“The only thing respected is violence and greed,” Greg Ashley hisses a manifesto on “Goodbye Saint Paul Street,” the pivotal, anger-drenched, blurry-eyed tune which informs and focuses the rest of his story on Pictures of Saint Paul Street (out now). “You’re all so full of shit, so c’est la vie,” he maintains–arranging his sly, pent-up rage with hearty, full-stock melodic cheerfulness. He feverishly weeps over gentrification, as the storm of fiery guitar and piano come to his aid; the backing vocals, too, allow for even more impudence, raw and cunning. Transforming the very real San Pablo Avenue of Oakland into Saint Paul Street, the singer/songwriter (once frontman of the Gris-Gris) frames the destruction of the modern world and the human condition, from the intimacy of his mind and close relationships to grander, more sweeping themes–such as the “police state,” as he rips on “Bullshit Society,” a surprisingly more close-knight composition. “And you’re a debt slave! It’s a police state! You pray for class war, class war, class war, class war,” he later chants, as the arrangement swells and shreds his indignation apart piece-by-piece.
But he can’t just stick his head “in the ground,” as he considers. He must carry the burden of our ruination, sorrow and woeful ignorance on his shoulders, even that of strangers who revel in masochism and other considerations of said bullshit. “Let’s go be vagabonds. I’ll dress in rags, you dress in nothing. Let’s go be jailbirds. Love is a prison that’s good for something,” he determines on “Jailbirds and Vagabonds,” a soft-strung folk song which winds down on debauchery, sex and imbibing of potent elixirs. Reaching into unfathomable depths, Ashley delights in healthy doses of country, jazz and rock, and you often never know which is which–but it is his poetic, frank and sometimes disturbingly hilarious songwriting holding it all together. “All you other fools step aside, the Kind of Fools has arrived. In this constant state of confusion, I try to never make a conclusion who wins the self destruction derby,” he tumbles further into jagged cocksure. Then, “Medication #9” wields a classic, outlaw-country distinction, inching along like Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard did in their heyday. “I’m a failure in my dreams. I can’t remember what they mean,” he broods.
Ashley’s plainspoken tone is far mightier than you might deduce upon first listen. On the reedy “Pursue the Night Life,” he chides “you are a drunk in a river of piss,” while sinking his teeth into restless saloon-style warbles. “We know America’s insane, became an alcoholic for the pain,” he croons on “Six A.M. at the Black and White,” the edges crackling under the weight of living in the United States, a delusional, “Make America Great Again” shitshow. “But I’ll never join them as a slave with a bullshit degree that doesn’t pay. The world’s an ashtray anyways. We couldn’t have it any other way,” he chirps in between feathery guitar and pummeling percussion, almost Tom Petty in swagger and timbre.
Pictures is penetrating and perceptive at its best and moderately entertaining at its worst–but Ashley tears down disillusionments at a remarkable pace and skill. When the current leader of the free world is an incompetent buffoon, dead-set on stripping away every civil liberty, hearing a white man torpedo the establishment is utterly satisfying. “I’m just an idealistic sucker. I’m giving up on dreams. I’m through with you worthless motherfuckers,” he admonishes. C’est la vie, indeed.
Must-Listen Tracks: “Medication #9,” “Self Destruction Derby,” “Six A.M. at the Black and White,” “Bullshit Society”
Grade: 3 out of 5
Photo credit: Sofia Bell