New Orleans is a fine place to become someone else, or to luxuriate in obscurity of your own making. Mike West and Myshkin have done both in their time. As husband and wife, they were acoustic iconoclasts, nearly lost in the brassy blare of New Orleans’s cash-money genres. Mike, a crack-skinny, wild-eyed, longhaired hippie who put the red back in redneck, played what he called “levee-billy music” on banjo and lightning-fast mandolin, with his better half on yodel, washboard, and spoons. Myshkin, a sturdy woman with cowboy boots and enigmatic Dutch features, also sang in a smoky alto with her own band on occasion. They wrote about casinos “cleaning up” the French Quarter, drive-by shootings in the Garden of Eden, the time someone tipped Mike a $100 bill. They played beat-up barrooms and coffeehouses and toured 100 nights a year. Few of their scattered fans would guess that Mike, Australian-born, had started his musical career in eye makeup, fronting a campy English cult band called the Man From Delmonte. I never heard much about Myshkin before she changed her name, except that she used to live in a teepee in Wyoming or someplace, and most of her songs on their 1997 joint album, Econoline, were about loving women.
Last year their seven-year marriage came to an end. Being hard-luck connoisseurs, they have each emerged with albums smart and sad and weird enough to leave regional pigeonholes behind. The albums are, in part, a record of their long partnership—Myshkin sings harmony on Mike’s New South, and Mike recorded and mastered Myshkin’s Rosebud Bullets. But Myshkin’s clearly found a new mission, while Mike sticks to what he’s left with. New South is a ramshackle junk symphony of washboard, tuba, coffee can, and steel guitar, not to mention five-string. But the album’s greatest asset is Mike’s literate, ironic storytelling. He sees eye to eye with white-trash types the South wants to forget about: old guys still fighting the Civil War in bars, lesbian motorcycle mechanics, petty criminals who hit their wives. He’s been a Southerner almost 10 years now, lost more than a few hard-playing, hard-drinking friends, and not much that he can see changes but for the worse: “The plantation owners all moved to the Gulf/bought beachfront property/while sharecroppers play the slots in Biloxi.” Myshkin lends a poignant harmony on “Love’s Wake,” which has their love on a respirator, in a bare hospital room.
Rosebud Bullets is a different animal. PJ Harvey and Beth Orton, not Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe, are the spirits invoked. Done for good with cuntry kitsch, the former Mrs. West and her new band, the Ruby Warblers, strike out with a restless, caterwauling freedom. Long strumming intros let the pressure drop like before a tornado till she breaks in growling. By turns mournful and violent, her heartsick lyrics are answered by fiddles and a clarinet with a gypsy hiccup. The women in her songs, “Cory Jo,” “Annabelle,” “Rosie,” may be beautiful, lost ballad heroines, but her first-person narrators are stronger: “The war of love was kicking my ass/And I had a motto I’d try anything twice.” Heart busted open, she revels in the blood-red life pouring out.