April 1999

Bocephus King - A Small Good Thing
New West NW6004
Released: 1999

by Steven P. Ragland

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment **1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Musical groups can get away with almost any name: from the immodest (Masters At Work) to the self-mocking (Charlatans) to the downright silly (Notting Hillbillies). It’s much harder for a solo act to pull off a hyperbolic handle, and a musician who channels both Hank Williams, Jr. and Elvis Presley in the same assumed name has a lot to live up to. And with his music, as with his moniker, Bocephus King just plain tries too hard. It’s a shame, too, because there are moments on A Small Good Thing when he relaxes and has fun with the music. And when he has fun with his blues-tinged country, so does the listener.

King, a Vancouver-born singer-songwriter, is obviously talented. He reportedly picked up his brother’s Sears guitar at an early age and could play almost anything by ear. While still a minor, he was getting gigs in Pacific Northwest bars. His musicianship shows in songs like "Ruby," one of the disc’s best tracks. This boy sure can pick a guitar.

"Ruby" is one of the fun times on A Small Good Thing, where King just seems to kick back, strum out an enjoyable tune, and tell a good story. The yarn is familiar: young man, blinded by beauty, takes the rap after "Ruby shot a bar man" and "rode a greyhound bus to Tennessee." Convicted of murder, he laments, "by Wednesday I was locked inside / by Thursday God had left my side / by Friday I had lost all track of time." Still stuck on her, he comments "maybe Ruby’s crying / maybe she’s just drinking French champagne / and toasting to the easy mark / who’ll be rotting in this cell ‘til judgment day." This is King at his best, adding some poetic panache to the standard stuck-in-jail country-blues song.

"Think About You" is another standout. Again, a familiar theme -- man obsessed with a dangerous woman -- but King sets the stage wonderfully: "It’s misty and dark now, it’s windy and warm / there’s a strange lady holding tight to tragedy’s arm." As his gravelly voice belts this one out, you can see him in the back of a bar drinking warm Jack Daniels in between all-too-frequent drags on a filterless cigarette.

Unfortunately, though, the disc is also peppered with tracks like "Land of Plenty" and "Blues for Buddy Bolden." In the former, a none-too-interesting ballad, King’s vocal delivery is more whiny than soulful, although soulful is clearly what he’s aiming for. His one-time clever lyrics turn tired: "all the feathers of the angels are falling / as they fly near the sun and fall hard in the oceans of shame." This track feels puerile, like high-school poetry. "Blues for Buddy Bolden" is similarly vexed with verses like, "it was his very last parade / his coronet exploded / and his hell came pouring out into the city."

Perhaps because this is Bocephus King’s first record, he did not have the luxury of culling enough tracks, and no doubt his writing will mature. I fear, though, that either he or his management thinks he needs to adopt the persona of a truly soulful, "deep" artist. In "Nowhere At All," a little over halfway through the disc, he breaks down to speaking his lyrics, apparently to add real meaning: "hell, everybody thinks they’re in love / and they find out later that they’re just really bored." This gimmick seldom works, unless you’re Arlo Guthrie.

Hopefully, the few good -- and couple excellent -- songs on this disc will make an impression on listeners and record-company executives, enabling Bocephus King to develop his potential. First point of advice -- get a more critical and less excessive producer. Some tracks, most notably "Hours Before Light," are plagued with extravagant orchestration -- a classic sign of being overproduced. Unfortunately, Bocephus King is his own producer.

Second point -- the man with the rather showy name needs to take himself a little less seriously. Then perhaps the next Bocephus King record will offer much more than A Small Good Thing.