Volume eight of the Sun City Girls' ongoing (and sometimes spotty) Carnival Folklore Resurrection series, The Handsome Stranger is one of the most fully developed CFR installments to date, and one of the few that feels like an album as opposed to a collection of archival digs. Following in the tradition of the love-‘it-or-hate-‘it Dante's Disneyland Inferno double-CD (and arguably bettering it), this album centers on the words and vocals of drummer Charles Gocher, whose phlegm-soaked dirty-old-man delivery that will have many listeners thinking of Tom Waits. However, the lyrics here -- which seem to sketch out a sort of surrealist mini-opera involving John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, sodomy, and the afterlife (in hell, of course) -- are enough to make Mr. Waits seem normal and conservative in comparison. Througout, the Bishop brothers echo Gocher's puzzling, often profane (and at times deeply hilarious) rants with a wide range of evocative musical backdrops, ranging from saloon-style piano playing ("Isle of Spree/Foley's Halloween") and swinging faux-lounge jazz ("Grease That Lighting Bolt") to knowingly maudlin easy-listening piano prettiness ("The Calcium Kiss") and rickety, uneasy drone ambiance (the vocally climactic title track). Rick Bishop sticks to piano through most of the album, and does a fantastic job, putting his own imprint on the various genre references and making one wish he would emphasize this instrument more often. Amazingly enough, this material was all improvised in the studio before being edited and tinkered with later to bring the album into its final state. Unlike some of the Girls' recordings, there is a great sense of continuity to this album, resulting in a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual tracks. The recording quality itself is also great (again, not always the case with the Girls). The Handsome Stranger may confound listeners who only appreciate the Girls more song-oriented psychedelic/Middle-Eastern/ethno-rock leanings, but those who are willing to follow the band out into the tall weeds without regard for such genre considerations, this is a must-hear.
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