Album Review: John Doe – Fables in a Foreign Land

You already know John Doe. He’s part of the legendary ‘80’s punk band X, for starters. He’s also an actor, poet, author – and now a folk musician! During the pandemic he and some fellow artists finally had a chance to slow down a little. But slowing down got Doe thinking – what if you really embraced that mindset all the way?

It started with weekly visits with upright bassist Kevin Smith of Willie Nelson’s band. The two would just jam on Smith’s patio, playing just to play. Pretty soon the noodling sessions also involved drummer Conrad Choucroun, and The John Doe Folk Trio was born.

Doe was enamored with the creation process. “I guess Fables in a Foreign Land is my version of folk music,” he explained, “it started by being sick of musicians that play too much and having to orchestrate and arrange songs. What if it was just less?” He took that challenge to heart, grabbing an acoustic guitar and going back to good ol’ fashioned singer-songwriter storytelling.

It wasn’t long before they had an album’s worth of material and needed a place to record. Doe sought out Spoon drummer Jim Eno and the album was recorded in his studio, as raw as possible. Both vocal and instrumental parts were done in one sitting with no do-overs and only minimal editing between takes. At the end of it all they had 13 songs and their first album, Fables in a Foreign Land.

Lead single and album opener “Never Coming Back” sweeps us right up in a dusty whirlwind of old-timey goodness. The gentle susurrus of a rolling train primes us by taking us back to a simpler mindset. Then Doe’s acoustic guitar comes onto the scene with a vengeance, backed by Choucroun and Smiths’ minimal accompaniment. Country singer Terry Allen also contributed a few lyrics.

A story begins to form but the pieces are fragmented. Ma and Pa have been killed in a fire, there are “bad dreams in the day,” and things are generally hopeless. This is made official when Doe croons, “I’m going far away and I’m never coming back; to the darkening of light or the memory of that night” in a vaguely Nick 13 sort of way. According to Doe, the song is the perfect opener. “It begins a journey without comfort, where you are running from something dark that is approaching fast. You can’t go back because there is nothing to go back to.”

Check out the music video for “Never Coming Back:”

“Down South” is anthemic while being so stripped down you can hear the guitar being set on the floor at the end. Doe’s vocals are achingly beautiful here as he sings of tragedy on lines like, “they took his sunshine away” and “he calls out in his sleep for the soul he can’t keep; in the deep piney woods he lost all that was good.” The chorus is sad and simple but no less momentous: “Look at that sky, look at them clouds; I hope it don’t rain.” The gradual build of the song and violin accents take us ever deeper into the world of olden times Doe builds.

The 1800’s ethos continues on the slow, plodding “See the Almighty,” where Doe’s protagonist questions his faith in the face of hardship. “Alone and forsaken upon the open plain; the sky may open wide; He may not provide,” Doe laments, backed by gentle drums, mellow bass, and subtle violin. His voice takes on a Morrissey quality in moments of this song.

“Guilty Bystander” and “El Romance-0” both border on conjunto, managing to work in accordion (played by John Baca of Texmaniacs) and Spanish lyrics written by Louie Perez of Los Lobos. “Guilty Bystander” is an upbeat, jolly little song that is musically at odds with its brutal imagery of a slave whipping. The message is progressive, though. “Who do you serve?” Doe sings, “you serve yourself; open your eyes and save someone else.”

According to Doe, “El Romance-0” came to him in a dream. It’s a plucky country-Tiger-Armyish song about a “mentiroso” who “said that he knew what he did not know” and “told me he went where he would not go.” Perez adds throaty Spanish lyrics to liven up the ditty – rolling his r’s on lines like, “well I love la verdad.” The subject of the song is so full of himself he believes he can choose his own nickname,” Doe explains, “we all know you can’t do that.”

Check out the music video for “El Romance-0:”

Between the two Latin-inspired tracks falls “There’s a Black Horse” – a classic dark folk song about death. The recording crackles like an old vinyl record, adding an extra layer of dusty authenticity to the endeavor. Doe gently strums his acoustic guitar, singing of “a black horse in a photograph,” “the shadow of the blackbirds,” and the extra ominous, “the scaffold is already done.” “Feel like I could live forever,” he sings, “forever hasn’t happened yet.”

“Missouri” is a warm, mellow acoustic song with a slight spaghetti western vibe at times. Doe’s guitar strings rattle and his voice rises to great heights and plummets to thunderous lows as he presents a scene of Depression-era Midwestern hardships. There are broken bottles, broken hands, and iron jail bars. “Let me down easier than slow,” he sings, and “when I die let me go.”

We get a little C.W. McCall action on the quirky, jazzy talk-sung “The Cowboy and the Hot Air Balloon,” which depicts a cowboy being swept away by a hot air balloon only to befriend a grizzly bear who offers to show him “the kingdom where the turquoise water falls.” It’s an allegory about death, but it’s certainly a fun one. Our protagonist is in remarkably good spirits when he “smelled the earth and tasted the sky as he left the human race.”

“After the Fall” tells the story of white settlers pillaging the New World through vivid imagery. Lyrics like “they lost the battle but continued the fight” speak of the displaced Native Americans while “to a generous land came thirsty people; they drank the rivers and left the fish to die, then cried they were hungry” depict the greed of the early colonists.

