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V/A - Smoke That Cigarette: Pleasure to Burn

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Artist: V/A

Album: Smoke That Cigarette: Pleasure to Burn

Label: Bear Family

Review date: May. 12, 2010

Eighty-seven minutes of odes to the almighty cancer stick. That’s tobacco-sprinkled shorthand for this clever and convivial compilation from Bear Family that gathers song-smithing on smoking from Americana sources far and wide, culling mainly from 1940s and 50s country and easy-listening catalogs. This writer was never a slave to the cigarette, save for a single harrowing summer that involved a crew of work release convicts, construction of floating golf course green, and daily electrocutions in the rain cutting massive blocks of foam. A number of the singers in this populous gallery have it much worse and there’s a self-reflexive and often humorous sense of doom to the tales of hopeless addiction and delusion they recount.

Many of the songs mince no words in the way they predictably extol the ephemeral virtues of lighting up and taking a nerves-cooling drag. It’s the ones that run contrary to that marketing-driven mindset that are often the most memorable. Given how pervasive smoking used to be as a cultural pastime, it’s a bit surprising how many of the songs show self-awareness regarding the perils of the habit. Honky Tonk ace Jimmy Martin combines candidness and black lung comedy on the opening “I Can’t Quit Cigarettes,” several of his verses wracked by exaggerated emphysemal coughs. With “Another Puff,” Jerry Reed runs down a satirical stream-of-consciousness monologue to spare acoustic guitar strumming and boot-tapping on his many half-assed attempts to kick.

While most of the cuts root safely in popular song form, there’s still an inviting amount of variety across individual selections. Mary Ford and Les Paul’s “Smoke Rings” is downright creepy in its ethereal mélange of spidery lap steel and narcotized torch song crooning. Belting out a cautionary sermon with his sanctified pulpit bark, Reverend J.M. Gates lambastes what he sees as the bankrupt morality embodied in the “Smoking Woman in the Street” to excited amens from his assembled congregation.

In the context of other tracks, the cigarette becomes a bellwether for relationship ruin or resurrection. Patti Page’s “While A Cigarette Was Burning” equates the longevity of a love affair to the life span of a single Chesterfield while Autry Inaman’s “Does Your Sweetheart Seem Different Lately” dubiously diagnoses relationship friction to a simple physiological incompatibility in cigarette brands. Patsy Cline’s “Three Cigarettes” and Bonnie Guitar’s “Three On A Match” describe nearly identical situations. Cline’s ditty works brilliantly and with haiku-like simplicity in limning lovelorn despair:

“Two cigarettes in an ashtray
My Love and I in a small café
Then a stranger came along
And everything went wrong
Now there’s three cigarettes in the ashtray

I watched her take him from me
And his love is no longer my own
Now they are gone, and I sit alone
And watch one cigarette burn away”

Nicotine’s addictive chemical cousin caffeine also gets a nod in a number of songs. Glen Glenn’s classic “One Cup of Coffee and A Cigarette” and Johnny Ray’s “Coffee and Cigarettes (Thinking it Over)” both speak to the substances’ peanut butter and chocolate-like compatibility. Popular icons like Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee rub elbows with obscure acts like Slim Dusty and Wilf Carter, illustrating the appeal of the topic across the pop music strata. Considered on those grounds, many of the selections could rightly be categorized as novelty numbers. It’s an exhaustive survey that’s hard to consume in a single sitting, but near ideal for road trip consumption.

The packaging pulls out production stops with a digipack case designed to mimic a weathered cigar box and tray card/disc art that shows a kitschy ashtray before use and after. A colorful 55-page booklet contains detailed cultural essays and lyrics to each selection. There’s also a wealth of period photos and propaganda ranging from the “better living through smoking” hokum of the 1950s through the gruesome scare tactics of 1970s public health posters. After presenting both sides of the great smoking debate in song, the compilation caps off with a pair of vintage radio ads that cheekily convey a last word on the subject: “Light ‘em up!”

By Derek Taylor

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