Swamp Dogg seeks to countrify his particular brand of funky soul music.
For his latest late-stage outing, Swamp Dogg seeks to countrify his particular brand of funky soul music. It’s yet another in a string of interesting moves by the cult hero eccentric, coming two years after his strangely engaging, Auto-Tune-heavy release, Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune. If nothing else, this refusal to play to expectations shows the erstwhile Jerry Williams Jr.’s resolve to continue to be creative, stretching his stylistic limits, well into his twilight years. Rather than merely resting on his laurels, he continues to reshape and refine his particular idiom with minor tweaks and changes that help ensure the music sounds fresh and engaging. That said, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It is very much the product of the 21st century with its reliance on electronic drums, retro-styled soul and a crisp, clean production never found on his earliest releases.
Despite the preprogrammed drums prevalent throughout, much of Sorry You Couldn’t Make It relies on real live instruments to help establish a retro-futurist take on classic southern soul. From punchy horn charts to keening melodies, the album carries all the hallmarks of the genre struck through with a country twang. “Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got)” takes Billy Sherrill’s countrypolitan and filters it through the slow, strutting Stax sound. On paper, it’s a rather odd combination; however, it works exceptionally well in this particular setting, showing just how close the two genres have always been in terms of emotionality and melodic construction.
“Family Pain” is particularly effective, riding a cool, minor-key strut and recounting all manner of familial problems (“They’re all going out together smoking crack and dealing cocaine”). Thematically, it sticks closer to his roots in soul music, sounding a bit like a countrified Curtis Mayfield lamenting the onslaught of drug culture within the urban wastelands of 1970s America. The use of fiddle against a funky, staccato rhythm and sweeping, distorted electric lead is a particularly refreshing juxtaposition that helps elevate the cross-pollination of the two genres to a new level of funky cool.
The album also features a pair of unlikely duets with Americana icon John Prine, “Memories” and “Please Let Me Go Round Again.” No stranger to duets, Prine here settles casually into the soulful country of Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, his singular voice, while lacking the strength and soulfulness of Swamp Dogg’s, is nonetheless an effective instrument within this context. “Memories” is particularly affecting, tapping into the thematic elements – many essentially the base elements of the best soul songs – that have long filled some of Prine’s best songs. “Memories don’t leave like people do/ And that’s why anytime, anywhere I can still be with you,” Prine sings (this, coupled with the heart-wrenching closing track, “Please Let Me Go Round Again,” sounding particularly haunting and painful as he lies in critical condition as of this writing following a COVID-19 diagnosis).
“A Good Song” is just that, the lyrics spelling out what is required of a good song to resonate with folks. He manages to capture a number of the requisite elements within the track, making it both the title and nature of the song. In all, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It is another fine installment in the always-entertaining Swamp Dogg catalog. There are still the usual production quirks and weird effects (check Prine’s vocal fade out on “Memories” and the strange ephemeral sounds on “Billy”) showing his sense of the stranger elements of pop music to be fully in check. But it’s far more than needless gimmickry.
If anything, it carries a feeling similar to Solomon Burke’s late-period classic, Don’t Give up on Me, with Swamp Dogg even evoking a similar timbre to the late Burke. While the material might not always be up to the level of that album, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It nonetheless hits all the right notes in terms of classic country and soul. Adding an element of country music only helps further enhance his very particular brand of southern-fried strangeness.