Sum of Their Parts

With a twisted vision, Reverend Glasseye and His Wooden Legs get a leg up on the competition

In the widely anthologized short story "Good Country People," Flannery O'Connor tells the tale of an overeducated spinster with an artificial leg who tries to seduce a traveling Bible salesman. A self-declared atheist, she coaxes the seemingly innocent faith-peddler up into a hayloft -- only to discover that his childlike fascination with her prosthetic limb exceeds any desire to get her into the missionary position. Then he steals her leg. Before descending the ladder, the slick charlatan proudly proclaims, "One time I got a woman's glass eye this way." Christ on a crutch!

As antique-collectors of the strange and grotesque, Reverend Glasseye and His Wooden Legs embody the O'Connoresque essence of an American-gothic potboiler. Skillfully combining Southern gospel, German cabaret, Jewish klezmer, jump jazz, country music -- everything and the kitchen sink -- into a dark and violent carnival ride, the Boston-based group conjures the bygone spirit of the circus midway. The sound is a somnambulist's nightmare populated by hermaphrodites, scorpion-swallowers and unlicensed practitioners of bloodless surgery. Bandleader Reverend Adam F. Glasseye (who used to call himself "Ignatius" and prefers to keep his offstage identity confidential) sees the value not only in theatrics but in colorful -- and deliberate -- falsehoods.

"Misinformation is a beautiful, beautiful thing," the twentysomething huckster says. "There's something romantic about shamming people. There's also something very influential about corruption that generally makes the best music: the turn of the century, with the great bamboozling salesmen; the franticness that came with the Great Depression. Time periods with the most social downfall usually lead to the best musical commentary. The trash days of London in the '70s brought about punk rock. I'm looking forward to what we're about to get into now. We're headed toward a period of some sort of change in music, I imagine."

For the time being, Glasseye and company plunder the past, turning an amalgamation of ethnic styles into a buzzing hive of American junkyard music. Black River Falls, the band's 2001 debut on Coo-Coo Bird Records, erupts with the unrestrained hysteria of no fewer than eighteen percussive devices manned by drummer Timothy Maher and the clatter-happy Richard Cuneo; bassist Dennis Maher and guitarist Deacon Piet Blaise Masone steer the melodic hurlyburly through a cartoonish landscape punctuated by trumpeter Jon O'Than Wobesky's hard-charging brass. At any given moment, all of the members are playing more than one instrument, shouting or yodeling; when not pounding the figurative pulpit and blustering like a loon, Glasseye strums an acoustic guitar, mandolin or banjo. As a collective, the players more than live up to Coo-Coo Bird's curious motto -- "The tree or the forest fire," which, according to Glasseye, simply means "roots music or the furthest thing from it."

"I call what we do vaudeville," he says. "I picked up a theremin to replace the saw, live, because the saw is excruciating to mike and have the audience hear it -- but, then, I can't really play the theremin and sing at the same time. It's a quandary."

Whatever form his band's lineup takes, Glasseye has crafted a world inside his songs that's consistent with their patchwork quilt of styles. Voices speak from beyond the grave in Black River Falls -- like those from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology -- spanning time, place and common logic. In varying bits of revisionist history, Glasseye resurrects some of mankind's more notorious characters: George Custer, Jesse James, Ho Chi Minh, Cain, Abel and John Wilkes Booth, among others. Even Aleister Crowley drops by for a game of Pick Up Sticks in the county jail ("Paddywagon Turban"). On the album's title cut, a nameless fisherman's daughter collapses in church while Glasseye spews the album's grimmest batch of lyrics: "The funeral was filled with grief/Her mother made not a sound/No one could hear her bite her fingers off/Buried alive underground." And the murder ballad "Seven Little Girls" borrows from one of tabloid history's most horrific sagas to date -- that of a golden-haired child beauty queen and whatever monster took her from her loving parents: "Tell little JonBenét/It's almost Christmas Day/And the chimney needs a sweeping/Before the dear can play."

Taking cues from Jello Biafra, among others, Glasseye discovered the pros and cons of performing loud music. "I played in a lot of punk bands while going through puberty," he says, "and it had some damaging effects. I'm trying to fix my voice so I have something to sing with by the time I'm in my forties. I've been working on it by trying to sing in a higher range, to get away from the Tom Waits comparisons. Being compared to Tom Waits is one of the worst things that can ever happen to you. It's too much of a pigeonhole. If you play country, you're called country. If you play punk rock, you're called punk rock. If you play anything strange and have a gravelly voice, you're called Tom Waits. Being called genres of music is quickly ignorable, but being compared to a human being directly is somewhat defacing. I'd rather be compared to Tiny Tim."

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