Friday, August 24, 2012

A Review of "Black Ribbons" by Shooter Jennings (co-starring Stephen King)

She reached for the car radio, wanting some nice loud country music (there was another bad habit Scott had taught her in the last few years of his life, one she hadn't yet given up), then glanced over at Darla and saw that Darla had gone to sleep with her head resting against the passenger window.  Not the right time for Shooter Jennings or Big & Rich.  Sighing, Lisey dropped her hand from the radio.  (Lisey's Story, p. 150)

Lisey's Story was released a bit before Halloween in 2006, but Shooter Jennings had been on King's radar for at least a year at that point: Jennings had been mentioned in two of the Pop Of King columns the author wrote for Entertainment Weekly in 2005.  In these columns, King singled out -- pardon the pun -- "Manifesto No. 1" and "4th of July" as being excellent songs the reader should check out.  "This one's a joyous rock-country-gospel hybrid," said King of "Manifesto No. 1," and in a year's-best-singles writeup later in the year he called "4th of July" the "perfect evocation of America's holiday."

How King came to be a participant on Jennings' concept album Black Ribbon years later is apparently a simple story.  Jennings told it in an interview with Oregon Music News:

I reached out through his website and other people and I never heard back from him. I was doing an interview for Entertainment Weekly online I asked them if they could pass along a message to Stephen King. They did and literally three to four hours later I received an email when I was at a grocery store that said, “He’s very busy but if he can find the time he would like to do it.”

And apparently that was all it took.

Odds are a good many of you have never heard of this atypical Stephen King project before, but that's what I'm here for, folks: to keep you in the know.

I should probably begin with a confession: I am not knowledgeable on the subject of modern pop music.  I'm not a complete know-nothing, either; I could undoubtedly tell you the difference between Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, and I'll typically have at least heard of notable artists even if I can't tell you anything about them.  I'm just not that into music, on the whole.

Don't misunderstand me; I adore music, and there is probably no major genre of music that I couldn't name a few songs which I will crank in volume if they happen to come on while I'm driving.  But I'm not into music, in the sense of the music industry being something I follow (the way I do movies and television).

In that regard, it's actually rather similar to the way I feel about books: I have a short list of artists/authors who I follow passionately, and while I'm happy to add to that list when somebody new happens to successfully catch my interest, I do not, as a rule, seek out new musicians or authors to fall in love with.  Life is simply to short, and my spending money too limited (not to mention my leisure time), for me to make this a reality.

So when it comes to music, I am passionate about Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Arcade Fire, Coldplay, Muse, Leonard Cohen, and Rob Zombie, and to a lesser degree Tori Amos, P.J. Harvey, and Radiohead.  I love artists of the past like The Beatles, The Doors, Elvis, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, etc.  I'd love to become a big Talking Heads fan at some point; same goes for The Smiths and Miles Davis and the Ramones and Metallica and Prince.

None of this is necessary to an appreciation of Shooter Jennings and Black Ribbons, but I wanted to make it completely clear that when it comes to writing about music, I am almost always going to start from a place of ignorance.  When Black Ribbons came to my attention -- and I cannot account for that having taken over two years to happen (it was released in March of 2010), given my zeal for all things King -- I had heard of Jennings, by way of having seen him playing the role of Waylon Jennings, his father, in the excellent movie Walk the Line.  I knew he was a musician in his own right, and I had a loose notion that he played country and/or Southern rock.

And that's where my familiarity ended.  I didn't remember the slight Stephen King connections I detailed above until I did some research for this post.

In other words, when I got the CD in the mail and put it into my car's disc player for the first time, I was a complete novice on the subject of Shooter Jennings, and had almost literally no idea what to expect.  I was there for the Stephen King, man!

So, let's do this.  I'm going to put the disc in my laptop's drive, and I'm going to play it song by song, and I'm going to write a bit about each track.  Where possible, I may throw in a link to a video on YouTube, in case you want to follow along.  Don't expect me to have anything hugely insightful to say; my comments will likely be limited to telling you whether I think it is a good song or not. But who knows; maybe I'll surprise us.

First off, a bit of background info about the nature of the album.  Earlier, I referred to it as a concept album, and the concept is that at some point in the future, there has been some sort of social calamity leading, it seems, to martial law and mass government takeover.  A radio host, who calls himself Will o' the Wisp (this is the character King plays), is delivering his final-ever broadcast, and he's decided to play the best hits of the band Hierophant.

Track #1 -- "Wake Up!"

[Here is an unofficial video on YouTube.]

This track begins with slow, ominous notes, and eventually builds to become a sort of apocalypse-rock anthem.  It's kinda great.  Jennings' singing style reminds me a bit here of Steve Miller if Steve Miller didn't suck (which he does, although I still love "Abracadabra" and "The Joker" to this day).

