Austin Lounge Lizards

Highway Cafe of the Damned

Watermelon Records, 1988

I've heard a lot about the Lizards, but somehow I've managed to consistently miss them up until very recently. Now I definitely regret missing out all this time! I saw them live a few weeks ago and immediately bought this, their second album (from 1988). (They've just released their third, "Lizard Vision", on Flying Fish -- this is on the obscure Watermelon label, as I suspect is their first.)

Basically the Lizards play novelty music in a country/bluegrass style. Novelty isn't really the right word for it, though; it implies songs that are funny the first couple of times, but lose their appeal. Main songwriter Hank Card (who wrote seven of the twelve songs here and co-wrote another) has a very astute lyrical ear, resulting in such tongue-tripping lines as "The military budget grew obese / And justice was entrusted to Ed Meese" (from the dated but still funny "Ballad of Ronald Reagan"). Card, like all good country songwriters, is a fine storyteller; it's just that the stories he tells are weird. In "Cornhusker Refugee", a gay San Franciscan pines for his Midwestern homeland, but realizes he can't go back: "It's hard to be gay in Lodgepole, Nebraska," he laments. The title track supplies a Sartrian view of hell as an all-night truck stop. "Acid Rain" describes the unrequited love of a New Yorker for an environmentally-correct Canadian. "Went canoeing on the lake, the fish were floating by/ She read me her manifesto, I had no reply." On the strength of their songwriting the Lizards transcend the "novelty" appelation.

Their basic lineup of guitar, mandolin, bass and banjo or pedal steel (depending on whether the song calls for a bluegrass or a honky-tonk style) is augmented here by various guests, including ex-Mother Jimmy Carl Black on drums and blues pianist Marcia Ball. High on my shopping list are the other two Austin Lounge Lizards albums, and this one should be on yours if you don't have it already.

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