Sometimes the best things in life (and music) come from wrong turns. The Beatles trying to replicate Motown hits and getting it so gloriously wrong. The Ramones‘ attempt at being a bubblegum band, botched but ultimately birthing a new direction for rock. It is said the ‘blue’ (or flattened) notes in early blues – the basis for so much in the vernacular of popular music – came from slaves’ inaccurate hearing of distantly played Western classical music. Who knows?

Joe Camilleri set out to make a Hank Williams-inspired record in Nashville. Instead, he ended up making a triple-album set, holding 24 new songs, with almost everyone who ever played in his band The Black Sorrows, and housing it in an art book with original paintings by Sydney artist, Victor Rubin. This wrong turn (or series of wrong turns), led to Crooked Little Thoughts. All hail the wrong turn, summed up neatly in Camilleri’s lyric, “The world’s a sea of stories and nothing goes to plan…”

Camilleri says of his beloved Black Sorrows “On a good night we’re a great band… On a bad night, we’re a train wreck. And I reckon that’s the way bands should be… I’d rather fall on my face than be the same every night.” It is this mission statement that not only gives Crooked Little Thoughts its restless ecleticism (covering rock’n’roll, reggae, country, blues, gospel etc), but also its rollicking and blood-pumping live feeling across all 24 tracks.

From horn-and-string-laden funk opener ‘Money Talkin’ – with great blues-guitar from Claude Carranza – the ‘family’ vibe is evident. The lead vocal is shared by Camilleri and Sorrows newcomer (and quite a find!), the wonderfully named Atlanta May Coogan, with big bad backing vocal from the Wolfgramm sisters, Eliza, Kelly and Talei. There are 14 people on this track, yet they are all driving the same bus, all working towards making the song live its own life for 4:36.

This ‘family’ vibe is all over Crooked Little Thoughts – some tunes are sparser of course: the Tex-Mex ‘Our Town’, the Nashville ballad ‘The Spell is Broken’, the Bakersfield boogie ‘Dustbowl Blues’ – but every tune has just what it needs; the gumbo cooked up from the amazingly rich pantry of the Sorrows wonderful instrumentalists: Rockwiz’s James Black, jazz guitarist James Sherlock, tenor man Wilbur Wilde, drummer David Jones.

And they can rock too: ‘Shelley’ cooks with Stonesy guitars, ‘I’m the One’ takes us back to the humid Melbourne days of Camilleri’s hit band, Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons, ‘Waitin for the Hammer’ bristles with Stax soul excitement. Unlike too many double- or triple-album sets (of which it is often said that they would have made one great single album), every song here counts; the riches on Crooked Little Thoughts are many and varied. The moods, colours and stories here are tied together by something as simple as ‘heart’ – all the characters, streets, towns, kisses and sads are real, and very human.

Mention needs to be made of two huge talents, apart from the raggedly glorious Mr Joe Camilleri, that contribute indelibly to the album: that of vocalist Atlanta Coogan and artist Victor Rubin. Atlanta May Coogan (her name could come from a Camilleri tune!) is a great voice; her stamp is all over the music here, whether sharing lead vocal with Joe (‘Its Only Xmas’ is standout), or taking the lead on her own on the torchy blues ‘Lovin You’, one can hear why she made Mr Camilleri’s ears prick up when he first heard her on the Fogg album he produced in 2003.

Lastly, the other creative personality who undoubtedly makes Crooked Little Thoughts really something is painter Victor Rubin. The artworks he has created for each of the 24 tracks – they each face the song’s lyrics on double-page spreads – are timelessly modern, brilliantly original and full of a passionate lunge of feeling in their execution; in this they fit with the Black Sorrows’ music so well: nothing clever-clever, nothing too clean, slick or pointlessly polished. They are just right, and help to elevate this remarkable package of song- stories, story-songs and song-pictures into one of the great artifacts of Australian music.

The Black Sorrows website is here.

Victor Rubin’s website is here.

Crooked Little Thoughts is out on Head Records.

Published April 2012 on theorangepress.net

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