August 1999

Johnny Dilks & His Visitacion Valley Boys - Acres of Heartache
HMG/HighTone HMG3008
Released: 1999

by Marc Mickelson

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

[Reviewed on CD]Imagine if Chris Isaak’s music had some of the humor Isaak often displays in public (well, maybe something more clever than that) and took the yodeling schtick further and you get a good idea of what Johnny Dilks & His Visitacion Valley Boys are about -- sort of. Both Isaak and Dilks have ties to the Bay area, and the dreamy San Francisco sound infuses the work of both. But while Isaak flirts with romance and obsesses over love, Dilks kicks the dirt off his boots and worries how to pay the rent. Dilks was born and raised in San Mateo, and after a stint in a punk band, he found religion in the form of rockabilly and western swing. This says as much about Dilks as Isaak’s hormonally charged videos say about him and, for me at least, makes Dilks a much more interesting songwriter and performer.

The product of this circuitous musical route is Acres of Heartache, with 11 Dilks originals among its 15 tracks. Dilks' songs are uniformly excellent and stylistically varied. "Comin’ on Thru" is a someone-took-my-cheatin’-woman song with kick-ass attitude -- literally -- while "The Check’s in the Mail" preserves country music’s birthright of discussing the sad facts of everyday life, often with wry humor. "One Foot in the Grave" shows off some plaintive Cajun fiddling, and "Lose that Woman Blues" showcases Dilks’ yodeling, and man can he yodel. The collection is as uniform in quality as it is varied in its influences -- Hank Williams, Bob Wills, even a sprinkling of Buck Owens -- not an easy balancing act to pull off. The sound is a little thin and peaky, but clear and spacious overall.

The music on Acres of Heartache may not appeal to everyone, but it will interest those who admire well-crafted retro country with none of Nashville's wretched star-making bent. It’s great stuff, the kind of music you hear once and then hum all day. And if you get a hankerin’ to try and yodel, well, consider this your warning.