of the Fab Four wielded.

Since the 1970s, however, charm has been an underrated ingredient in popular music, particularly in rock n’ roll and country. Springsteen’s The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle is a charming album, and although he’s made phenomenal records since, none of them possess the charm of this 1973 classic. Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, from 1982, is an absolutely charming album, but there aren’t many charming Steely Dan songs, as lush and precise as so many of them are. Aztec Camera’s first album, High Land, Hard Rain, is also a charmer, as are many of the albums by Roddy Frame compatriots Belle & Sebastian, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and Teenage Fanclub. Whenever Lloyd Cole sings, “it’s just a metaphor, for a burning love” in “Forest Fire” from Rattlesnakes, I still swoon, even after two decades of playing it to death, and the beginning of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” always makes me giggle, even after three decades of hearing it – like Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” it actually makes me think things might be all right, as I hurtle toward 40 in a world gone mad. Ray Davies of the Kinks, of course, yoked charm to the plough of his songwriting, and even in the Eighties he charmed us with gems like “Better Things” or “Art Lover” from Give the People What They Want. Another Brit with charm (and exuberance) in spades is the inestimable Robyn Hitchcock; recent American charmers who come to mind include David Mead, Michael Shelley and Warren Zanes.

 

 

Snider reminds me of Ray Davies on account of his charm, of course, but also for the same reasons he reminds me of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, John Hiatt, Mike Ness, James Taylor and Paul Westerberg – like these gentlemen, he is a songwriter par excellence. Listening to Peace, Love And Anarchy is to hear a craftsman at work; the melodies land like snowflakes, while Snider tosses off perfect, clever rhymes as if he were ashing a cigarette.

Born in 1966, Snider most likely built his record collection throughout the Eighties. While British music was dominated by synth pop in that storied decade (although the Smiths, and later the Stone Roses, would ultimately reinvent British guitar rock), American music enjoyed a renaissance we might never see again. Once the dust of punk settled, it seemed as if everyone in a band was wearing a string tie, even Brian Setzer (on the cover of The Knife Feels Like Justice). This was the era of decidedly American guitar rock played by the Blasters, the BoDeans, Marshall Crenshaw, Cruzados, Tommy Keene, Los Lobos, R.E.M., the Replacements, the Stray Cats and X, and by many lesser-known acts like the Dancing Hoods, the dB’s, the Del-Lords, the Long Ryders, the Raunch Hands, the Rave-Ups and Wire Train, to name only a few bands that released milestone albums during this period. Peter Holsapple, formerly of the dB’s and currently the keyboard player for R.E.M., plays harmonica, dobro, mandolin and steel guitar on two tracks on Peace, Love And Anarchy, “Old Friend” and “Combover Blues.” Snider’s music, even at its country extremes, is rooted in this American post-punk risorgimento, although Snider falls on the country side of the line. If the Replacements had decided to play country music exclusively, instead of once in awhile on masterpieces like “I Will Dare” and “Achin’ to Be,” they might have sounded a lot like Todd Snider. Snider occupies that blurry, wholly American terrain where country, unadorned and without gloss, rocks, and where rock, twangy and earthy, draws as much from the well of country as it can drink.

In a February 1986 interview with David Fricke, some of which is included in the liner notes to the 1997 Reprise 2-disc Replacements compilation, All For Nothing, Westerberg remarked, “See, I think the rock and roll-antic-party thing about the Replacements is what makes our other stuff better and more attractive. If we were solely a band that played stuff like ‘Here Comes A Regular,’ it wouldn’t be unique at all…We can make as much noise as anyone on the planet Earth, but none of those bands can write a song like ‘Swingin’ Party.’” If you line up Peace, Love And Anarchy next to Pleased to Meet Me, “Missing You” is Snider’s “Skyway,” while “Cheatham Street Warehouse” – the album closer and the only song to feature a full band performance – is the record’s “Alex Chilton.” Like Westerberg, Snider can run the gamut from teary, acoustic confessionals to slamming rockers. And much like John Hiatt, Joe Henry, Aimee Mann and Westerberg, Snider’s voice is more about personality and intelligence than it is about pitch, more about texture than it is about octaves.

It’s funny that an odds and sods collection should sound so cohesive, but Peace, Love And Anarchy feels completely of a piece, like a proper album. It sounds in some ways like a front porch hootenanny or the morning after a big house party, when your best friend, a phenomenal talent, picks up an acoustic guitar, sits down on the couch and plays an hour’s worth of music for everyone who stayed over. It’s country music for people steeped in rock, the kind of music that makes you want to reach back to Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, George Jones (one of Lloyd Cole’s idols), Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker (one of Snider’s idols) and Hank Williams, even back to some of the seminal country albums of the Eighties like Steve Earle’s Guitar Town and Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. The depth and quality of Snider’s songs on Peace, Love And Anarchy make me think I missed something, that the country portion of my record collection is unforgivably thin.

Peace Love And Anarchy opens with “Nashville,” a stoned salvo fired westward across the Cumberland River at Nashville’s modern country music machine: “there ain’t nothing wrong with Nashville…we’re making country music history…there ain’t nothing wrong with a-rolling in cash-ville.” Prior to the final verse, Snider sings, “…even if all of the songs have gotta stop like this,” then stops the music for a moment, in a clever spoof on modern country song arrangements. “Nashville,” much like the next song, “Feel Like I’m Falling in Love,” and one of six songs on the album to feature Snider accompanied only by himself on guitar, has the rough-and-tumble feel of a song he might make up on the spot, sitting on that couch in your living room. “Feel Like I’m Falling in Love” is a meat-and-potatoes acoustic number featuring an urgent vocal performance over simple, rhythmic chords. Snider sings, “I’m not afraid of my heart breaking. I have paid that price before. All my mistakes, they add up to nothing…” This is a collection of songs about having been around the block.

