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Angel Dean and Sue Garner - Pot Liquor

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Artist: Angel Dean and Sue Garner

Album: Pot Liquor

Label: Diesel Only

Review date: Jun. 30, 2004

After working on the artwork for several Yo La Tengo releases, engineering for Rick Rizzo and Tara Key, singing backup for Leroy Gomez, and releasing her own material on Thrill Jockey, Sue Garner somehow found the time to hook up with old friend Angel Dean for Pot Liquor. The two worked together in the early 1980s in the Last Roundup, and this album, with its greasy Appalachian title, Michael Hurley cover, and photos of the two huddled up to country music's rhinestone demigod Porter Wagoner, is a logical continuation of an old theme.

It seems the only place to find honest sentiment these days is on independent releases such as Pot Liquor. The opener “In the Shell” is right out of the mountains of North Carolina, stripped bare and twangy, the Carter Family stumbling in two-part harmony. It features a solid breakout on fiddle (strangely billed as a violin in the liner notes). "Old Graveyard in the Woods" feels so much like a country song on a mission that old Ira Hayes might even prick his ears up.

But by the time "Wider World" opens up, the album sounds more like Victoria Williams than the Carter Family. And that would probably sound great at Mountain Stage. But when the backwoods "all around have a fragrance of pine / you can hear a pin drop most of the time" it becomes apparent that these backwoods are not from the holler.

Pot Liquor is an album that should fall squarely in place with the likes of Freakwater (and Janet Bean), as well as pre-Jack White Loretta Lynn and, of course, June Carter and family. But “Rose of the Desert” evokes Nashville, and the hooky twang of the 1980s that these artists are railing against. And “Sand Bar” aligns itself with Jimmy Buffett’s more country offerings on his 1982 release Somewhere Over China, a questionable move at best. As cute as their obligatory Michael Hurley cover (“I Still Could Not Forget You There”) is, it doesn’t measure up to the canned humor of John Prine and Alice Dement. And billing it as a small label offering doesn’t erase the fingerprints of The Highway Men and Reba. Pot Liquor is redeemed a bit by its closing track, “Morning Blaze,” a song with subtle spiritual strains and wonderful organ drones that evoke the ghosts of some of the greatest.

All of this paradigm shifting from old-timey bluegrass to 1980s infusion to late 90s Drag-City-goes-rural begs the question: is Pot Liquor a country album? While many of the familiar trappings are in evidence, it would be foolish to label it as such. It is much more likely that Dean and Garner are using genre in a more unconscious way, exploring their own interpretations of established musical modes of expression through the expectations demanded by familiar kinds of songs. The dominant strain throughout the album is country. And a re-invention of the genre is unquestionably a noble pursuit. But it is precisely the intellectual framework of their creative expression which contains the seeds of that which undermines Garner and Dean. Certainly the two didn’t attempt to create a sound like Dolly Parton or Jimmy Buffett, but there is a little too much of Porter Wagoner’s greatest TV moments in their end result. Even a song with a title as loaded as “Barn” ultimately feels too much like a forced county fair. Dean and Garner, like the thin man from West Plains, Missouri, are undermined by predictability and sentimentality.

By Jacob Knabb

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