Paul K is one of the post-punk generation’s first bona fide bluesmen, a guy whose tales from the darkside are drawn from his own experiences as a reformed junkie and small-time criminal with the jailhouse record to prove it. Throughout the mid-’80s, the Louisville, Kentucky native (né Kopasz) released dozens of home-recorded cassette albums, but the onetime winner of a debating scholarship hamstrung his own progress by living a lifestyle sufficiently shadowy that he ended up a New York squatter pulling small-time stickups to make ends meet. That was then.
Whatever his personal predicament, Paul K’s paradoxically world-weary and mystically sanguine mindset — a fusion not all that different from unambiguous influences like Townes Van Zandt — seldom wavered. Although the alternately temperate and wired Patriots’ dizzyingly mood swings — from the rootsy working-man’s lament “Landfill Blues” to the side-filling seventeen-minute title track-make for difficult sledding when taken in one sitting, the individual elements signal good things to come.
And come they do on The Big Nowhere, a mostly acoustic set recorded without his on-again/off-again backing band, the Weathermen (no relation to the techno group of the same name): drawing considerably from literary sources (most tangibly on the stealthy, ghost-in-the-machine saga “Robespierre”), K spins yarns as detailed as they are venomous. In the process of indicting slumlords (“The Arson Biz”) and sociopathic social climbers (“Too Many Yakking Passengers”), he moves from observer to frontline soldier in a class war he knows is hopeless, but feels compelled to fight anyway. Gut-wrenching stuff.
The presence of a full complement of Weathermen isn’t the only thing that makes The Killer in the Rain — a title that, like its predecessor, points up the inspiration Paul K takes from the dark detective fiction of writers like Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson — such a visceral release. A clenched-teeth sense of desperation practically grabs you by the lapels from the onset of the opening “The Third Day Is the Worst,” not only in the form of K’s stiletto-sharp guttersnipe observations, but also in the acutely wracking post-Hendrix guitar scree he strews across the hardscrabble rhythms of songs like “Highway Zero.” But in exemplary bluesman fashion, he ducks away from the hellhounds on his tail long enough to beg absolution on the outlaw hymn “Sacred Mud.”
The Blue Sun, culled from Paul K’s cassette archives, resounds with an even greater urgency than his “proper” albums. By alternating incendiary pieces like the title track (as rending an approximation of withdrawal — emotional and/or pharmacological — as you’re likely to hear) with ghostly quiet tracks like “Haunt Me ‘Til I’m Gone,” K is able to take listeners on an emotional rollercoaster ride that’s utterly depleting. Blues for Charlie Lucky, another solo recording, is even darker than its antecedents, thanks in large part to the almost rakish manner in which the singer/guitarist struts through catastrophic tales like “Black and Blues” and the downright hysterical “Nicotine Psychos Blues.” Few players can wring the sort of distortion displayed on the suicidal “Stop the Film” from an acoustic guitar without losing a foothold in folk tradition, a tradition Paul pays respects to by performing “John Riley” — and twists by annexing William Blake’s mystical epic “Jerusalem.”
There’s a steely dignity at the core of Garden of Forking Paths, a disposition that’s all but nonexistent in these post-post-modern times. Greeting the onset of maturity with decorum rather than nails dug into the last shreds of adolescence, K splits his time between acknowledging past failures (the album-opening “Stone in My Shoe” begins by conceding “We failed/We fucked up/Now it’s time/To live our lives more quietly”) and reaffirming his mistrust of the system (as on the unruffled “To Win Is to Fail”). The Christian subtext of previous releases is more overt this time, as evidenced by the ecstatic “7 Gates to the City” and a cover of David Olney’s recovered-cynic allegory “Jerusalem Tomorrow”-but the searing guitar work that rends the latter song is a guaranteed restorative, whatever your faith.
Judging by Coin of the Realm‘s tone, Paul K seems to have come to a personal peace. Not that its seven songs betray a great deal of happiness per se: it’s just that he’s concentrating less on private demons than the universal ones addressed in the sneering, render-unto-Caesar title track and the seething “Pillar of Salt.” That timbre carries over to Achilles Heel, on which the current Weathermen lineup stays at a gritty simmer from end to end. Paul’s populist philosophies — detailed in both “Roses for the Rich” and “Internet Worm” — are typically trenchant, and nicely set off by the corrosive black humor that emanates from tracks like the anti-ironist rant “Rerun.” He also pays tribute to Van Zandt, eking every last drop of emotion from that writer’s fallen-angel lament “Tecumseh Valley.” He may not be a boxcar-riding troubadour, but Paul K is just about the only credible proponent of the drifter’s-eye-view of the world we have left. For that alone, he is to be treasured.
Now and at the Hour of Our Death, Amen is a live album — half solo acoustic, half with a band-recorded in Lexington in February ’96 and released the following month (!) in Germany.