wish Buck 65 was my grandpa.
Obviously, the logistics of this scenario are a little tricky, since the former Rich Terfry is 31 years old, and therefore only nine years my senior.
But if it’s true that age ain’t nothin’ but a number when it comes to justifying statutory rape for roughneck rap stars, then surely it should cover a wizened Gen X hip-hop artist who commiserates with tramps and hobos, shines shoes with self-disciplined aplomb and talks about baseball with such old-world reverence that it still seems like the Great American Pasttime.
On his seventh full-length album, Talkin’ Honky Blues, the Nova Scotia-born Terfry retains the old-school, drum-based hip-hop that made Buck 65 a marquee name in backpacker circles. This time around, however, he’s largely scrapped the sonic experimentation of 1999’s classic Vertex (percussive cacophony, assorted free jazz touches) or the structural experimentation of last year’s Square (four free-form tracks spread out over 60 minutes of wax), in favor of acoustic atmospherics and a backwoods brand of bachelor science.
Don’t let the title fool you; this is neither a Folkways-inspired, white-guilt self-excoriation, nor is it (god forbid) another lame-ass genre goof like E’s MC Honky disaster.
Buck 65’s take on the blues isn’t too far removed from his abstract idea of homemade hip-hop, and so Talkin’ Honky Blues is less a departure than a refinement of his inimitable ouevre, perhaps a little less scratch-tastic than its predecessors, but far more subtle in its narrative exposition and substantive in its emotional resonance, two qualities that have always separated, for example, the Robert Johnson wheat from the Kenny Wayne Shepherd chaff.
Buck’s down-home, open-road rebirth seems a given on the album’s second track (and first single), “Wicked and Weird,” right down to its prescient (but still poignant) mention of “a little Johnny Cash in the old tape deck.” But just when you think a little verse-chorus-verse faithfulness means that Buck wants a piece of the Kid Rock-approved crossover pie, he drops a downright MC Paul Barmanism like “I’m a rat-fish / Trying to practice / Doing backflips / On your mattress.”
Once Buck figures out that trad-rock structure doesn’t guarantee earth-bound gravitas, he settles into his gravel-voiced groove and lets his fractured common-man poetics and unobtrusive sonic palette deliver the populist goods.
To extend the sports metaphor for a former baseball phenom who could’ve been a New York Yankee instead of an underground Canadian export, Buck’s music has to be the color because his raps are just play-by-play. With a voice that never intensifies or changes pitch, and makes no discernible effort to flow, Buck relies on drum breaks, piano loops, and other assorted instrumentation to ratchet up the pathos his words seek to express.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the mini-epic “The Riverbed,” a seven-part suite that spans the length of the album, and paints a vivid portrait of the titular locale with such disparate tools as pump organ, jazz bass, and all sorts of guitar: bottle-neck and pedal steel guitar, Mariachi and tremolo.
The effect is impressively restrained and entirely unique, the perfect soundtrack to Buck’s interconnected tales of broken spirits and broken dreams, but also of strength in numbers and faith in the promise of love.
It’s here that Buck’s true empathetic gifts shine, his dextrous wordplay merely a shield for the reflection of himself he sees in the colorful but tragic cast of misfits and scamps that populates “Riverbed Pt. 3.”
It’s a fine line between self-centered, emo-pacified confessionalism and old-fashioned, unblinking honesty, but Buck has no problem sticking to the latter on the utterly devastating infidelity ballad, “Tired Out,” a song suffused with so much humanity that it leaves plenty of room for the guilt-stricken narrator to drown in loneliness and regret, then turn around and call himself out as an asshole who deserves it.
Clearly, this is a man without an ironic bone in his body, and that’s rare and refreshing, especially in a pomo indie landscape littered with obfuscation, self-knowing meta-commentary, and half-hearted emotional (dis)regard.
So rare, in fact, that Buck comes off as an anachronism, the kind of grizzled and graying grandfather character who will talk your ear off about how things were so much better in the good old days, but who’s too nice to break your heart and tell you that it can never be that way again.