Life is a movie -- we are all actors -- don't let them edit you out

Track #2 -- Last Light Radio 11:01 PM

[Here is a video somebody put on YouTube, and it appears t be part of a series of cam vids in which the uploader just went for a drive and recorded the road, presumably with the album playing!  Don't worry, though; it's excellent, clean audio that was obviously laid in afterward.]

Stephen King makes his first appearance, informing us that freedom has failed, and that this land isn't our land; it's their land.  At midnight, the public airwaves will be taken over by the government, so this is Will o' the Wisp's final episode of "Last Light Radio."  He's going to be going out by playing the music of Hierophant.

Track #3 -- "Triskaidekaphobia"

[Here is an unofficial video on YouTube.]

For those of you who didn't already know, "trisaidekaphobia" is the fear of the number thirteen.  Interestingly, Stephen King wrote a piece for the New York Times way back in 1984 in which he talked about that phenomenon a bit.  You can find it here.

Was Jennings aware of that?  Is he building on King's work with this song?  That is unclear.  He sings about "the fear of the end in a burning tower," which is almost certainly a 9/11 reference and not a End-World reference ... but you never know.

What IS clear is that this is a great song.  It starts with slow and ominous piano, but soon builds to a jaunty -- and yet somehow frightening -- song that reminds me a wee bit of Nick Cave's work.  It's a sort of operatic song, but has a great chorus, and there's a solid guitar solo, too; definitely one of my two or three favorite songs on the album.

When I check in to 1410, I know what room I'm really in...

Track #4 -- "Don't Feed the Animals"

[Here is an unofficial video on YouTube.]

If this reminds me of anything, it's probably Nine Inch Nails.  It's not bad, but it might be my least favorite song on the album.

Track #5 -- "The Breaking Point"

[Here is an unofficial video on YouTube.]

This song definitely reminds me of some other song, but I'll be damned if I can come up with what.  It's a slow-tempo song, almost heading toward ballad territory, but it never quite gets there.  I like the guitar sections in the middle of the song.  The musicianship on the entire album is quite strong; if I forget to mention that often enough (which I certainly will), I hope nobody will be offended.  It's just another example of me not knowing enough about music to properly know how to write about it!

I could see she'd reached her breaking point, like me...

Track #6 -- Last Light Radio 11:16 PM

[Here is a YouTube video for your amusement.]

Will o' the Wisp returns.  King has about eight minutes' worth of dialogue on the album, by the way.

Here, he rails against people who create wars and traps, and looks down at a park, where a soldier with a gun is standing; he wonders if the soldier feels he is serving justice, if he knows who he really is.

Track #7 -- "Everything Else Is Illusion"

[Here is an unofficial YouTube video, which is another from our friend on the roadtrip.]

Would you describe this as an uptempo song, or a midtempo song?  I'd say midtempo, but uptempo might be more accurate.  Either way, pretty good song; not one of my faves on the album, but good.  It goes a bit trippier than I'd imagine a lot of country fans would be fond of, and there are sections that make me think Jennings is a fan of "Come Together" ... but possibly the Aerosmith version moreso than the Beatles version.

Stumble so easy, don't you?

Track #8 -- "God Bless Alabama"

[Here is another YouTube roadtrip video.]

Of all the songs on the album, this is probably the closes thing to a pop single it's got.  If I had never heard it and you played it for me and told me it was some Southern rock band from 1981 or so, I'd probably have believed you.

This is probably because of the Steve Miller sound, which is very prominent here.  Because of that, it's probably my second-least-favorite song on the album behind "Don't Feed the Animals."  It's not a bad little ditty, though, and since I'm an Alabamian, I suppose some state pride ought to kick in.

She's got some angels watchin' out down the road...

Track #9 -- "All of This Could Have Been Yours"

[Here is an unofficial YouTube video.]

This one is definitely a ballad, and it's a damn fine one.  It's got some wah-wah guitar, and it's got some piano.  Apparently the song was included in a Sons of Anarchy episode at some point, but not the episode in which Stephen King had a cameo playing a fixer named Bachman.

A more pointed King overlap with this song comes in the form of the song's lyrics, which include several uses of the phrase "all that you love will be carried away."  This, of course, is the title of a 2001 short story by King, but I have to say, it makes for a fine rock lyric, too.

I had a cure for your disease, but you threw it away...

Track #10 -- Last Light Radio 11:29 PM

[Here we go again on the roadtrip, which, I have to admit, fits the radio-show format reasonably well.]

Will o' the Wisp here talks a bit about the book The Hero Within, and says he feels more like a warrior than a martyr.

