The Buzzrats

John Train

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John Train Review

by Thom Jurek

On their third outing, Ann Arbor, MI's, Buzzrats invoke the ghost of Phil Ochs' broken, suicidal alter ego, and carry the listener into mythical spaces archetypically rendered in the gaseous hazes and swampy bogs of the American musical landscape. It's not like they haven't been doing this all along, but on John Train, the ghosts are a little more pervasive; they've tossed off their sheets in order to display the wounds they carry with them beyond the pale. These ghosts are simply traces and shards of American music from the 18th century onward (from saloon music to the music of "the folk" to popular songs from the 19th Century to gutternsipe rock and blues) that have been laid waste by cultural shifts and colorations that have rendered their particular wailing howls useless. And that's what draws Stephen Leggett and the rest of the rats to them. These songs -- 18 of them -- meander along the dark paths, looking for footprints of those who came before, but they reject any modern day notions of O Brother Where Art Thou?-ist revivalism. On the opener, "Damascus, Virgina," Leggett tells a good old-fashioned harrowing, forlorn tale while being accompanied by slippery guitars, shimmering keyboards, and minimal percussion. His voice sounds like he's feeling his way though the story, as he sings and cracks in all the right places, allowing the listener the room to disappear inside his narrative. On "Willie Saw the Wheel," electric guitars churn and lilt, with a basic 4/4 rhythm to support the vocal. But it's not that simple -- the story is rich in metaphor and metonymy, and with every lyrical invention, the musical narrative counters. When the marimbas enter on the next track, "Wake the Town," and Leggett's voice slips out of the ether covered in echo and other effects, the sad dream takes hold completely. There are musical precedents for this music, from Stephen Foster to Tim Hardin and even Jonathan Richman, but the most evocative thing about John Train is that this is the Neil Young record -- à la On the Beach -- that Mr. Young no longer has the vision or the guts to make. A quick listen to "Slim on the Corner" reveals a shell game impressionism of both early rock & roll and doo wop while hiding its intentions in a restless country shuffle. "Same Old Beautiful Train" is a country-rock screamer; it's all shambolic and stumbles. The epochal darkness of "Carry Me Over the Tide" brings the voices of everybody from Harmonica Frank and Leadbelly to a repentant Dock Boggs, all of which are firmly tethered and confined within and subservient to the grain of Legget's own. The disc ends with a stomping rocker of distorted six-string saw-blading, and country/bluegrass cadences that cross the Band, Jason & the Scorchers, and Crazy Horse. It's a joyous, cacophonous finish, but the echo in Legget's voice is more convincing of something else: That rooting through the past as a way to express the present may not be "reportorially" sound, but it always turns up the unexpected and instructive, something Ochs, if not John Train, understood implicitly.

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