By: Dennis Cook
We are all of us an amalgamation of scar tissue and unconscious tics that shambles around, directed much more by vicissitudes than any grand scheme, grasping at anything that keeps us from "the lap of poverty," be it literal, emotional or spiritual. Plans are, by nature, a dream thrown forward in time. We have to hope a bus or a personal failing or just plain ol' bad luck doesn't knock us off course, but as a species we can't help but imagine ahead of ourselves (always sparing a thought for the past, which remains locked arm-in-arm with our forward march). Sometimes the best move is to just stop and revel, do the backstroke in the moment, spit water into the air and let it backwash us with the damp mess of it all. All of these currents – the reminiscing, the reveling, the rigging, the ruination – flutter and chatter on Todd Snider's ninth studio album, The Excitement Plan (released June 9 on Yep Roc), a series of help-yourself-or-somebody-else tales for "the terminally ill and the worried well."
The East Nashville kid has never sounded better, where his increasingly muscular guitar, harp and piano playing and ever-pleasing, bath warm talk-singing is bolstered by a trio of pro's pros – drummer Jim Keltner, steel guitar/dobro marvel Greg Leisz and upright bassist and producer Don Was. The combo rattles like a looser, happier descendent of Ry Cooder's Boomer's Story or the best Tom Petty if you stripped away the radio bluster and insatiable need to pander. Everything here cuts clean, the soft buzz of strings pulled at by human hands and the thick fingered plink of someone who plays piano because he loves it but hasn't spent a lot of time with practice manuals. Nearly every aspect of Todd Snider - from his genuinely funny, insightful songs to his ramshackle vocal delivery to his oft-unnoticed gift for melodies that latch onto ya like a tenacious mollushk – seems green and natural, some leafy thing that sprung out of the ground, a vegetative platypus unlike the other organisms but birthed from shared soil.
The sense that he's today's equivalent to wild American characters like Will Rogers or Jack Keroac has never been stronger than on The Excitement Plan, where his good humor and massive heart ramble through tales of LSD lit pitchers, felled trees imagining their next planting, accidental but unrepentant criminals and magazine cover stars. His universe is our universe but the way he sees it makes it SO much wider and more colorful. One of the persistent aspects of his songwriting is the proximity of tears to laughter, offered as paired souls or interlocked poles not opposites. Excitement carves a grin on Tragedy's face as surely as it etches a tear into Comedy's mask. By insisting on chuckling at his own foibles, Snider invites us to stare down our own peccadilloes and see how they may not be as serious or fatal as we make them out to be, and if they are, well, so fucking be it. In more basic terms, it is a hugely humanizing experience to journey from opener "Slim Chance" to the semi-happy ending of "Good Fortune."
With Christmas lights shining on the Fourth of July, this virtual radio plays, offering us glimpses of what might be and encouraging us to sip the wine coming 'round…and then plume a sloppy, red fountain from our lips. We often find ourselves trapped in memories of a "time where we were handsome, a time where we had money to burn," wasting our precious minutes on what was while growing increasingly uncertain about what's next. We build our sandbag walls against the rising water, all the while missing how faint our heart has grown during our labors until "time stands still until it starts shaking around like some crazy old hooker on meth." And even if we don't know who or what to pray to (nor what we might say if we did know…), we can't helping hoping that tomorrow will be somehow better or brighter or just more peaceful. At least we won't have to wonder what we should listen to while parked in our confusion. Todd Snider has given us the perfect slab for the lost and pondering masses that reminds us in so many dear ways that we "don't necessarily have to pay the fiddler to dance."
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