Jerry Giddens + Killeen Foundry – Damn It Abby! (2014)

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Having moved from jangle rock to political screeds to punk folk and then, well, to New Orleans, Jerry Giddens arrived at this Killeen Foundry collaboration boasting well-traveled boots and a full heart. A literary musician with a resonant bellow, he’d lived in L.A., and in Austin, then — upon securing a Ph.D — returned to his home state as a teacher. Music, for a long piece of this journey, rode in the back seat.

Still, as the Damn It Abby illustrates, Giddens was writing songs, collecting thoughts, remembering phrases and details and feelings, whether he was conscious of such things or not. There’s simply too much ringing specificity here, too many lessons and dreams, the kind of revelations — musical and otherwise — that take miles to internalize.

You hear it from the first. After an atmospheric beginning, in the form of this ghostly trip back to Jelly Roll Morton’s “Pretty Baby,” Jerry Giddens’ oaken voice draws out the contours of a very adult reminiscence in “Lullaby for Babette.” He imagines a walk down the slanted streets of New Orleans in 1919, when everything was different but then very much the same. As the city lights flicker in the night, a heart breaks in a fashion unchanged. Then something happens, like heavy weather moving in over the Crescent City Connection. A smeared guitar storms into what had been a folk-focused lament, imbuing it with this grim sense of regret — and Damn It Abby! makes its broader intentions clear.

Giddens’ new project with Killeen Foundry, though it references his by-now-familiar songwriting aesthetic, isn’t going to settle.

“Shame is Crying,’ co-written by Damn It Abby! collaborator Rod Hodges of the Iguanas, finds its Byrds-y cadence transformed by a whiskey-swilling solo. With “Acadiana Farewell,” Giddens lets loose the kind of searing howl found on earlier, heartbroke updates of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” and the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” but a change in scenery has altered his perspective — and Giddens finds a well of new emotion in local imagery. Put another way: It’s something like “Mariah,” but with a dash of Tony Chachere’s.

An interlude featuring the traditional song “St. James Infirmary,” as brief as it is devastating, leads into the lilting, yet darkly complex “Bayou St. John,” a moment of bleak acceptance that — if you’re too in the cups to pay close attention — probably sounds like something else entirely on those rare nights when Giddens takes the stage at a local bar.

That’s a credit to a group of collaborators which also includes Doug Garrison, Peter Jones, Spencer Bohren, Rene Coman, John Fohl, Tom Marron and Michael Skinkus. But also to the way Jerry Giddens continues to advance his craft. “Maggie,” for instance, is presented twice on Damn It Abby!, first as a studio production and then as a live take from Siberia on St. Claude in New Orleans, underscoring the broad range of emotions embedded in this oblique tale of dreams deferred.

Even as it explores these exciting new paths, Damn It Abby smartly reconnects with Giddens’ underrated past. “Madeline’s Quilt” and “Swimming in Roses” skip along with a witty gumption that matches Giddens’ narrative, directly recalling the sound — if not the socio-political edge — of his 1980s-era band Walking Wounded. “When the Weather Breaks,” another Hodges co-write, has the raw honesty of 1990s solo projects like The Devil’s Front Door — right down to the striking solo turn, which leaps out just as the Blasters’ Dave Alvin did back then.

In this way, Damn It Abby! represents the perfect comeback project. See, underneath that professor’s coat there’s remains a poet, with a guitarist’s calloused fingers stuffed in the pockets. And so Damn It Abby!, recorded at Piety Studios (around the corner from his funky Bywater home) and released on Sputnik, simultaneously reminds us (and maybe Jerry Giddens, too) of everything he’d once been — and, just as importantly, what he can still become.

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