Pick Your Poison
I didn't think I was going to like the new CD,
Pick Your Poison (Alligator), from Selwyn
Birchwood when it first showed up in my mailbox.
I had heard a few random cuts from his previous
album on the Sirius/XM blues channel, but nothing
there grabbed me. It just goes to show that you
shouldn't judge an artist just on a few quick
listens, but instead dive into a full album and
listen to it repeatedly. That's what I did with Pick
Your Poison, and I'm already saving a slot for it on
my annual Top Ten list.
Birchwood sings with a signficant rasp in his voice, often a turn-off
for me, but he packs so more energy and emotion to his vocals that it
works. IN addition, he's also quite proficient on regular guitar and lap
steel guitar. Backing Birchwood on Pick Your Poison is versatile horn
player Regi Oliver, bassist Huff Wright, and drummer Courtney "Big Love"
Girlie (great name!).
The album kicks off with the primal blues song "Trial By Fire," given
a real Hill Country vibe thanks to Oliver's flute accompaniment and a
Sacred Steel gospel sound from Birchwood's driving slide work on the lap
steel. Following is a raucous gospel-ish number "Even The Saved Need
Saving," so very topical today with so much hypocrisy and hatred in the
world. Birchwood sums it up with the recurring line " .... Ohhh, it's a
hell of a world that we're livin' in, when the saved need saving .... "
Right on, Selwyn. I was hooked by the time this number was over,
clapping along and stomping my feet along with the rhythm. Birchwood
plays a lot more energetic lap steel guitar, nicely framed by Oliver's
Birchwood shows off more of his creative songwriting (yep, he wrote
all 13 songs here) on the country blues "Guilty Pleasures," on which he
talks about how he doesn't like to gamble, drink whiskey, smoke reefer,
romance the ladies and other vices, but that he still takes part in
those guilty pleasures because, well, he just likes what he doesn't
like. Get it? His guitar work is pulsating and driving, with plenty of
heavy slide work. A similar theme is heard on the title cut, "Pick Your
Poison," a funkier blues highlighted by Oliver's great baritone sax
playing. One line sums up Birchwood's battle with this particular vice -
" ... It's the enemy, but I miss it like a best friend ..." This dude
sure has a way of making the best use of his agony.
The guitar work stands out on the slow blues, "Heavy Heart," on which
Birchwood tells his woman why this relationship needs to end. Continuing
on his roadmap through pain and agony, "Haunted" has Birchwood picking
up the tempo as he tells us what life is like now that the
aforementioned relationship is over - " ...It's been four damn weeks
since I had some sleep, this bed is too cold alone ... " and " ...
Daymares during the daytime, nightmares come at night, my imagination
gets the best of me, but my reality eats me alive ... " Some heavy stuff
I'm now starting to figure out that the sequence of songs here may
have been carefully chosen to take the listener on a trip through
Birchwood's life. "Are You Ready?" has him talking about a movement
taking place, turning of the page, a new sun on the rise, etc., etc. ---
kind of a redemption sort of thing. Some strong guitar work here by
Birchwood. But that positive feeling doesn't carry over to "Reaping
Time," a very dark country blues where a man is going to make someone
pay for taking his woman. And in the end, he sings " .... His victim
lived just long enough to taste regret ... " Birchwood mixes in both
slide guitar and lap steel for an effectively appropriate etheral sound.
Birchwood returns with a funkier beat with Oliver's horn work
punctuating his vocals on "R We Krazy?" He's so crazy after losing his
woman that he started naming his guitars just so he'd have someone to
talk to. Man, I really could hear Tom Waits doing this song --- I'd love
to hear what he could do with it. Birchwood plays jazzier guitar riffs
on this number while Oliver comes in with some soaring sax solos.
"Police State" is another extremely topical song with Birchwood
talking about police violence - " ... Sayin' you got the right to remain
silent, seems they got the right, Lord, to remain violent, gotta shake
these shackles before it's too late, or well be trapped in a police
state... " The backwoods slide guitar work just accentuates the message
Birchwood returns to ruminating about the woman no longer in his life
with the mid-tempo "My Whiskey Loves My Ex" (I believe the title says it
all about this number) and then on the slow, late night blues "Lost In
You," featuring plenty of Oliver's subtle sax work while Birchwood sings
about being the ghost of the man he used to be.
I can really identify with the closing number, the funky "Corporate
Drone," because like Birchwood sings on this tune I once gave up being a
corporate drone and struck out on my own. " ... I used to work 60 hour
weeks, so my boss could drive a Benz .. I won't buy into a world where
cash is king ..." I know this is getting repetitive, but Oliver kicks in
with some sterling sax work here.
I like this CD more every time I listen to it. It's a slam dunk, no
doubt Top Ten pick for me. Now I need to go back and take a listen to
Birchwood's first Alligator CD (Don't Call No Ambulance) to hear
what I've been missing. In the meantime, pick up your own copy of Pick
Your Poison, and watch for Mr. Birchwood to visit your town.
--- Bill Mitchell