He’s a yee-haw huckster with a poet’s soul, a hard-livin’ headcase with the faith of an altar boy, and a bohemian redneck who frequents Alice’s Restaurant. He plays hippie folk, glossy country, subtle balladry, anything-but-subtle sloganeering and straight-up hard rock, all with equal aplomb. These incongruities may have saved Todd Snider’s tame roots rock from utter banality, but they have also left his recorded efforts marred by ill-advised stabs at something more than he can handle. Still, Snider holds a relevant position in the land of troubled troubadours, and his keen songwriting ability continues to deliver compositions with both meaning and wit.
Discovered in Memphis by Keith Sykes of Jimmy Buffett’s band and signed to the latter’s Margaritaville label, the Oregon native first garnered attention with the Mojo-Nixon-meets-Country-Joe novelty “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues,” a popular live staple subsequently tacked on his debut, Songs for the Daily Planet, as an uncredited bonus. The tune, about a band so alternative it refuses to play, says everything about Todd’s intention — essentially, to follow the footsteps of ragged songsmiths like John Prine and Arlo Guthrie — but nothing about the conventional country-rock that makes up the bulk of the album. A couple of tracks stink of pompous cowboy crap that would make any state fair happy (“This Land Is Our Land” and “Turn It Up”), but the other upbeat numbers are memorable for better reasons, and Todd’s wordplay is constantly smart and entertaining. “My Generation (Part 2)” couples a Tennessee thump with a rip on Gen X stereotypes that salutes everything from hair gel to Arsenio Hall. The laid back gallop of “Alright Guy” compliments the self-portrait of a modern-day “scumbag” who namedrops Madonna and Sinead O’Connor and reveals his exploits with the police with shirtless fervor (“Man, I was only kidding / When I called them a couple of dicks”). When Snider’s storyteller shtick is slowed down he resembles Springsteen or Lovett at their most tortured, which can get a tad unpleasant, but even the most jaded of hearts can’t deny the tragedy of small-town child abuse that’s found in “You Think You Know Somebody.”
By the time of Step Right Up, Snider’s backing band, the Nervous Wrecks, included ex-Will & the Bushmen guitarist Will Kimbrough. A slightly more rock-based sound emerges, as do similarities to the Gin Blossoms and Tom Petty. The group’s bluesy shuffle in “Moon Dawg’s Tavern” (a trailer-trash tale located in Frazier, Tennessee, a favored setting in Todd’s lyrics) shakes things up a bit, as do the southern boogie of “Side Show Blues” and the rudimentary bluegrass pickin’ in “Better Than Ever Blues Part 2.” Other songs show Todd progressing as both a singer and songwriter. In the slow mourner “Prison Walls,” his voice is perfectly worn — a little twang here, a little strain there — and his references to left-wing protestors and Lollapalooza are a nice surprise in a barroom rocker like “Late Last Night.” Yet he’s still at his best when he takes on the sardonic folk pose, as demonstrated in “Tension,” a paranoid classic full of breathy harmonica and ’90s social commentary in lines like, “People still love drugs / Hell, they’re bigger than Rush Limbaugh.” Yes, it’s revivalism, and his use of topical icons dates the material faster than his hairstyles, but no one else filled quite the same niche.
With Viva Satellite, Snider’s last bid for major-label success, we find his image being retooled in an obvious attempt to make him more marketable to the same alt-rock scenesters he had been good-naturedly deriding. That adds up to a suit jacket and moussed ‘do on the cover and a fondness for bluesy riff-rock on the disc. As if the Nervous Wrecks (now featuring former Afghan Whigs drummer Paul Buchignani) had been exiled on Main Street, “Rocket Fuel” and the hidden “I’m a Nervous Wreck” are injected with tough Stonesy swagger; “I Am Too” has Snider wound up tight as he discharges some good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll bravado. A surprising psychedelic element pops up in the swirling guitar of “Guaranteed” and the instrumental “I Am Two.” Some recurring Al Kooper-like Hammond work by Rick Steff is a nice quirky touch, but as the saying goes, you can take a boy out of the country but you can’t stop him from doing a mean Petty impersonation. Even without the fiddles and mandolins, Viva Satellite is just another clever roots-rock excursion with some winners and losers (like a meaningless cover of Steve Miller’s “The Joker”).
As drastic and imprudent marketing schemes are wont to do, the makeover fizzled. Leaving behind the Nervous Wrecks (but retaining Buchignani), MCA and his flirtations with the tawdry, leather-wearing world of hard rock, Snider signed to John Prine’s Oh Boy Records and released the most consistent album of his career. Happy to Be Here pulls no punches, from the self-titled lead-in track, a crackling acoustic rally cry for the confused and apathetic (“Happy to be here to vote randomly / On who ought to take the next dive”), to “Back to the Crossroads,” the token spiritual number that ends the disc. “Lonely Girl” is landmark melancholia that would make Roy Orbison proud, and “All of My Life” is a beautifully written song in any context (and possible the first thing Snider has composed that is utterly free of novelty or pretense). The stoner-comic punch lines come in the pre-nuptial hilarity of “Just in Case” and “Keep Off the Grass,” the direct descendant of Five Man Electrical Band’s “Signs” and Brewer & Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line.” With Peter Holsapple providing some enriching mandolin, Happy to Be Here gets Snider that much closer to where he really wants to be.
New Connection is Snider’s adult record. Oh, he still has his smirk, only now he has nothing to prove by it. After the title track opens the record in reflective country-folk fashion, Snider reads a list of his record collection in a foot-stompin’ romp called, you guessed it, “Vinyl Records.” Similarly, “Rose City,” a pleasant mid-tempo rocker that could pass for Peter Case, is followed by “Beer Run,” one of the most dimwitted, thoroughly enjoyable country throwaways since Roger Miller’s “Chug-a-Lug.” The controlled Americana of “Stuck All Night” leads to the longhair ramblings of “Statistician’s Blues”; the analytical “Class of ’85” gives way to “Broke,” a clarinet-seasoned swinger. While not as satisfying as his previous outing, New Connection gives both Snider and his audience a reason to stick around.
Armed with storytelling abilities that have been the saving grace of more than a few of his selections, Snider is able to display his charm clearly on a live album. Near Truths and Hotel Rooms spins as much like a finely-tuned comic routine as it does a folk singer’s late-night gig. Introductions to songs seem longer than the songs themselves, and his Jeff-Spicoli-meets-Dylan vibe is in full effect. Not that he doesn’t bring the musical goods: the concert setting conveys intimacy to previously overdone numbers like “Easy Money” and “Side Show Blues,” and the campers still cry to moving renditions of “Long Year” and “Waco Moon,” a biting ballad about the death of Eddy Shaver (son of singer Billy Joe Shaver and guitarist on Daily Planet). Above all else, Snider is a resilient showman with enough lyrical savvy to back up his bullshit.