A Clockwork Piñata

Go right in, they've stopped charging cover: "Tha ball-oons, are all fall-ing a-wa-ay, you can see them slipping down in the corners like the day." That's Miz Nancy McCallion, commencing Only a Story, the new Mollys album. "They're pulling up the dance floor in the ha-ah-all"—her "small" voice always gets in your keyhole. "You think you've found your Elvis, then you watch him choke and fall." Sure enough, here comes another Molly, Kevin Schramm, bound to fall like a King Kong Presley, limping and wheezing (right past her!) like an accordionist shouldn't. Sometimes he pauses, still grinding away, moments piling up. Then he lurches on.

I know: He's just making sure we really get "Don't Come On Strong and Run"—Mollys don't coddle no Good Intentions. Tucson, Arizona's Mollys ARE TexMexistential Celtic Country Polka—which, for the past decade, has usually added up to "Rock'n'Roll by Other Means." So I'm bumfuzzled by this opening song, which gets funnier, more Mollyfried, but settles into/for an uncharacteristically "oh well" kind of groove. I keep waiting for it to take off, like "Kathleen" on 1995's This Is My Round: "I seen the girl you're living with, a-climbing up the hill, she had a pack upon her back a-picking through the rocks, and she and your old milking goat were dragging a big box." Not exactly Anna Nicole in your DeLorean, Pappy. Don't mistake Mollyspeople for low-expectations-having, though. If so, they wouldn't be coming so far just to start all over—and over again, like Kathleen. Mollyspeople ride righteous orecarts to the last exit and start walkin'. No hosses in these westerns—plenty drums, though, and co-lead throat Catherine Zavala oi!-ing and oy-ing past the dusty office windows of Pogues, Popes, Piazzolla, Waits, Weill, and Wilner (especially on the very live limited edition 1996 Wanking Out West, mollys.com only), with chief scribe Nancy tin-whistling daylight through yer bullet holes. Cussin' and discussin' their heads off. Why? Well, as 1997's Moon Over the Interstate puts it, "I Want to Polka" ("but no-body polkas a-lone").

Looking for a new partner? You might find a new dance—or find yourself drastically realigning an old one. 1995's Hat Trick ska-pogos an impossibly bright "Ode to Joy" riff till it's Ludwiggin' "All Around My Hat," willing a husband's desertion toward Golden Opportunity: She used to know some other men?! On Moon, a more cautious soul looks harder before leaping through a sand-surfing-with-Vikings pipeline, into "And I won't settle for anything less, till I see what your love has, do-oh-oh-ne." In the new "Don't Want to Outlive That Man Too Long," Nancy takes Western Swing to scary places it rarely admits to going. She uses the bad stuff as a motorvator to whip up the good stuff. Or maybe it's just age's cornplasters sticking better to midthirtysomethings who've always portrayed Cool Old Broads so well.

Into the headphones: "Only a Story" herself. Tango-istically inclined. Plenty atmosphere: dim blue cold dry digital AZ a.c. Sure, Kevin's accordion's here (leaves falling on cue), Dan Sorenson's skull-wrinkling (now skulking) bass. Gary Mackender's tapping and scraping a snare. He cowrote this song with Nancy, they're the main two you hear. A woman is listing the steps of seduction. She's a tour guide, a hunter, a living display. "It's only a story," she keeps singing so you know that she knows it—you know that the more that she knows it, the more she knows it just can't be true.

Everything stops but the drum. But eventually she resumes. "For you were my thing, and I followed that thing, night and day." She's counting silently—through the guy, the ideal, the process, the story they made up together, handed each other. "Let's go at this thing one last time."

Her eyes close, but I'm wise. Because here's where I can always draw a breath and say, "Yeah, I see your jewels, Honey—tick tick tick." Still, anything this clocklike is all too easy to watch, from whatever distance. The rhythm continues to wear through her waiting, like it wears through mine, like it could wear through all creation—"As If," like we said in the '90s. More likely the beat's the too-wound-up telltale heart of Story. Yet somehow, tonight, in the middle line of the chorus ("Sleep, little darling, sleeeep") Nancy begins to wail that last word, whereupon I suddenly remember another chorus, from Moon: "Daaance with me Johnny, for so in love am I" sailing repeatedly out of ever shifting murder scene/courtroom spectacle/ Medea-/Media-colored dreams. Trying to touch something—though maybe one more round will push through to everything.

So Only a Story's title cut winds up sounding even more like it did as I left: fearless, dissolving. Yeah, she got me. Now I keep listening for the witch from track seven in every song, and I hear—more than before. Even in the one I thought I understood (and still love) best.

Mariachi horns turn around to greet us calmly. "I swallowed the poison, I got on the airplane"; "My Manda" (sung and cowritten by Catherine Zavala) is already in progress. A "mule" is carrying cocaine into the United States from Colombia, so "the son of my son can rise from the dust in the streets." She's tough, angry, set—in the plan, in the scenes of her life—always adding up to this present. She sees the cities below her, the clouds all around; she feels the rubber tear, the cocaine burn; she bears down on everything, which rises into her manda, her sacrifice, her offering, to the meaning of her life, its ending, and its completion. Everything is contained, and contains her, is suffused, charged with her truth. She continues flying on, past any expected Glorious Climax. The horns just give a final nod, and that's it.

Pushing notes through noses, nooses, earwax, whatever's in the way: I now think about the Mollys (now minus Catherine and Gary, plus new electric folk-blues-rock guitarist-vocalist Danny Krieger and all-Southwestern journeyman drummer Marx Loeb, since Story's release) as tromping along, stealing that sign from Lonely Street, crunching through rust, sleep, other ragged glories. Past an old man with no small talk: "But now we're a country of ser-vi-ces, ain't noo-body serr-vicin' meeee." Who nevertheless, like most Mollyspeople, has "had" a few friends: "And one of them, Jo-Leene . . . " Sing along now! " . . . and then the young man said come on with me. . . . " Uh, sir? Oh, sure thing, kiddo—after you.


The Mollys play the Rodeo Bar August 20.

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