In a just world, Swamp Dogg reigns as a godhead, the rest of us his disciples.
As it stands, he has thrived on the fringes since releasing his 1970 debut, Total Destruction To Your Mind. In a former life, the Dogg was Little Jerry Williams, an R&B performer who cut a handful of frantic– and essential– sides from the mid-1950s until his LSD-inspired metamorphosis in 1969.
It’s unfortunate that Dogg is perhaps most famous for the artwork of his record Rat On!, which finds itself perennially on “Worst Album Cover” lists. The jacket speaks to Dogg’s eccentricity, but it belies his talent for songcraft. Yes, there’s novelty and appeals to baseness throughout his catalog, but there’s also a lyrical profundity few artists can match.
Swamp Dogg’s discography defies categories. At their core, his albums are southern-fried soul, a seamless mixture that’s gritty, broken, and playful. Still, there’s something that’s faintly off, a touch of the uncanny. At times, he’s a deadly serious Civil Rights and anti-war activist making Richard Nixon’s proverbial hit list with songs like “God Bless America for What”; elsewhere, he’s a lothario with designs on married women in “Wife Sitter” or on a former lover in “Sex with Your Ex”; or perhaps he’s the widower who’s left to make sense of loss and loneliness in the heartbreaking “Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg” and “Memories”.
Swamp Dogg’s latest record, I Need a Job… So I Can Buy More Auto-Tune, finds him riding the momentum afforded by his two previous records, Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune and Sorry You Couldn’t Make It. In the former, his first record featuring Auto-Tune, he eschews flirtation with the pitch-correction software in favor of future-shock indulgence, creating tricked-out miniature symphonies; for the follow-up album, Dogg confounds conventions by playing the role of the straight shooter, settling in for duets with a kindred spirit, the late John Prine. I Need a Job finds a middle ground between the two.
On one hand, the songs are indebted to Dogg’s greasy roots. There are the classic tropes of the R&B canon– impossible women (“Full-Time Woman”), betrayal (“Cheating All Over Again”), and desire (“I Need Your Body”). The smooth “Cheating in the Daylight”— a paranoid confession of brazen sunlit indiscretions– features a guest spot by soul-stalwart Willie Clayton, whose coupled vocals serve to escalate the song’s anxiety; the secular hosanna “Soul to Blessed Soul” features the recently departed wild man Guitar Shorty. He even dedicates the album to Tommy Hunt, lead singer of The Flamingos, doo-wop legends famous for the classics “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Lovers Never Say Goodbye”.
As for the titular vocal effect, the embellishment is minimal, a subtle manipulation that gives the record a surrealistic undercurrent. Aside from the electronic blips and occasional cascades, it feels as if Swamp Dogg has achieved a baseline of normalcy until he declares in “She Got That Fire” that he wants to make a “bold move”– I want to eat her underwear!
Rat on, indeed!
Yet Dogg is a shapeshifter and also delivers one of the most poignant songs of his career, “Darlin’ Darlin’ Darlin’”, his reckoning with his well-earned reputation as a philanderer and a promise to change, an impressive declaration given that he’s pushing 80 years old.
The album closes with a cover of Joe Tex’s “Show Me”, a frenzied in-the-red thumper that reminds listeners why Swamp Dogg and Little Jerry Williams are royalty to listeners who hold sacred their Savage Kick and Stompin’ LPs.
Each new Swamp Dogg release carries with it a narrative about a renaissance, a comeback. The truth is that he is ever-present, a totem of the DIY movement waiting for the world to catch up to him. And if it never does, that’s cool too. As he says in liner notes to I Need A Job, he writes, “I hope you like this little peep of our future– if you don’t… GO FUCK YOURSELF!”