“Kings for Sale” – Afton Wolfe

4 stars (out of 5)

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It’s been a long time coming; after over twenty years of making music, Afton Wolfe has finally released a solo album. It’s worth waiting for. “Kings for Sale” is an album created by an artist with an intimate knowledge of the underside of the music business; its compromises, its failures and its occasional successes. This is an album of flawless songs (originals and interpretations) delivered in a rasping baritone over a wide variety of musical settings. The scope of the arrangements, the raw vocal and the subjects of the songs make the Tom Waits comparisons inevitable, but you can hear many other influences there, including a nod towards Greg Dulli’s solo soundscapes on “Cemetery Blues”.

There’s a lot happening instrumentally on “Kings for Sale”, although it’s more about atmosphere and ambience rather than a constant presence from the start to the finish of a song. Afton also uses speech samples and sound effects to create the perfect sonic settings, whether it’s spoken word intros or water flowing through a song. Everything’s there for a reason and nothing’s wasted. And this is probably the moment to get this out of the way; the unusual soundscapes and subject matter, and the rough-hewn baritone voice have more than a hint of Tom Waits. There, I’ve said it.

The album swings into action with a full band and horns on “Paper Piano”, a story of growing up poor and using imagination and creativity to deal with the poverty. It’s a great groove to catch the attention from the letter A and even has a Van Morrison-esque piano breakdown before the big finale. At the other end of the album is a song at the other end of the scale. “O’ Magnolia” is delivered in the style of a hymn by a church choir and is an exhortation to the state of Mississippi to change its flag to remove the old Confederate imagery and replace it with something more representative of the 21st century, namely the state flower, the magnolia*.

Between the opener and the closer, there’s a treasure trove of musical styles and lyrical themes from the slow country fiddle and pedal steel of “Carpenter”, using biblical imagery to tell a story of misunderstandings in crowded, alcohol-soaked rooms to the doom-laden grunge of B.W. Goodwin Jr’s “Cemetery Blues”. The lyrics are minimal, but the sonic treatment creates an atmosphere of menace and foreboding; it’s difficult and beautiful. A personal favourite, following on from “Cemetery Blues” is M.J. West’s “Mrs Ernst’s Piano”, a story of the tentative first steps on a journey to racial equality that’s still far from complete.

Nine songs and nothing resembling a damp squib; Afton Wolfe’s own songs and the carefully chosen interpretations combine to create a lovely blend of styles and lyrical themes. And there are a few thought-provoking references. The word ’cover’ appears twice, a reference to the compromises a musical innovator has to make to survive financially, while the opening line of the album, ‘Every good boy does a little bit better’ references the mnemonic used by educators to teach the notes on the treble stave. That’s the level of detail that you can pick out from these songs.

“Kings for Sale” is out now on Grandiflora Records. Here’s the video for “Dirty Girl”, a road trip down through Mississippi to New Orleans:

*The new Mississippi flag was officially adopted on January 11, and it looks like this:

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