Track #11 -- "Fuck You (I'm Famous)"

[Here is yet another roadtrip video.]

Actually, now that I think about it, THIS is probably my least-favorite song on the album.  It's a short, mean little ditty is about exactly what it sounds like it'd be about.  It gets close to being hip-hop, or maybe that hip-hop/rock hybrid-type stuff.  Not really my style.

I shake shit up...

Track #12 -- "Lights in the Sky"

[Here is a video for the song -- an official, honest-to-gosh video, and a trippy one, too!]

I love this song.  Definitely one of my favorites on the album.  One of the YouTube commenters describes it as psychedelic country, but this really isn't a country song in any way; it's just a rock song, period.  It makes me think of Lenny Kravitz a bit, but I loathe Lenny Kravitz, and I love this song, so I can't quite reconcile that comparison, which makes me a little upset with myself for making it.

Throw in a little autotune for modern flavor, and some excellent percussion, and you've got a winner.

The final twenty seconds or so are another bit of Will o' the Wisp, by the way.

I'm sorry to catch you offguard; I'll cut you free if you dance with me...

Track #13 -- "Black Ribbons"

[Here is another fan-made video consisting of a single image and the song -- not very creative, but useful for our purposes, I suppose...]

Man down, tie a ribbon 'round my soul, I'm in the black and I'm out of control...

Easily my favorite song on the album, if you told me this was a song Bruce Springsteen wrote for -- but never recorded for -- The River, I'd totally believe you if I didn't already know better.

It's that good.

And yeah, I'd love to hear Springsteen and the band do a cover version; that'd kick a whole mess of ass, I bet.  By the way, speaking of Springsteen, did you know that Stephen King once wanted to cast him as Larry Underwood in the movie version of The Stand George Romero was planning to direct?  How cool would that have been?

The only only thing that keeps me sane is somehow I can't keep you out of my rain...

Track #14 -- Last Light Radio 11:41 PM

[Once again, our roadtripping YouTube pal...]

Here's Will o' the Wisp again, waxing nostalgic about his pirate-station days and expressing hope that all might not yet be lost.

Track #15 -- "Summer of Rage"

[Looky here!  Another official video, and a fairly apocalyptic, creepy one it is, too.]

Another excellent song, this one has synthesizers that make me think of Blade Runner-era Vangelis, which is not necessarily the type of thing one expected to type in a review of a country-rock album co-starring Stephen King.  There's also a creepy horn section, more that ominously trippy vibe that has been found elsewhere on the album.

This is another of the songs that puts me in mind of Nick Cave, and I think it's not so much because of the music itself, but the use of bells and xylophones and the sweaty madness-at-the-end-of-the-world feeling that comes rolling off of it.  That used to be a specialty of Cave's, and if you don't believe me, you can find proof to the contrary here and here and here and here.  (And I may as well tell you now, at some point this blog is going to find me indulging in a lengthy Nick Cave retrospective; count on it.)

Jennings here is laying it on thick, envisioning some sort of New World Order takeover of America, leading to social collapse and decay.  I may as well go ahead and mention that I mostly think this New World Order stuff is ... unlikely.  But hey, I'm just a douche on a blog, so what do I know?

Hush hush, little child; your world is going wild...

Track #16 -- "California Via Tennessee"

[Yay!  Another roadtrip video!]

Here's a solid rock song, the drumbeat of which reminds me strongly of the ELO song "Don't Bring Me Down."  Which is fine by me.

I need a wide-open space and a good-lookin' face...

Track #17 -- "The Illuminated"

[Here is an unofficial video on YouTube.]

There is a sort of clip-clopping in certain sections of the percussion that puts me in mind -- for no particularly good reason -- of "A Horse With No Name" by America.  That's a great song, and this one is pretty damned good, too.

Musically, it reminds me of ... something, something, man, I can't put my finger on it, but something.  Is it The Doors?  Maybe a bit; it's got some "Crystal Ship" vibe to it, filtered through Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" (a song I come close to loathing).

Not sure; this is good stuff, though.

Forever and ever and ever together...

Track #18 -- Last Light Radio 11:57 PM

[On the road again...]

Another Will o' the Wisp segment, in which he wants you to remember that the truth can still set you free, if you guard the truth.

Track #19 -- "When the Radio Goes Dead"


This is a socio-science-fictional concept album steeped in New World Order fear and such, but lurking behind it is a less tinfoil-hat type of fear: the decline in rock radio and traditional forms of music consumption.  Or maybe I'm imagining that element, but I don't think I am; somehow, it feels as if the one and the other might all seem related.

This is a bouncy, yet moody, rock song; it feels a bit like somebody on a sinking ship deciding to part down for a while before they hit the icy water.

