Stan Ridgway

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Wall Of Voodoo: Call Of The West , 7/10
Big Heat , 8/10
Mosquitos , 6/10
Partyball , 5/10
Wall Of Voodoo: Songs That Made This Country Great , 4/10
Drywall: Work The Dumb Oracle , 5/10
Black Diamond , 5/10
Anatomy , 5/10
Holiday In Dirt , 4/10
Snakebite (2004), 6.5/10
Blood , 5/10

(Translated from my old Italian text by DommeDamian)

Stan Ridgway has established himself over the years as one of rock music's most creative and spectacular songwriters. At its peak, his music is the rock equivalent of Morricone's scores: ghostly floating notes, requiem-like melodies, baroque keyboards and psychedelic effects. In addition, the lyricismnarrates the vicissitudes of drifters of all sorts (criminals, bankrupts, drug addicts, perverts, the insane) immersed in nightmarish, almost expressionist environments, something halfway between 1930s thrillers and the stories of Bukovsky.

Stan Ridgway began in one of the many groups that came to the fore with punk-rock: Wall of Voodoo. That group was more of a supporter of a macabre and solemn country-rock, arranged with guitars, double keyboards and disco beats. The 1980 EP of the same name (for Index) introduced them as the cow-punks fashionable at the time in Los Angeles, but Dark Continent, on the strength of Granma's House, began the progression that would lead them to the classy Call of The West (IRS, 1982).

Packed with electronic effects, and pitched in Ridgway's brooding, stately baritone, the ballads on that record always ended up sounding psychotic and apocalyptic. Between sinister hyper-realist vignettes from film noir like Lost Weekend and Tomorrow and robotic ballets like Look At Their Way hovered the specter of post-industrial civilization. The lengthy Factory and Call of The West explored everyday life, the soundtrack of a vast "human barbeque", with overtones from western films, beat poetry, hard-boiled detective stories and Marx Brothers slapstick. It all culminates in the surreal orgy of Mexican Radio, grotesque and tragic at the same time. Much of the charm of those ballads was due to Ridgway's voice, to his possessed preacher bearing, but it was the accompanying sound, especially the keyboards and rhythms, that gave the atmosphere that surreal end-of-the-world sense (as demonstrated by the instrumental On Interstate 15 ), not far from the music of Ennio Morricone.

Wall Of Voodoo was to dance music what the Cramps were to rockabilly. By transmuting the disco audience, they redefined it. By defacing danceable rhythms, they made it an extremely effective vehicle for the transmission of alienation. The group would continue for a few years under new lead singer Andy Prieboy, but the soul, Ridgway, had gone elsewhere.

Ridgway is one of the most original innovators of the singer-songwriter figure. He kept the danceable base of his old group, but grafted a tragic and sinister sound onto it to tell stories, no less tragic and sinister, from film noir (and sometimes even from spaghetti-westerns).

The album The Big Heat (IRS, 1986) inaugurates this new season. The title track narrates a Sergio Leone anecdote through a dance-pop with a (synthetic) trot rhythm, punctuated by electronic effects and a "nocturnal" harmonica; and the chorus comes straight out of a British electro-pop song. Alan Vega and Peter Gabriel are the influenceson Pick It Up , a ‘rap’ propelled by a martial syncopation that alternates with South American tribalisms and Middle Eastern violins. On the lighter side belong the country & western Pile Driver and the accelerated blues Salesman , both energized by disco rhythms and electronic arrangements. The effect is always overwhelming, and sometimes borders on the neurotic rock of Wall Of Voodoo, like on Drive She Said.

But the true standout is Camouflage , which exploits the essence of Morricone's music: the epic cadenzas of a desert ride, the string sections imbued with nostalgia and danger, the strumming of a banjo in the background, the fatalistic chorus. Ridgway doesn't hesitate to get his hands dirty with Kitsch culture. His sardonic and hallucinatory singing is able to swallow anything and recycle it in the form of absolute truth. Ridgway plays the cool catastrophe commentator, moreover with a thematic, caustic sense of humor.

(Translated from my old Italian text by DeepL)

Mosquitos (Geffen, 1989) is not as impeccable, compromised with electro-symphonic new age (Heat Takes A Walk) and kitsch, but strong nonetheless with at least one other classic, a reggae- and texmex-step Calling Out To Carol, and realist vignettes such as Lonely Town, Peg And Pete And Me, and Goin' Southbound. The problem is that everything sounds underwhelming, tired, distracted, predictable.

On Partyball (Geffen, 1991) the interesting songs are rare: just Jack Talked, Overlords and especially I Wanna Be A Boss (almost a reprise of Camouflage).

Songs That Made This Country Great (IRS, 1992) is a horrible anthology that presents some major songs in their worst versions, omits about ten masterpieces but includes about ten of the most boring songs.

Later, Ridgway devoted himself to a side project with the Drywall which yielded the album Work The Dumb Oracle (IRS, 1995) and the decent ballads New Blue Mercedes, Big American Problem and My Exclusive Sex Club. This album and the soundtrack of the related film will be collected on The Drywall Project / The Drywall Incident (TWA, 1996).

Ridgway released a last solo album, Black Diamond (Birdcage, 1996), proving that the creative decline was irreversible, despite a couple of intriguing songs (Crystal Palace and Big Dumb Town).

This shrewd storyteller, this musical cross between novelist Jim Thompson and director Sergio Leone, gave his most important compositions on his first solo record, unearthing musical and moral territory that borders on that of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, but which no one had yet explored.

The EP Film Songs (1997) collects assorted works.

The return of Stan Ridgway the magic storyteller comes with Anatomy (New West, 1999). Mission Bell, Train Of Thought and Deep Blue Polka Dot rank fairly high in his repertory, although too many of these songs are third-rate by his standards. His gallery of bizarre characters keeps growing, though, and he has found again the touch for that dark, noir, moody music.

Distracted by his work in cinema soundtracks, in the following three years Ridgway delivered only a mediocre Holiday In Dirt (New West, 2002), that mainly recycles old material from singles and soundtracks (End Of The Line).

Snakebite (Redfly, 2004) is possibly Ridgway's most eclectic work, running the gamut from pop to country to rock to jazz to blues. His storytelling is not as majestic as it used to be, mainly because it focuses on personal rather than universal themes (My Own Universe, Classic Hollywood Ending, Into the Sun, Our Manhattan Moment), with the notable exception of the soldier's tale My Rose Marie, but the arrangements are pure stylistic delight: each of the main songs (Runnin' with the Carnival, Crow Hollow Blues, Your Rockin' Chair, The Big 5-0, Wake Up Sally, Afghan/Forklift) is a small miracle of sonic creation. The best of the personal meditations is Talkin' Wall of Voodoo Blues Pt 1, where Ridgway turns into an Homer crafting his own Odyssey.

Blood (Porterhouse, 2004) is the music composed by Stan Ridgway and Pietra Wexstun for an art exhibition.

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