Dire Straights

Washington City Paper | August 4, 2006
At least when it comes to reverence for old music, Greg Graffin’s Cold as the Clay has something in common with Scott H. Biram's Graveyard Shift, but the Bad Religion frontman’s attempt to make a folk record sounds clinical and calculated instead, as if he assumed banjos and lyrics that name-check Civil War vets magically turn any song into an old-timey number. The LP has a few bright spots, but it’s overproduced by Graffin’s Bad Religion bandmate Brett Gurewitz. Surprisingly—folk fetishists’ insistence that modern music referencing pre-WWII material sound as if it were recorded before World War II be damned—this isn’t its downfall. No, Graffin’s problem is heart. He’s gone all Tin Man on us.

The title track, a Graffin original on an effort that’s roughly half old-time numbers, lays bare Cold as the Clay’s failures in microcosm. Here, we find stock images of neglected workers “panning for gold, picking for dimes…wasting away, blood sweat and grime.” The singer’s striving earnestness and overly sensitive vocal delivery, however, are way too self-consciously naive for the political points he’s trying to make. Artists don’t need to be suffering proles to make proletarian music, but they can’t sound like they’re trying too hard, either. The title track, replete with wanky guitars and leaden drums courtesy of the Weakerthans, is vapid, hammy, midtempo sludge—mediocre rock dressed up as folk.

Graffin fares better with other people’s material. His ethereal take on the gospel standard “Talk About Suffering” is as close to haunting as Cold as the Clay gets, perhaps because of fellow would-be folkster Jolie Holland’s able backups, but perhaps because it’s almost impossible to screw up such a powerful song. “Willie Moore” may not be hardcore, but Graffin manages to inject the ballad with a modicum of the energy he brings to his rock band. Even the lilting “Omie Wise,” a drown-the-pregnant-girlfriend scenario, is passable, if only for effusive, Celtic charm.

But then there’s “Rebel’s Goodbye,” the strangest Confederate group-grope since the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which rings as hollow as the album’s opener, the vaguely noirish “Don’t Be Afraid to Run.” There’s just no there here—why is Griffin eulogizing Jefferson Davis? What exactly is he running from? Even “Highway,” by far the best track on Cold as the Clay, lacks folk’s minimalist, yet infinitely expressive lexicon. This meditation on old age loses any poignancy once Graffin belts out a chorus worthy of a freshman psych major: “The highway of denial!” he yelps.

That kind of geeky language mildews Cold as the Clay’s core. Graffin grew up in rural Wisconsin, singing a lot of the standards on this disc, but he seems a lot more than half a country away from this background every time he opens his mouth. That a wealthy punk-rock musician such as Graffin can’t talk jes-folks isn’t a surprise, but it’s a big disconnect from the medium—under no circumstances can he capture good folk’s idiosyncrasies. To invoke the Old Weird America, an artist needs to be…well, if not old, then at least weird. Biram senses this, maybe because he’s too messed up to consciously articulate it. He builds his record organically from a hodgepodge of found materials around him. Graffin’s Cold as the Clay is an apt title, a chilling collection of 1s and 0s that, in every sense of the word, is without a country.

Washington City Paper

In a city where a great deal of attention is focused on national affairs, Washington City Paper maintains a relentless emphasis on local Washington. City Paper serves as the definitive local guide to cultural and civic life in the District...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1400 I St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005
  • Phone: (202) 332-2100