Terry Allen Pedal Steal + Four Corners

[Paradise of Bachelors; 2019]

Styles: proto-podcast, outlaw country, musique concrète
Others: Pauline Oliveros, Blaze Foley, public radio

Terry Allen’s sculpture, Modern Communication, is on display in Kansas City, MO. It is standing, resolute, in front of the Kansas City Police Department’s Communications building and has rendered a mix of bewilderment, disgust, and cautious fascination from those subjected to it. While the sculpture is undoubtedly a subversive commentary on public institutions — a daily message for city officials, residents, and public art administrators alike — it’s about relatable experiences as well. It’s about walking home from your shitty 9-to-5, briefcase full of meeting notes that few will ever consult. About when you threw your briefcase to the ground, because you’d had enough of this world’s cruelty, in quest for another one. About when your thoughts get far too loud. About when being blinded, deafened, and suffocated by your shoe makes more sense than any other coping mechanism. Nothing has felt more real. Only Terry Allen is able to capture this feeling succinctly. Because it takes a certain breed of iconoclast to create something so far removed from reality while also becoming an uncanny reflection of it.

If every record contains a story unto itself, each one of Terry Allen’s has neither a beginning nor an end. Hardly an outlaw and an alien to country, Allen’s prolific, multidisciplinary output has expanded the canon of Southern and Western America in a way that’s difficult to categorize. Transforming the inlandish into the outlandish, Modern Communication is in many ways a close relative of Pedal Steal + Four Corners, a mind-bending retrospective on Allen’s audio experimentations from 1985 to 1994. Like any blindfolded, suffocated, deafened corporate cog, the compilation is about difficulty and perseverance. It is overwhelmed with American fables, where “history exist temporarily” but people “take place.” Allen’s cast of bandits, botched dreams, and banalities is an impossibly dense endeavor that’s no wacky series of Wild West misadventures. Designed specifically for an automotive listening experience, Allen’s Bessie Award-winning opus “Pedal Steal” is accompanied here by the Four Corners suite — “Torso Hell,” “Bleeder,” “Reunion (a return to Juarez),” and “Dugout.” Nearly three hours of radio theater, fog-thick imagery, singalongs, and high-octane drama carry a palpable kinetic energy that, thanks to Paradise of Bachelors, can be channeled and experienced in a neat compilation.

Then later, just as the sun was coming up, in that parking lot right by the Atomic Café, watching a hawk dive right out of the blue and hit a rat. Break i’s back, then carry it way up in the air and drop it. And him and that girl walked over and looked, and she kicked it with the toe of those beautiful shoes. Dead as a mackerel. “Imagine that!” he said. She said, “happens everyday!”

Of the entire listening experience, “Pedal Steal” is probably as conventionally “musical” as it gets. Punctuated by jaunty mandolin jams, Tex-Mex slide guitar fandangos, and sweet ballads, the drug-fueled journey and eventual suicide of a pedal steel player emigrating to California takes centerstage. It’s chock full of trademark Allen characteristics, including frequent switch offs between him, his wife Jo Harvey Allen (elocution perfect to a fault), and the Panhandle Mystery Band; gruesome depictions of death in song (“Bleedin’ to death under the dancehall light”); and a penchant for narrativizing dreams that travel through the desert, face their darkest fears, and inevitably get crushed. The disgust conjured by anything that is “slick and greased-down” and, in essence, similar to L.A. or California, persists not just through “Pedal Steal”, but through every one of Allen’s radio tales — — for when the desire to leave the desert is pushed further and further west, you will end up there sooner or later.

“Torso Hell” is a shining display of Allen’s musique concrète mastery, where ambient weirdness and mysterious audio artifacts create an appropriately unsettling backdrop for the story of a disabled Vietnam veteran — referred to as Torso — whose PTSD is mired in horror, violence, and sexuality. Torso’s life of misery had started when a mess of body parts were sewn into the wrong places, because after the explosions, “the doctors and nurses can’t tell what’s from what.” The starvation, torture, and cockroaches that surround Torso from all four sides are a glorious, uninhibited B-movie representation of war heroism and its perils, magnified by Allen’s brilliantly designed diegetic sound. Chapter 4 even begins with the kind of sampled-percussion breakbeat you wouldn’t hear until years after “Torso Hell” was recorded.

For an artist with such a sizeable visual output, such meticulous attention to sonic detail is perhaps one of Allen’s more understated talents. The atmospheres created by crashing thunder, speeding motorcycles, and gunshots is supplemented by all kinds of wondrous cues — including the slightly-out-of-tune chorus of male voices drunkenly belting behind Chapter 1 of “Bleeder,” the skillful transition of nighttime crickets into birdsong at dawn in Chapter 3 of “Reunion,” or the title sequence-like introductions for each piece. For those looking to dive deeper into the concrète-ness of it all, consider Chapter 2 of “Bleeder” — a hillbilly percussion and banjo jam turning into indiscernible fuzzed-out talk box, turning into soft-rock lounge saxophone. Each painstakingly crafted sonic landscape is as delicate and dreamlike as Allen’s command of storytelling.

I’ve dreamed a childhood and touched money at night, this cannot be taken from me! I’ve remained invisible and believed in faith. Christ is my lover boy, and I have tasted the clods of honey in his blood. My soul is tuned to the midnight choir.

Full of doomsday revelations, “Bleeder” and “Reunion” are pure cinema. Spoken primarily through abstractions, they memorialize blood and flesh, imbuing the raw elements of every human with a rich sense of drama that we’ve, by now, become accustomed to. Jabo and Chic Blundie’s murderous escapades across Texas and Mexico are a Southern reimagining of Bonnie and Clyde, but with twice as much true love and twice as much murder. “All good luck has death in it,” goes one piece of dialogue in Chapter 2 of “Bleeder.” Truly, mortality salience is an important aspect of every character’s life in Pedal Steal + Four Corners, for without it (plus nihilism and a sense of humor), no one — neither Torso, the New Mexico pedal steel player, the Tijuana bar’s Sailor, and Alice nor each of the parrots named after a year that a president died — would have embarked on their journeys in the first place.

“Dugout” may be the least bloody of them all, but it’s more burdened with memories of violence than any other story. Saving an autobiographical voice for last, a young narrator (Terry Allen himself, allegedly) contends with the magnanimous personalities of his mother and father, the latter of whom was a soldier. He is persistently curious about his father’s trysts with violence in the civil war, while his father is too frightened to revisit the times when him and dozens of brothers-in-arms “shook hands and went off in different directions to kill one another.” “Those were dark days,” he says in Chapter 2 of “Dugout,” as the vicious stabs of orchestra strings fade out and further compartmentalize the horrors of death that his father had experienced. A Sunday baseball game turning quickly into memories of wartime capture the achingly beautiful, the mundane, and the gory — all important themes that constitute Allen’s work. The inescapability of death surrounds each story throughout Pedal Steal + Four Corners, and each character is a study of the sadness, joy, rituals, barbarism, and thrills that are part and parcel of any good death story. The sensory overload of Pedal Steal + Four Corners stands in stark contrast to each story’s natural environment — a sparsely populated desert horizon, dotted with dead-end towns and rusted highway signs. But as that horizon gradually transitions toward jungles, neon-signs, and industrialized wastelands, and as we all contend the meaning of death around us, Terry Allen’s unorthodox and truly singular sound stories will be a close companion.

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