Unlike most of the West Coast rock bands that emerged a few years ago under the banner of the "paisley underground," Green On Red seemed less concerned with reviving a sound than with meaning something. True, its 1983 debut album, "Gravity Talks," was full of the organ-based rock and surrealism of mid-'60s Dylan. True, its new album, "Gas Food Lodging" (Enigma 72005-1), leans heavily on the thunderous guitar rock of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But what renders the band and its new album wholly contemporary and exciting is that, like Dylan, Green On Red has faith in the power of rock 'n' roll to say something.
In lead singer Dan Stuart, Green On Red possesses a haranguing vocalist with an eye for the disturbing image, a nose for hypocrisy and a tongue abrasive enough to draw attention. Stuart's nasal twang carries an edge of pain and insight, and when he spits out a commonplace line like "It seems a handshake means nothing today," the words fly like bullets aimed straight at the civilized and affluent veneer of Reagan's America.
The album title refers to the band's endless road experience from which its songs are drawn. The back cover shows the quintet sitting around a campfire and there's no doubt this group embraces the mythology of the Old West and the open road a la Kerouac and Guthrie. Their originals are replete with images of losers, drifters and the underclass, and their unabashed populism is musically realized here in a stirring country-rock version of "We Shall Overcome."
The sound is hardly folksy, as the addition of guitarist Chuck Prophet brings a muscular, big-chord power to the band's midtempo songs that perfectly complements the eerie mood set by Chris Cacavas' undulating organ. Led by Prophet's stately guitar and productions, their best songs, such as "Sixteen Ways," unfold slowly, dramatically crystallizing around Stuart's caustic insights. In "Sea of Cortez," Stuart offers a couplet even Dylan might envy: "It takes money to make money they say/Ain't it funny how love doesn't work that way."
Stuart has joined up with another of America's most intense young rock lyricists and singers, Steve Wynn of Dream Syndicate, and under the sobriquet of Danny and Dusty they have released "The Lost Weekend" (A & M SP6-5075). Recorded over a weekend and using members of Green On Red, Dream Syndicate and the Long Ryders, the album is supposed to convey a boozy camaraderie and freewheeling humor that their more serious work doesn't allow. But serious and nasty are what Stuart and Wynn are best at, and their reach for the lighthearted in songs like "The Word Is Out" just sounds like drunken backslapping of the most indulgent kind.
Many of the songs here, such as "Baby We All Gotta Go Down," recalled the grungy rock 'n' roll of the Rolling Stones complete with caterwauling choruses and loose instrumental play. But there are a few treats, usually distinguished by Chris Cacavas' imaginative piano work. "Song for Dreamers" is a '50s-style rocker that is catchy enough to endure Wynn and Stuart's satiric litany of cultural heroes stretching from Fidel Castro to ex-pitcher Ryne Duren. If Wynn and Stuart had taken their collaboration more seriously, there might have been more originals like the haunting, personal exorcism called "Down to the Bone."
An altogether more satisfying project finds Blaster Dave Alvin and bassist Johnny Ray Bartel joining Exene, John Doe and D.J. Bonebrake of X in a country-folk group called the Knitters. Both X and the Blasters have used country and folk sources, and the Knitters, who have been playing for more than a year, evolved as a means of avoiding the loud and fast pace of those rock bands in favor of a more acoustic, song-oriented medium. On their debut album, "Poor Little Critters on the Road" (Slash 25310-1), the Knitters mix traditional and original material, achieving an accomplished sound and a convincing emotional rapport with their songs that proves this is no weekend project.
The surprise here is the striking force of John Doe's strong, dry baritone in his original country songs, "Someone Like You" and "Cryin' but My Tears Are Far Away." Most of the time Doe and Exene sing together and their distinctive harmonies on Doe's bluesy "Love Shack" or Alton Delmore's western ballad, "Trail of Time," are impressive by any standards. The band itself creates a solid economical sound close to the sparse rockabilly of early Johnny Cash. With Bonebrake working on just a snare drum and Bartel thumping the acoustic bass, Dave Alvin cuts through on electric guitar with some scintillating rockabilly leads on the Carter Family's "Poor Old Heartsick Me" and the comic "The Call of the Wreckin' Ball."