Something about going full Americana always seems to sharpen your songwriting focus—probably has something to do with the fact that when you subtract volume, distortion and big fistfuls of rhythm from the equation, you don’t have much choice but to tell a story. And that’s exactly what Rotten Cores member Aden Paul does on his solo debut: 11 originals that trade the Cores’ sad comedy of punkabilly for simple guitar and fiddle hoedowns.
Like a lot of local bands, the Cores were already great at finding the common tragic possibilities of legalized Bohemia, but Paul digs deeper on Bad Seeds & Precious Stones. His characters have their ambition torn right out from under them, often in a metaphorical way that suggests staying home and drinking yourself to death might even be a better bet. You can look upon an uptempo folk ballad like “The Cain of Cameron County,” whose title is pretty much self-explanatory, as just another caricature of the Old West, but that would be in danger of ignoring the context of “Ruby Red Slippers,” whose protagonist finds herself stuck halfway down the yellow brick road for life (“Sometimes you dream your name in lights/ And other times a dream is dead/ But most times you’re so damn tired you only dream in bed”). Likewise, the bittersweet “Second Star on the Right” seems to suggest that indulging in your Peter Pan complex through debauchery may be the only sure way to immortality.
Assisting him in his undertaking is Dr. Sick, violinist for the Squirrel Nut Zippers, whose jaunty gypsy/hillbilly fiddle adds an extra dimension of both irony and menace to his worldview. There’s just the right mixture of sadness and anger on the near-murderous betrayal ballad “The Butcher and the Bull” or the gorgeous “Emeralds,” which seems to be about the blessing or curse brought by a lifetime of loving green-eyed ladies. Yes, it reads depressing, but it plays out oddly hopeful, like a lot of folk music, America and life itself.