They've leveraged the sky...

Track #20 -- "All of This Could Have Been Yours (Reprise)"

Will o' the Wisp makes his final appearance here, which leads into an instrumental reprise of "All of This Could Have Been Yours," which feels a bit like the end credits sequence to a movie.

If you're inclined to do so, you can watch one last roadtrip video and find out what happens to Will o' the Wisp.  I'll give you a hint: King apparently wrote this ending for himself, and he seems to have based it on the fate of a similar radio host in The Stand.  Which is appropriate, I'd say.


Alright, so, that's the album.  It took me a couple of listens to really get into it, but I have ended up thoroughly enjoying the vast majority of it.

I came to it, obviously, because I am a Stephen King fan, so I suppose I ought to assess it on the basis of his performance.  As anyone who has ever seen Creepshow knows, King is not an actor, and what he's doing here, basically, is performing a role radio-drama style.  Truthfully, he's not that great at it; many of his segments could probably be described as flat.  That said, he's a skilled reader, and he definitely puts the focus on the words themselves rather than on performing the words in some way, and I think that was probably the correct decision.

He's also got a good, solid tone of weariness that is constantly present in his voice on the album; he sounds like a man who has maybe not gotten a good night's sleep in months, if not longer.

So, all in all, I don't think there was ever any danger of him winning any awards for his acting here, but I think it works well in the end.


Final note: the packaging of the album is quite cool.  I found some good photos of it at a blog called The Muse In Music (the original post can be found here), and yes, I straight up stole 'em so that I could drop them into this post.  Do me a favor and go check out the original post, so I don't feel quite so bad about my thieving ways, won't you?

Here's a good shot of the interior package's front cover:

It folds out, revealing the rest of the image:


That's a good use of packaging, but it only gets better on the inside, which folds out even further to reveal this disconcerting image:


Unfold a bit more and you find this:


On the flip-side of that is this:


I'm a sucker for inventive packaging, which makes me glad that I finally bought a physical copy of this.  I'd, um, borrowed a copy from a friend on the Internet months ago, but never actually listened to it until I got a really-for-real copy; it was a good decision.

So if you like what you've heard here, go buy yourself a copy.  Digital music is all fine and good, but I'm old-school; I want a copy I can put on the shelf.  You ever try putting digital music on a shelf?  The ones and zeros get everywhere!  It never sounds right again...


  1. Now there's some of that SK influenced art!... It's everywhere man! ;)

    1. If there are six degrees of Kevin Bacon, there are probably only about three degrees of Stephen King...

  2. From what I understand, the final product was the result of Jennings' collaboration with King. It was all done through email.

    Jennings would send King some ideas and then King would send some of his own back, which makes the idea of a Dark Tower tie-in more interesting. In fact, to go into this a bit more, what if this song takes place during the time of Mid-Worlds Great Old Ones. and this is there first time we ever here or get a clear picture of them?

    Going into this a bit more, my take on Roland's world can be summed up in a formula

    Mid-World = America of The Stand years down the road.

    Great Old Ones = The American population depicted in the Stand and a few several hundred years later, most likely when the Crimson King stepped in with his Sombra/Positronics deal and turned everything into a great big wate.

    Arthur Eld = Stu Redman maybe, it's possible, who knows what his son grew up to be, maybe the first gunslinger.

    Flagg in the Stand = Sent there on a mission by the King in an early takeover attempt that failed.

    Black Ribbons = The world of the stand years later, already on it's way to being mid-world.

    Well, there's one fan theory anyway.

    Incidentally, the storm reports are saying Isaac could make landfall in a space as small as anywhere in between Mobile and Tallahassee Florida. I don't know what plans you got, however I'd pack up whatever you need and head west.

    Just a thought.


    1. Nah, I'm in the middle of the state, so I'm good. It is raining here, though, which has ruined my plans to go out and wash my car.

      So instead I am spending my day writing a review of "The Man With the Golden Gun" for my James Bond blog. Yay!

      Interesting thoughts about the Stand-verse being Mid-World prior to moving on, and "Black Ribbons"
      working as connective tissue of a sort. Fun to contemplate that sort of stuff, innit?

      By the by, yes, you are totally correct about King's work on the album being done entirely from afar. To this day, Jennings says he has never met King nor even talked to him except via email. Which kinda makes the whole thing cooler, in a way; it's like how most radio hosts -- remember when there were radio hosts? -- exist only as voices inside your head. Cool, and creepy, and cool because it's creepy.

  3. ChrisC - those are really intriguing suggestions. I'm reading The Stand/ Dark Tower/ Insomnia right now and you got my brain buzzing with that.

    I've been meaning to give this a listen, and I think this blog just helped bump it up the queue some.