Sharps & Flats

Beautifully bitter philosopher-poet Tom House scraps for some piece of an answer.

Published January 21, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

In these days of seemingly never-ceasing optimism, the despairing songs of Tom House provide, oddly enough, a much needed respite. After all, not everyone is wading up to their hips in stock options or plotting IPOs of their 3-week-old companies. And even so, the nation's economic boom doesn't interrupt personal trauma, tragedy or gloom. That continues unabated and ignored until school shootings or church burnings or other crises du jour touch off a period of short-lived national reflection.

The songs on House's third release, "til you've seen mine" (Catamount), aren't necessarily social issue songs, but they do grapple with the deeper, darker questions of the soul -- questions all the more necessary when most everyone seems to prefer unexamined bliss.

House is a misfit, a philosopher vagabond searching for at least a scrap of an answer. A poet who became a singer, he is a middle-aged Nashville outsider whose songs are far too raw and complicated to be folk songs and too wordy to be country. Many of his songs express a desire for problems to be resolved, a purpose to be revealed, or, at the very least, for something to matter. More often than not, though, the only satisfaction lies in being discontent. Or depressed. Or drunk. Think of it as existential angst dressed down as country music.

It is the questions House raises, directly and indirectly, that leave the deepest imprint. Questions such as those borne of loneliness and longing in "The Cold Hard Curve of a Question Mark," of regret in "Letter From My Father" and, ultimately, of purpose and even salvation in "Where Will You Lay Your Head," on which House sings:

And what will it mean to you then

When your soul's given up to the wind

And the darkness and the light?

Like the wrong and the right

You've been dancing all around all your life.

If House has predecessors, they are the contrarian, despairing poets of folk, rock and country. You can hear Hank Williams' fatalism on "Long Hard Drinking," Bob Dylan's unorthodox phrasing (and twangy whine) on "Elmer Smith" and "The Black Sheep," and Phil Ochs' plaintiveness on "Canada."

While "til you've seen mine" offers a mix of traditional acoustic folk and bluegrass melodies and foot-stomping country arrangements, it is the lyrics that are each song's most prominent feature. Like Dylan, House writes lines so lengthy there often seems not enough music to contain all of the words. The result is often a fevered rush through lyrics that sound like the Southern Gothic confessions of a William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor character. On "Down in the Hole," House sings:

You ain't heard no weeping till you heard me wail

It's like barbed wire wrapped around a gift from hell

Like a knife slicing clear quick to the bone

You ain't heard no sobbing till you hear me moan.

Dark and unsparing, House's anguish lets no one off the hook. To listen to these songs is to listen to the torment of a soul that cannot find even one moment of peace.

By Joe Heim

Joe Heim is a frequent contributor to Salon. He lives in Washington.


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