By Noah Hubbell
By Leslie Simon
By Brad Lopez
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Some day, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Nick Cave may stroll into Sun Records and cut an intimate session to be dubbed The Next Million Dollar Quartet. While this dream is implausible, Rev. Neil Down's incredible barroom testament gives hope to the possibility.
When a Wrong Turns Right is gruff, big, smooth and emotive at a turn and will be passed around to thirsty souls like a community whiskey bottle behind a skid-row pawnshop. Conceived in Down's Unabomber-styled shack in Alaska and recorded in Ireland, the album contains surprisingly accessible tunes. The good Reverend knows the secrets of evangelists like the overlooked Preacher Jack: Convict, then offer redemption. Sordid tales such as "Whippin' Boy" and "Sometimes Paradise" are of the leaving and adulterous sort. Down implicates himself with lines like "He said I just met you/But you seem preoccupied/It's as if you was running from some kind of trouble/Or somebody else's bride." When beauty rears its ugly head on the altar call "She's Talking to You," Down's sentiment is understated, not sappy. The simple moment beats out any gushing love-song idealism with the couplet "When you said I was your best friend/The tide rose to my eyes." Once absolved, the Rev tends to the flock in "The Big Brother," attempting to keep the wolves away from a teasing teen sibling: "You'd better be a good sister/Or I could end up black and blue/I might lose a chiclet or two." Just as clever as the lyrics are the time changes in "She Lets Me Do" which borders on prog-rock before shuffling back home to its folk beginnings.
The natural warmth of Down's rough voice is comforting and unexpectedly complemented by the innocence of Lahna Deering's heavenly hosting, while sorrowful pedal steel and desperate electric blues drive the soul-searching hymns "Part of Your Heart" and "Saint Jack's Cadillac." Keyboardist James Delaney has Jimmy Swaggart on one shoulder and his cousin Jerry Lee on the other as gospel organ and righteous piano give way to boogie-woogie backsliding. Prolific Irish guitarist Henry McCullough plays -- or downplays -- with more subtlety than his extensive background would imply. McCullough's biography is almost a credibility risk because of the high-profile performers with whom he's been associated, from Pink Floyd to Paul McCartney. The guitar leads fit the songs tastefully without any showboating. His country breakdowns on "Xalapa Linda" are classic Rick Nelson stuff, applied only where needed, and the smart conservation of notes leaves a desire for more.
Overall, the arrangements and the vocal phrasings on Down's latest are spacious, like classic Van Morrison, with overlapping instrumentation and rich sound separation. Like a drunk in a midnight choir, When a Wrong Turns Right makes a fellow want to belly up to the altar and receive the Alcoholy Spirit.