Review of Hanky Panky

San Fransisco Chronicle - March 5, 1995

Four Stars


It's been quite an evolution for Matt Johnson who has recorded under the name teh The since 1980. He built a following based on bittersweet love songs with a techo sheen, such as the new wave dance club hits "Uncertain Smile" and "This is the Day." But soon he moved on to the staccato synth-rock shards of "Infected"; the twisted, jarring pastiche of surreal lyrics, lurching from horns and clockwork rhythms that defined "Sweet Bird of Truth"; and the brooding electro-blues of the "Mind Bomb" and "Dusk" albums. Now the British singer-songwriter-musician has expanded on his obsession with the dark underbelly of American culture, first explored on the "Infected" album, with a compelling conceit. "Hanky Panky" is a collection of songs written by the haunted bard of American country music, the late Hank Williams Sr.

Sure, it's a gimmick. Each of the classics chosen for "Hanky Panky" is interpreted with the cracked sensibilities of Johnson and his current crew of backup musicians, including guitarist Eric Schermerhorn and harmonica player Jim Fitting. But it works beyond a doubt. To start off, Johnson reinvents Honky Tonkin'" in perverse The The fashion. It's the sinister, self-destructive side of Williams: The The's "Honky Tonkin'" emphasises the sad and lonely moan of aimless, drunken late-night bar crawling. It's bleary and dizzy, like a vinyl record playing off-center on a turntable.

But some songs are handled in a more conventional way. "Six More Miles" is brief, spare and sad with Williams' plaint from beyond the pale sung by Johnson to the accompaniment of a harmonium. "My Heart Would Know" is given a Dylan-and-the-Band treatment with a rolling organ, but a fuzz-tone guitar solo adds some comtemporary instrumental bite.

Johnson is not a truly great singer, but he is properly emotive for this material. Little snippets such as "If You'll Be a Baby to Me," sung with harmonium backing and nothing else, have a backwoods gospel quality that displays the proper reverence for Williams' lofty stature in the pantheon of popular music.

"I'm a Long Gone Daddy" is as dolorous as a Nick Cave number. The slight hollowness of the vocal productions and creepin' wah-wah guitar that shifts from channel to channel give the arrangement the right destructive edge. This is, after all, a song about a relationship that's gone to hell: "You never shut your mouth, until I blow my top, I'm leavin' now." An anguished harmonica solo from Fitting clinches the deal.

"Weary Blues From Waitin'" is simply Johnson and an acoustic guitar. The songs are so good that they work, whether treated with kid gloves or mangled almost beyond recognition. A half-speed take of "Your Cheatin' Heart" has the sound of a weeklong bender, complete with a slightly out-of-tune upright piano and that mournful harmonica. "There's a Tear In My Beer," another aching lament about love gone wrong, is given theatrical ballad treament. "I Can't Escape From You" starts like a hymn, nearly whispered by Johnson. Soon the band and a quiet chorus of voices bring a country prayer meeting feel to the track, which ends gently with a goodbye from Williams sampled from the archives.

It's interesting to note that Johnson's greatest success is his version of "I Saw the Light," which gets right to the heart of Williams' compulsive tightrope walk between sin and redemption. The slightly abrasive distortion on the lead vocals; the churning bluesy guitars and harmonica; and the funk-and-roll rhythm bring to mind a Texas roadhouse band. Johnson really has left techno behind.

Altough a few of Williams' best-loved songs ("Hey, Good Lookin'," "Jambalaya" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry") didn't make the cut, the album is disturbing in the best way. It celebrates the genius of Williams by letting the listener hear the music filtered through Johnson's modern warp and woof. Of course, the timeless material stands up to anything Johnson can dish out.

In the end, there's not such a great gulf seperating Williams' country-fried, heartland despair from the new world of angst and decay that Johnson addresses in his later work.

-- Michael Snyder


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