There are a lot of clichés in today’s country music, whenever songs are love-at-the-first-sight-fairy-tales, Southern-pride-patriotic tunes, or simple-life-in-small-town-USA with a girl and God at both sides,… you know the music. But this world could not be further from that of John Henry Olthoff’s new album ‘Selfish Portraits’, produced by Frank Schiazza, who is also featured on lead guitar, bass, keyboards, and backing vocals.
With a quite traditional alt-country music style, the contrast between the upbeat bright arrangements and the self-deprecating lyrics is at its best with the opener, ‘Hard to know’, a song which has a little bit of Warren Zevon going on.
All along the 15-song album, Olthoff is the storyteller, painting this series of lonesome scenes drown in misery, this collection of tragicomedies about lost lovers with upbeat tempos, vocal harmonies, and saloon-ey piano, or melancholic chords and pedal steel guitar (Glenn Spivack), or even some boastful Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers-ish rhythm like in ‘No other kind’.
His idea of a love song is one where the main character seems to scream to the girl ‘Don’t Walk Away,.. Run’, and a line like this could sum up the tone of his album, full of these lively vignettes about disastrous relationships, sung with a powerful nasal tone, and a mixed bag of humor and sadness.
Going from melancholic to desperate to amused, from one heartache to another tough times, dark humor runs all over the album, as if Olthoff thought it was the only way to survive the miserable life of loneliness and broken relationships depicted: ‘I remember when you said you’d never leave me/And I hoped that you were lying’ he sings in ‘Don’t walk Away’, or ‘Billy broke his hand beating up his ex-girlfriend/She’d broken his heart, so he figured that made them even’, in ‘Weekend in jail’, and you just have to laugh when he says ‘Because making love with you was better than killing myself/But not much else’, in ‘Not Much Else’.
Life is harsh and pitiless, and mercy is nowhere to be found, not even in the sky, ‘Hurt like learning that your mother never loved you/Hurt like figuring out there’s no one in the sky above you’, he realizes in ‘It Hurt’, and there’s even a pissed-off-mocking song about a powerless God, ‘Can Your God Do That’, bright as a happy country tune despite its nihilistic nature,… we have never been closer to absurd country in redneck territory.