Graded on a Curve:
Terry Allen, Juarez

To introduce Terry Allen as a ’70s country outlaw and progenitor of the alt-country uprising is to do him a considerable disservice, for he’s really in a class by himself. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA grants as a visual artist, his work resides in the collections of the Met, MOMA, and Hirshhorn museums (amongst numerous others), and his music defies easy categorization as it uses his home state of Texas and the American West as a canvas to explore the drama and humor of existence. His 1975 debut Juarez endures as one of the great concept albums and underlines Allen’s value as a true original; its vinyl and compact disc reissue by Paradise of Bachelors is cause for celebration.

The sounds comprising Juarez were originally intended to accompany a collection of Terry Allen’s lithographs; initially released by Landfall Press in an edition of 50, that miniscule run was followed shortly after by a pressing of 1,000 copies minus the art. However, the results, subsequently released on Allen’s Fate label and last decade on Sugar Hill, provide a highly cinematic experience, and that a screenplay figures in the ensuing artworks inspired by the Juarez concept is unsurprising (others include an NPR radio play, a sculpture series, and a musical theater collab with David Byrne).

Often when a record is described as cinematic it pertains directly to its qualities as a mood piece and potential soundtrack, but Juarez’s filmic attributes are narratively driven, with Paradise of Bachelors’ ample promotional text situating the album beside Terrence Malick’s Badlands and a predecessor to David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.

Notably, all three concern the intersection of passions and violence. Allen’s story features two couples; there’s Sailor, who meets prostitute Spanish Alice in a Tijuana bar while on Naval leave, and there’s Jabo, a Los Angeles-based pachuco who convinces Chic Blundie, his eccentric (and possibly imaginary) “rock-writer” girlfriend (not a music journalist thankfully but rather someone who like scrawling on rocks) to go with him on a road trip to his hometown of Juarez.

Sailor and Alice impulsively get hitched and travel from San Diego to Cortez Colorado for the honeymoon, where upon crossing paths with Jabo and Chic, who in Allen’s poetic terms “go North to get South,” they end up slain. From there, the neo-noir aura sees Jabo and Chic heading toward Juarez with law enforcement in pursuit.

Even though it has a character name in common with Wild at Heart, this story ultimately feels of closer kin to Badlands, in part through their shared epoch. There is a joint sense of boundary pushing; Malick was a member of the “New Hollywood” brigade who briefly shook up form and content prior to the rise of multiplexes and summer blockbusters, and Allen, his debut ripe with cussing, adult situations, bleakness and ambiguity, also emerged far outside the mainstream. Listening to Juarez, it seems impossible that any large label of the period would’ve considered putting it out.

Indeed, the majority of Allen’s discography has been self-released and it doesn’t appear he’s ever been involved with a major company. This has insured creative freedom, but it’s also means the guy is less well-known than he should be in relation to his substantial achievements, the brightest being his second LP, ’79’s Lubbock (on everything). It’s the record many buy first, though in commencing the program with Juarez Paradise of Bachelors spotlights a sometimes underrated gem.

Cut in San Francisco, Allen plays the piano and sings as Peter Kaukonen (Link Wray, Jefferson Airplane) and Greg Douglas (Steve Miller, Van Morrison) lend guitar, these connections solidified through Allen’s cousin, who was the Airplane’s road manager at the time. The brief border town-flavored “The Juarez Device (aka “Texican Badman”)” sets things into motion, but the particulars of the fictive principals cited above are illuminated in great detail in the following “Dialogue: The Characters/ A Simple Story.”

Just the sort of element a “real” producer would’ve probably endeavored to put the kibosh on, this spoken passage is absolutely key to Juarez’s success, heightening the cinematic/ literary angle as Allen triggers the listener’s imaginations while imparting a load of info and importantly doing so outside the parameters of song; by extension, his actual lyrics are infused with the aforementioned poetry and avoid falling victim to the awkwardness of exposition.

Instead, the imagery in the exceptional “Cortez Sail” drifts from portraying Jubo to a rumination on the namesake of the Colorado town and then back again. “Border Palace” shifts the focus to Sailor and Alice as bluesy slide guitar twines around Allen’s piano; percussive stomp, exclamations of Goddammit, and a culminating crack of thunder toughen the atmosphere.

The rain falls to open “Dogwood,” a pretty yet ragged tune scaled to only keyboard and voice; while Allen’s no Merle or Waylon at the mic (some nice high notes do get hit, though) his vocals have a sturdy appeal. Additionally, his ability to conjure characterization while sitting at the piano bench can bring Randy Newman to mind (ditto the title of “There Outta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California”), but only mildly as Allen’s no satirist, his cynicism simultaneously derived from and extending noir and pulp sensibilities.

“Writing on Rocks Across the USA” relates to Chic, specifically her act of tagging nature with graffiti; later on, Alice receives a broader portrait in “What of Alicia.” Side one closes on “The Radio…and Real Life,” the track using sonic distance to embody the apparatus of the title as a fuller production technique represents the condition coming after the suspension points.

Jabo gets his deepest exploration in “There Outta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California” as Allen puts the outlaw into Outlaw country, peppering it with expletives reinforcing the artist’s development outside traditional circles. A howling wind bookends “What of Alicia” and leads to the narrative climax of “Honeymoon in Cortez,” the confrontation of the story punctuated by a succession of shattered glass.

The gemlike “Four Corners” serves as a gateway of relative calm into the record’s final section; “Dialogue: The Run South” kicks off an attempt at summary, its spoken words interjecting into the succeeding cuts. But Allen is resistant to tidy resolution, favoring the cultivation of mood and odes to humanity in all its faults; “Parts: Jabo/ Street Walking Woman” is at-first meditative and then boisterous, and “Cantina Carlotta” gives Chic a name change, celebrating her intoxicating essence as she exits.

“La Despedida (The Parting)” leaves Jabo alone in a bar, and it’s a finale likely to have spun a ‘70s film producer into a rage; at least Malick’s antihero got captured by the cops and Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia ended with machine gun fire. But as tempting as it is to compare Juarez to the movies, in the end the LP, paired here with a 24 pg. booklet reproducing artwork and lyrics with essays including a contribution by Blaster Dave Alvin, is its own sweet thing. If Hollywood had somehow managed to tap into Terry Allen’s ideas, they almost surely would’ve fucked them up.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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