 

 

“Missing You” is simple and lovely, just Snider’s raspy, earnest vocal and his acoustic guitar, the strings more picked than strummed, evocative of Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” from Blood on the Tracks, and early James Taylor and other early Seventies singer-songwriters, all of whom drew much from the gentler, more contemplative colors in the country music palette. “I can’t help wonder out loud, if we’d have ever worked it out. I’d like to make amends, for anything I might’ve said back then. I can’t help wondering out loud…” This is a grown-up sing-along, a diary entry comprising the sort of regrets one feels when considering old loves and whatever youthful missteps might have destroyed them. In the last line of the song, Snider sings, “I’m gonna pull down the shades, and play some old songs,” resigned and perhaps a bit relieved to have, if nothing else, the solace of music.

In “Old Friend,” sung as a duet with Jack Ingram and the first of the full-band songs on Peace Love And Anarchy, Snider sings, “we can’t live forever, it’s here and now or never. You know one way or another we will always make it through…” over the melodious notes of Holsapple’s steel guitar and Paul Buchigani’s steady tambourine. Continuing in this middle-aged mise-en-scene, “Combover Blues,” featuring most of the same personnel on “Old Friend,” is a lament for thinning hair and midlife’s encroaching impatience and frailty, and it brims with classic Snider charm: “When I was a kid, I never thought, that I would end up with what I’ve got. I thought I would get to keep more than I would lose. But now this mirror reminds me everyday, that life might not work out that way. I got the combover blues.” In the second verse, Snider leaves the mirror and confesses his encroaching cantankerousness and heightened sense of mortality: “It just blows my mind to hear myself say, God, what’s the matter with these kids today, this crap they play’s just way too loud and rude…rolling a joint used to put me in the mood to come back but now it makes me think I’m having a heart attack.”

“I Will Not Go Hungry,” another acoustic performance, is a quiet spiritual in the vein of “Amazing Grace,” while “Stoney,” a road-weary Jerry Jeff Walker song, is a perfect fit for Snider’s hoarse, drawling vocal and another example of Snider’s eclecticism and the overall eclecticism of Peace Love And Anarchy.

If a collection of rarities, B-sides and demos can have an emotional center, that song on Peace, Love And Anarchy is “Some Things Are,” a song about a father taking his sick son to a pediatrician “on the other side of town.” Obviously, things aren’t right, as later in the song Snider sings, “he met the boy’s mama when they were both young…together they weathered what hardships came, but this kind of trouble it wasn’t the same.” It’s ominous, direct and sad, and throughout the song Snider’s voice sounds as if it’s going to break. “Some Things Are” is a showcase for everything salient about Snider’s craftsmanship, especially his storytelling and the kind of descriptive lyrics few songwriters can provide within the structure of a popular song: “’The doctor will see you now’ is not what that means, it’s a smaller room with even less magazines, where you wait around another hour it seems, like an hour…” Who else writes like this? The storytelling frays in the final verse, when the father decides to leave the examination room before the doctor tells him the results of the test: “wait doc, let me pay you and go, I don’t need to know…” It’s not plausible, but the chorus is sad and wise, and it’s sung so urgently by Snider on its last go-round that his narrative wobble is easily forgiven: “All the days go by, no real point in wondering why, you can’t undo what’s done no matter how hard you try. Some things are the way they are ‘cause some things are the way they are. Love will be enough.” And then again, finally, half-sung, half-spoken, “love will be enough.”

 

 

“Deja Blues,” written with Billy Joe Shaver, is a straight-up acoustic blues song, another front porch sing-along and the flip side of the stomping “Barbie Doll,” which Snider wrote with Ingram. “East Nashville Skyline,” which wasn’t included on the album East Nashville Skyline, is a breezy paean to Snider’s current home and reminiscent of Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.” It’s untroubled, sailing along on Lloyd Green’s pedal steel guitar and Snider’s harmonica, a song for afternoon beers: “So much for money, so much for bed, who needs the trouble, man there’s always a gig at the Café. The Radio Café.” “From a Rooftop,” a companion piece to “East Nashville Skyline,” is a brief love poem to East Nashville and its music scene, which Snider recites over acoustic guitars, harmonica and humming; the song closes with Snider and Peter Cooper humming the melody from “East Nashville Skyline.”

Peace Love And Anarchy concludes with the full-blast stomp of “Cheatham Street Warehouse,” a twangy Springsteen-meets-the Stones salute to the legendary San Marcos, TX nightclub. It’s loud, garage-y rock n’roll, and a pleasant surprise after a mostly acoustic collection. Like many of Snider’s songs, it stays with you, even when you’re a few city blocks removed from your stereo.

Peace, Love And Anarchy is a dense, interesting and winning overview of just about everything Snider does well, a housecleaning worthy of your participation if you’re a Todd Snider fan in any way (and if you love rock n’ roll, this is compulsory). It’s another stellar installment of Snider’s ongoing ragged glory.

Long may he wave.