Raven's 2007 two-fer -- kind of a sequel to their previous Paycheck two-fer, 11 Months and 29 Days/Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets -- pairs 1977's Take This Job and Shove It and 1978's Armed and Crazy, adding half of 1981's Mr. Hag Told My Story as a way to push this CD to a generous length of over 75 minutes long. Johnny Paycheck was steadily moving his way up the country charts until 1978, when "Take This Job and Shove It" catapulted him to the top. It was a combination of the right song given to the right singer at the right time, but much of that combination was down to producer Billy Sherrill, who had steadily been smoothing out the rough edges in Paycheck's sound while exaggerating his outlaw stance for almost comical effect. No other song quite captured this blend like "Take This Job and Shove It," which took a David Allan Coe original and twisted it into a cartoon that was appealing because of its exaggeration, not in spite of it. The song became an anthem, propelling the album to number two on the country charts, taking Bobby Braddock's drinking song, "Georgia in a Jug," to number 20 along the way. "Georgia in a Jug" is one of four explicit drinking songs here -- of course the title track has a drinking undercurrent, it just doesn't make it explicit -- the best of which is the bizarre, funny "Colorado Kool-Aid," a tongue-in-cheek talking blues about Coors, Mexicans, and lopped-off ears, but the punny "The Spirits of St. Louis" is plenty funny in its own right. When Johnny's not drinking here, he's singing tales of heartbreak or barroom blues shuffles, both given the signature Sherrill treatment. Sherrill doesn't pump Paycheck up into some cinematic scope the way he did with George Jones, but he does give the underpinning melancholy of "From Cotton to Satin (From Birmingham to Manhattan)" and "The Fool Strikes Again" a comforting lushness, while turning a boogie like "The 4-F Blues" into something so slick that it obscures the nastiness of those four Fs. Compared to the two albums that preceded it, Take This Job and Shove It is just a bit too slick and silly, even glib, in its songs and presentation, but there's a certain joy in its overblown outlaw stance, as Paycheck and Sherrill aren't only in on the joke, they play it straight as if there wasn't a joke in the first place.
If Take This Job and Shove It found Johnny Paycheck and his producer Billy Sherrill flirting with self-parody, its 1978 follow-up Armed and Crazy found the pair going over the edge, creating a glitzy, gaudy, send-up of their previous records. Sherrill starts relying a little on gimmicks -- the choruses of the title track are punctuated by a synthesized wail -- and a whole lot on studio tricks of the day, including fuzztone guitars, Fender Rhodes, electric pianos, and beats that allude to disco. Combine this with a bunch of seriously silly songs -- tracks that merely sound silly, like the slippery shuffle "Leave It to Me" to the sheer goofiness of "Let's Have a Hand for the Little Old Lady" -- and Armed and Crazy veers a little bit too close to comedy, and it's not all intentional. Just because it is silly doesn't mean it's not fun, as there's enough professionalism in Sherrill's craft and Paycheck's delivery to make the album enjoyable, although there are just enough truly good songs reminiscent of their prior peaks -- the stripped-down ballad "Thanks to the Cathouse (I'm in the Doghouse with You)" which, ironically enough, isn't a joke; the slow-burning "Just Makin' Love Don't Make It Love"; the sly self-aggrandizing wit of "The Outlaw's Prayer" -- to make it easy to realize that Armed and Crazy is a shadow of the pair's prior peaks.
The dip in quality of Armed and Crazy makes Raven's addition of five tracks from Mr. Hag Told My Story all the more welcome, as these tunes -- "I Can't Hold Myself in Line," "Yesterday's News Just Hit Home Today," "You Don't Have Very Far to Go," "No More You and Me," and "Someone Told My Story" -- are reminders of how good Paycheck and Sherrill are at their prime, and this is an excellent sampler of the last great album they made together.