Doe! ‘Forever’ stumbles and stutters

New John Doe record continues former punker’s slump

by Keri Carlson

Perhaps John Doe has always had an old soul.

Though his former band X is credited as being the quintessential L.A. punk band in the late 1970s and early 1980s, X was never strictly punk.

Billy Zoom, X’s guitar player, was already an established rockabilly musician before he joined the band. And while X was unquestionably punk, with its heavy, distorted guitars and an urgent energy to their sound, X also incorporated many early rock ‘n’ roll and country styles that tied the band to the roots-rock revival with other such groups as the Blasters and Gun Club. X even had a side project called the Knitters that was devoted entirely to country songs.

But Doe was always seen as a punk rocker, and any roots influences his bands might have had seemed to be more the doing of Zoom and Dave Alvin in the Knitters.

After X disbanded and Doe went solo, rather than delving into darker, city-noir poetry and dissonant guitars, Doe plunged further into alt-country.

His latest album, and first on the rootsy label Yep Roc, “Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet,” does not stray far from the rest of Doe’s solo career. He’s still content writing the endless highway odes and grumbling about broken hearts in the vein of Gram Parsons and John Lee Hooker.

Similar to his last album, 2002’s “Dim Stars, Bright Sky,” the new album is cluttered with guest musicians – only two tracks are just Doe and his regular band.

Alt-goddess Neko Case appears on “Hwy. 5.” The song has a longing chorus of “Take me away,” but neither singer succeeds in making you want to go with them.

On “Dim Stars,” guest appearances from the likes of Aimee Mann and Julianna Hatfield added life and color to the album. This time, though, Case and other performers, such as Dave Alvin, Grant-Lee Phillips and Kristin Hersh, cannot help inflate Doe’s flat, dull songs.

None of the tracks on “Forever” are necessarily bad, but none sound original.

“There’s a Black Horse” describes a mysterious horse in a photograph backed with a dusty acoustic guitar. This song winds up sounding forced because Doe seems too conscious of creating a vintage vibe.

Doe cannot be expected to sound like X forever, but as he grows older, he is also growing softer and less willing to take risks. Sadly, the quintessential punker has fallen into the aging baby-boomer musician trap: Writing bland, white-blues tunes.

Doe might have always had a bit of the lonesome cowboy spirit in him, but maybe he needs to get back to L.A.