When I used to manage a comic book shop I was friends with a guy named Tim. He used to come into my shop and hang out while we talked about comics. One day when he stopped by I happened to be playing ‘London Calling’ by the Clash and Tim, who was a huge fan, gave me my first lesson on the truth of Joe Strummer.
Tim was a huge Strummer guy and told me about his solo stuff and his work with the Mescaleros. Years later, I am a Joe Strummer zealot, heck this blog is named after a song of his. Suffice to say Tim helped me on my musical journey and has a weirdly outsized role in my musical biography.
At the time Tim was in a band called ‘Swingline’. They were a local rock band with a sound somewhere between The Clash and U2. He invited me to a show they were playing at the University of Delaware. A few friends and I went out to the student union to see them play and ended up going to the wrong spot, so we only caught the end of the show. Afterward, Tim introduced us to the band which included guitarist Joe Castro.
Not long after that, the comic book shop closed and I lost contact with him, even as those chats about music stuck with me.
Fast forward about fifteen years to a Joe Strummer Foundation benefit at a tiny venue near me called Kennett Flash. The show featured a number of bands doing Clash and Joe Strummer covers. It was a fun show, but the act that stood out for me was Joe Castro. At the time I hadn’t made the connection to Swingline, although I thought I recognized Tim in the crowd. Castro came out and opened his set with ‘Long Shadow’. Long Shadow was Strummer’s tribute to Johnny Cash on his posthumous album ‘Streetcore’. It was a cool choice I thought and since most of the performers that night did Clash stuff, it stuck out to me since it was a Mescaleros era song.
In hindsight, it feels like that performance of Long Shadow presaged ‘Come On Angels’ the marvelous new rockabilly album from Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen. Strummer was singing about how Johnny Cash cast a long shadow of influence and it certainly shows with this record. It’s not just Cash who’s legacy can be heard here, but folks like Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Bob Dylan, Graham Parsons, and yes, Joe Strummer as well.
The album opens with the sinister surf-guitar groove-laden “There Are No Secrets Here.” The song is the kind of tune that plays in your head when you drive darkened California highways with a cigarette dangling from your lips and a femme fatale on your mind. It conjures up shady bars filled with even shadier customers. As an album opener, it’s damn near perfect. I’m always a sucker for mission statement songs and this one does that in spades. It tells you you’re in for a throwback kind of album with a classic sound and dangerous grin on its face. The star of the song is bassist H00V3r and drummer Dallas who’s casual but driving rhythm makes it impossible to not tap your foot along.
The second song on the album happens to be my personal favorite, the eponymous “Come On Angels.” A bright and shiny as “There Are No Secrets Here” is dark and dangerous. The song opens with an acoustic guitar that sounds like an echo of “Cherry Cherry” by Neil Diamond with and is swiftly followed by electric guitar coming directly from “Blue Sky” by the Allman Brothers. The combination makes for such a clean sound that you can’t help but smile at the dichotomy of the lyrics singing about drinking whiskey with angels. Guitarist Mike Stingle and vocalist/guitarist Joe Castro knock this one out of the park. It was a dynamite choice as one of the lead singles for the album.
The train rhythm and classic country sound do real justice next on the cover of Ted Hawkins’s classic “Cold and Bitter Tears”. The album falls under the heading of ‘Rockabilly’ and I guess that’s accurate but like most labels, it doesn’t really tell the whole story, but it feels pretty right with this one. There is just a classic sound to the whole enterprise that fits this song like a glove. It’s catchy with it’s “Hey Porter” drums and Sun record guitars. Ted Hawkins had such a weird career and life story that he’s not particularly well known, so it’s always cool when something like this comes along. He’s worth hunting down and is a good first step on that journey.
The 50’s crooner opening to “Whispering Hell (The Finish Line)” belies the somewhat dark and angry lyric. Castro sings “your forgiveness, soaked in gasoline” and what a great image that is! This is a fun near-ballad that reminded me in a way of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s habit of hiding hatred behind happy-sounding guitars.
“For Every Setting Sun” slows everything down for a soulful five minutes and eight seconds. This song is really a showcase for the world-weariness in Castro’s vocals. It’s a swaying tempo ballad with jazzy drums and echoey guitars, but it’s the singing that’s center stage here. Every word is soaked in whiskey, memories, and regret, but as the song goes on you can start to feel a hazy beam of late-afternoon sunlight shining through a dusty barroom window. By the end, the singer is still looking down at a drink, but he’s thinking that maybe instead of half-empty, the glass is instead half-full.
The longest song on the album is “June (90 Degrees)” which feels like a hearty slice of Nick Cave. It’s a groovy sermon on good and evil and everything in between. It would be impossible to sing this without a sly grin on your face and an even slyer grin in your heart. Nick Cave always walked the line between heaven and hell in his music and persona and Joe Castro captures that same vibe wholeheartedly, right down to the little woo’s late in the song. The entire album bounces between the two and having “June (90 Degrees)” right in the middle is a masterstroke of sequencing.
“Why Not Just Give In This Time?” bounces along next, asking the kind of questions we all ask about our relationships after a while. If you close your eyes it’s not hard to imagine this tune and its jumpy toe-tapping nature coming from Buddy Holly or Ritchie Valens. It’s the kind of song that gets played 2nd or 3rd in a setlist to get everybody up on the dance floor.
The Spanish vibe in “Better Hold Tight” helps it stand out on the album. It’s a toe-tapper that makes me smile every time I hear it. “It was never really us vs them, only you vs yourself” sings Castro on the back-half of the song and it sums up the tale of woe and regrets that the lively guitar surrounds. The album’s formula really shines through here. Castro and the Gravamen are really good at what they do and this showcases so much of it.
“Angeline” feels like a haunted companion to “There Are No Secrets Here.” It goes back and forth between a ghostly downbeat and lively upbeat portions that slide easily into the duality that runs through the entire album. It’s a weird song that makes me think of the horror movies I watch for my podcast. It’s a song with a lot of nuances that will take a little while to get to know.
The final song on the album is “You’ve Got It All (So What are You Looking For?).” As much as “There Are No Secrets Here” opens the album with a mission statement, “You’ve Got It All” closes it with a benediction. “If you’re feeling alone, why don’t you bring it back home?” Castro sings and it might be the central question for the whole album. It’s a great way to close out the album, with cool-as-a-cucumber drums, rockabilly guitars, and a casually judgemental baseline. The song closes with the sounds of a city as life rolls along and left me with the image of a man walking out of a dingy dive bar and getting on with things.
Top to bottom I really enjoyed this album. Each song feels like it could be a character in a Raymond Chandler novel and taken together they tell the kind of story that sticks in your head for a while, rattling around in moments when you’re left to your own thoughts. I had been listening to the first three songs for a while since they had been released prior to the full album, so coming into it I had some idea of what to expect and was still taken off guard but the depth and breadth of the music here. It’s the kind of multi-genre album that feels vibrant and classic at the same time. The production by Brian McTear at Miner Street Recordings in Philadelphia is top-notch too.
I do most of my writing late at night when things are dark and quiet, and this album feels like it’s going to take up residence on my turntable frequently for those sessions. There are a lot of stories lurking in the late hours, and this collection of 10 songs could provide a great soundtrack to most of them.