Besides being difficult to search on the Internet, The The are one of England’s greatest unknown (to most U.S. ears) rock exports of the last two decades. The creative genius behind the band is Matt Johnson, who has been the sole constant member of the band. Johnson is a great lyricist who can pen songs that would be equally at home in a David Lynch film or coming out your favorite honky tonk jukebox. Johnson is not afraid to tackle tough subjects in his lyrics, such as globalization, war, disease, and sex.
Definitely sex. More than a few The The songs have been banned from radio in the U.K. due to their blunt approach to sex. Remember that time you and the better half were doing yard work for a couple hours in mid-July and you were both filthy with mulch and sweat and at one point some unexplainable thing led to you giving each other ‘the look?’ The ‘Shower-be-damned-let’s-go-to-the-garage’ look? That’s how Matt Johnson writes about sex.
It’s that lyrical attitude that may have led to his decision to record Hanky Panky – an entire album of Hank Williams, Sr. covers. Johnson’s parents owned a pub in London’s East End, and he grew up seeing acts like John Lee Hooker and was deeply interested in great songwriters like Robert Johnson and Hank Williams. The link between Johnson and Williams is palpable. Even though they come from different eras and nations, they both sing and write about loneliness, heartache, sex, and the possibility of redemption.
Johnson and the rest of this album’s roster of The The (D.C. Collard, Eric Schermerhorn, Jim Fitting, ‘Hollywood’ Dorsey, and Reverend McLeod) keep most of Williams’ melodies the same, but Johnson’s unique voice and The The’s unique style almost turn Williams’ songs into their own. The album opens with “Honky Tonkin”,’ and it immediately lets you know that The The is not going to shy away from the dark back roads of Williams’ mind. It’s a haunting song that sounds like something Anton Chigurh was listening to in a stolen car in No Country for Old Men. “My Heart Would Know” is turned into a rousing foot-tapper with Collard’s Hammond B-3 organ adding a great touch. ‘Weary Blues from Waitin” is a stripped-down thing of beauty with nothing but Johnson’s voice and Schermerhorn’s acoustic guitar. “I Saw the Light” is a fine example of Johnson’s love of songs about possible redemption for a corrupted soul. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is a bare bones kiss-off/middle finger to anyone who has ever jilted anyone else. “I Can’t Get You Off of My Mind” showcases the great duo of Schermerhorn’s guitar and Fitting’s harmonica.
The stand-out track is the band’s take on “I’m a Long Gone Daddy.” This song alone is worth the price of the entire album. Johnson and crew take Williams’ original and turn it into the sound of a rattlesnake sliding across the boot of a nineteen-year-old Daisy Dukes-wearing hitch-hiker whose shadow may or may not have horns and a forked tail.
The album ends with an audio clip of Hank Williams telling us he’ll see before long ‘if the creeks don’t rise.’ Sadly, the creeks rose for Williams on January 01, 1953 when he died in the back of his chauffeur-driven Cadillac. Thanks to Matt Johnson and The The, however, we have a great testimony to the power of his songwriting and legacy.
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Nik Havert is a writer, DJ, harmonica player, martial arts instructor, comic book publisher, crime fighter,music lover, cult movie enthusiast, and modern day Renaissance man. He hopes to shark cage dive sometime in the next few years and enjoys travel and good natural root beer.
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