“Destroying Angels” is a perfectly executed murder ballad – the idea of which came from none other than Shirley Manson of Garbage. (“When Shirley Manson says, ‘you wanna write a murder ballad?’ you don’t say, ‘oh no, I couldn’t do that! I’m busy!’” Doe jokes.) Doe’s bandmate Exene Cervenka of X also helped with its creation. This is a fun, upbeat song despite graphic descriptions of discovering a woman’s body buried in snow and lines like, “I killed my angel dead.” In other words, it’s a great murder ballad! And bonus points for the murder weapon of choice being “death caps” – poisonous mushrooms.

Check out the music video for “Destroying Angels:”

Doe has a little fun channeling Woody Guthrie on the tongue-in-cheek “Travelin’ So Hard,” which has its protagonist getting liquored up and falling off his horse. But, as Doe sings, “that mare didn’t care one way or the other!”

The heartfelt “Sweetheart” could have been a Gordon Lightfoot song – if the Canadian balladeer had existed in the 1800’s. It’s a love song for sure, but jail time is involved and we’re told that “sweetheart got hurt long ago.”

Album closer “Where the Songbirds Live” sees the end of a long journey. It may be death, or it may simply be reaching the Pacific Ocean after months of travelin’ so hard. The bass takes center stage for the intro, accompanied by brushy drums and emphatically strummed acoustic guitar. “I’m going where the birds sing all night long” has the same energy as Grateful Dead’s “I’m going where the water tastes like wine.” The song conveys the peaceful feeling reaching a destination or arriving at the conclusion to a long-troubling problem imparts.

Fables in a Foreign Land effectively transports us to the not-so-distant past of late 1800’s America. Its characters are all real – even if only partially experienced as snapshots in passing – and it creates the illusion of being a lonely voyager passing through the lives of many on his or her travels. Through this album, we get a sense of the lives of poor farmers, Native Americans, slaves, Midwest outlaws, lying fools, murderous former lovers, and even a weary and overridden horse.

Doe’s minimalistic approach keeps the focus on the poetic lyrics and dressed down acoustic guitar, presenting the music in its purest form. It unfolds like a tapestry – we pop briefly into these bygone lives as if stepping into a stranger’s cabin, dusty and tired, sitting down for a quick drink and some tales before traveling on. It’s not quite a concept album so much as a carefully constructed world for you to explore on your own. And maybe in doing so, you realize we aren’t all that different from these ancient characters.

According to Doe, “all these songs take place in the 1890’s. There’s a lot of sleeping on the ground, a lot of being hungry, a lot of isolation.” He expounds the significance of this. “All of that fits into the kind of isolation and lack of modern stimuli that I think people started rediscovering during pandemic lockdown: realizing as parts of your life start getting taken away, what’s important and what you live for becomes paramount.”

Doe muses on this further, “nowadays, we’re thinking about how they’re tearing down single-family homes and putting up these condos built right to the edge of the property line. That’s fucked up. But I’m sure when they were putting in these ‘50’s subdivisions some of the old ranchers were thinking, ‘isn’t that a bitch? There was beautiful farmland there and they’re just putting a bunch of goddamned houses on it!’”

We all have our moment in time before we become part of someone else’s history. Perhaps someday they’ll write albums about us! In the meantime, Doe leaves us with this: “These songs take place alone, wandering, searching, and hungry accompanied by horses not machines. Ultimately, I hope to send the listener to an unknown place with unpredictable characters and let them all live in that foreign land.”

I’m only now returning from my journey into Doe’s foreign land of the past, wiping the dust off my saddle worn pantaloons and reacclimating to the trappings of modernity. Now it’s your turn to hop in this dark folk time machine!

Fables in a Foreign Land flies the coop on May 20th via Fat Possum Records.

Fans of Nick Cave, Tiger Army, Morrissey, Murder By Death, and folk music of any kind should give this a listen!

Purchase the album here.

Catch John Doe  on tour!

May 19, 2022 – Devil’s Backbone Tavern – Fischer, TX
May 20, 2022 – McGonigel’s Mucky Duck – Houston, TX
May 22, 2022 – Dan’s Silverleaf – Denton, TX
June 14, 2022 – Jammin’ Java – Vienna, VA
June 15, 2022 – City Winery Philadelphia – Philadelphia, PA
June 16, 2022 – TV Eye – Queens County, NY
June 17, 2022 – The Atlantic BKLN – Kings County, NY
June 18, 2022 – Club Passim – Cambridge, MA
June 19, 2022 – Levon Helm Studios – Woodstock, NY (with Marshall Crenshaw)
June 21, 2022 – Music Box Supper Club – Cleveland, OH
June 22, 2022 – The Ark – Ann Arbor, MI
June 24, 2022 – Buskirk-Chumley Theater – Bloomington, IN
June 25, 2022 – Shank Hall – Milwaukee, WI
June 26, 2022 – Old Town School of Folk Music – Chicago, IL
September 9, 2022 – Park City Song Summit – Park City, UT
October 6, 2022 – Mountain Winery – Saratoga, CA
October 7, 2022 – Ivy Room – Albany, CA
October 8, 2022 – Hopmonk Tavern – Novato, CA (with X and Of)
October 9, 2022 – Hopmonk Tavern – Novato, CA (with X and Of)

 

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