Jonny “Two Bags” Wickersham’s 2014 record Salvation Town is not just an exceptional fusion of rock and Americana, but also the perfect antidote to corporate-sponsored Valentine’s Day euphoria. This is not an album celebrating the magical bonds between life partners. But more about that in a minute.
First, who is Jonny Two Bags? Jonny Wickersham has been the guitarist for the punk band Social Distortion for over a decade. I can’t say I'm a big Social Distortion fan. My appreciation for punk is strictly first wave, falling off pretty quickly after the Sex Pistols, Clash and Ramones. I know of Social Distortion mostly through a friend’s band, Bourbon Therapy, whose just-released first record includes an excellent cover of Social Distortion’s “Dear Lover” (check it out here).
But Salvation Town is not a punk record. “Hope Dies Hard,” with its bass string-heavy chords and soaring vocals on the chorus, has the feel of R.E.M.’s “The I One I Love” and “Driver 8.” “One Foot In The Gutter” (video above — for better sound, click here) has a distinctive Elvis Costello backbeat, which is not surprising given that Elvis Costello’s drummer, Pete Thomas, plays on the record.
Jackson Browne adds backing vocals on “Then You Stand Alone,” a tune that wouldn't be out of place on one of his records. “Clay Wheels” is a mellow, country-based rocker in the spirit of Neil Young’s Harvest, with accordion substituting for the harmonica fills. And “Forlorn Walls” has the pop sensibility and driving, straight-ahead structure of some of the Wallflowers’ hits.
Salvation Town is a strong record and I would've been happy to come across it at any time of the year. But I must admit I was particularly thrilled to learn of it in the weeks leading up to February 14th because its lyrics are like activated charcoal for any commercially-packaged Valentine’s Day sugar high.
My favorite lonely-heart dirge on the record is “Alone Tonight” (video below — for better sound, click here) which celebrates the restorative power of physical distance: “I’m so glad I’m alone tonight/Alone tonight, without you/There is no struggle, no fight/I’ll stay true to you/‘Til I turn out the light.” While not the stuff of a Hallmark card, the tune is uplifting in its own way – at least he's at peace for the evening. By regarding relationships from the mat, and for its spare and poignant pedal steel-infused sound, “Alone Tonight” has won itself a spot on my Bitter With The Sweet Valentine’s Mix, available here.
In “The Way It Goes,” an equally disenchanted tune, Wickersham describes meeting a girl, apparently at a gas station. He suggests she drop everything and run away with him, to which she replies “I don’t know what you mean/I’m only looking for some gasoline.” His explanation that “I’m gonna rip your life apart at the seams” and “put you six feet in the ground,” fails, surprisingly, to close the deal, although Wickersham’s protagonist claims confusion over it, attributing her flight to some uncontrollable force in the world – “that’s just the way it goes.” If (and this may be a big “if”) you can get past the storyline, which is disturbing even if presented as fable, you'll be rewarded with a great rock song. Check it out here.
Salvation Town is a terrific record. It might not be the record to spin over a romantic dinner on February 14th, but it has a rock ‘n’ roll soul that'll survive long after the Valentine’s Day chocolates have melted.