September 21, 2003

Carla Bozulich "The Red-Headed Stranger"

Over the last decade and a half, Carla Bozulich has been responsible for some excellent, interesting albeit painfully obscure music. From her days as the sultry industrial diva of Ethyl Meatplow, to her seductive country crooning in The Geraldine Fibbers and Scarnella, anything with Bozulich's name on it promises to be nothing short of interesting. Bozulich's been kind of quiet as of late, and during a recent bout of work with the Nels Cline Singers, she and Cline decided to record a cover of Willie Nelson's watershed album from 1975, Red Headed Stranger.

Red Headed Stranger was released in 1975, and was the watershed release that made Willie Nelson a household name. Of course, nobody believed that it would be anything more than another Willie Nelson flop. Nelson recorded the album in a quick flash of inspiration after a family vacation, and the album was a stark, stripped-down affair. His record label at the time rejected it, saying that it was not commercial, and Nelson made a wager: if the album was not a success, he would relinquish full artistic control to his record label for the rest of his career. Luckily, Nelson was right, and the album was a massive success, (as well as the signature tune "Blue Eyes Cryin' In The Rain") and Nelson's been known as "The Red-Headed Stranger" ever since.

Red Headed Stranger is a concept album--of sorts. It's the story of a preacher whose wife leaves him for another man, and in a fit of anger, pain and jealousy, he kills his wife and her new lover and then goes on the run. That's about it, really. It's a rather weak storyline, and though the music is quite good, the story just doesn't really hold up. It's because of this major flaw that makes its overwhelming success even more puzzling. Nelson's version of the album is a song cycle complete with small, minute-long songs, instrumental passages and a recurring theme, and listening to it now, it's an extremely incongrous record, even for 1975.

It's no shock, then, that a record with such a history would appeal to Bozulich, a woman with the same kind of stance towards her music as Nelson's. (Considering her past life in The Geraldine Fibbers--namely Get Thee Gone--it's a little bit of a shock to note that this is her first-ever cover album of country songs. ) It's also no surprise, that Nelson took an interest in Bozulich, and upon hearing some of the recordings, invited her down to his home studio in Texas to record. (Well, what did you expect--after all, that's the kind of man the Red-Headed Stranger is!) He sings and plays on two songs ,"Can I Sleep In Your Arms" and "Hands on the Wheel," and also appears on "Time of the Preacher."

In the hands of Bozulich, the updated version of Red Headed Stranger is as spartian as the original, yet it takes a full band to make it that way. True, the story line still remains a rather weak one, but, once again, it's the music that stands out. Full of creaks and drones and haunting passages of atmospheric noise and slide guitar (courtesy of longtime creative partner Nels Cline), Bozulich's update, while technically more complex than the original, is actually quite faithful to the original. Plenty of highlights are to be found on Bozulich's version; I'm most taken by her haunting version of "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" and her duet with Nelson, "Hands on the Wheel." The most haunting moment on the update is the instrumental version of the hymn "Just As I Am." It's a spooky instrumental, complete with slide guitar, and it simply cuts into your soul.

Bozulich is a first-rate talent, and this rather faithful update has made me want to pull out my copy of Nelson's album and compare the two. While it seems a bit auspicious to release a cover album as your debut solo album, it's a nice diversion for the moment, and it's also a nice little tribute to one of the best Country musicians of our time. An album that will haunt you and move you--she's made her own classic album, while reinforcing the legacy of the original, and it never once falters. Then again, when treading over sacred ground, how could it?

--Joseph Kyle

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