Ahead of this release, Carter already holds an enviable position; with over 200 recorded covers of his songs (including mega hits “Crossfire,” “Willie The Wimp” and “Why Get Up”), he’s a proven success in an industry where even a definition of the term is elusive. But as an artist never content with stagnation, he is constantly working to expand his musicality. Where previous albums tend towards guitar-centric three chord rock and roll, Carter instead places Mike Thompson’s versatile keyboards as the foundation, supplemented at times by the Tosca Strings and even an electric sitar (complements of Charlie Sexton), to create his most musically diverse offering. While the 1960s influence may be unconscious, the weight of most diverse and prolific decade in American popular music is inescapable, in both tone and texture.
Early psychedelia permeates, felt most heavily in “Exiled”, due to Thompson’s Farsisa organ, and Dony Wynn’s drums as the twisted undulating pulse. The Tex Mex rhythm and organ of “Moscow Girl” are a loving nod to another criminally under-appreciated Texan, Doug Sahm, yet it’s doo-wop inspired vocal improvisations, followed by a fiddle solo recall two other mid-century influences. Few others would dare such a wild blend, but so seamless is the mixture that it only appears strange on paper.
The 60s, and their ultimate failure to enact the utopian hopes and promises, are referenced directly in “Recipe for Disaster”, but what the listener takes away is not the disappointment in what did not happen, but rather an appreciation for all that did occur. While the aftermath is “a world burning faster, making the same old mistakes”, the major chords pounded out on piano suggest that there should be no regrets for trying. In the same vein, “Lost in a Day”, it’s triumphant string swells reminiscent of Phil Spector’s Righteous Brothers work, and the album’s closer, “No More Runnin", celebrate the release at the end of a long ordeal. Despite the world being as bruised and battered as the rest of the record may indicate, Carter nonetheless encourages an appreciation of the fleeting present moment.
While no stranger to failed love songs (the quintessential “Richest Man” is his most recorded tune), time and maturity are the prevailing elements to “Last Tear (Delaney’s Song)”. A cathartic post-love song (though never inherently suggesting romantic love) dealing with what remains in a relationship after the love has expired, Carter’s elegant simplicity pierces through the conflicted, stammering pain of parting. A universal emotion, yet it took a voice as distinct as this to put it to song.
The playfully absurd “Bughouse In Pasadena” is quintessential Carter wordsmithing, while “Fisherman’s Daughter” and “Sooner or Later” are the “funky country blues” fans have come to expect from live shows, dripping with the same sexy sleaze that coats 1970s Rolling Stones albums. “Black Lion”, too, has the svelte, sultry slink of The Stones, but in an shadowy, menacing way. “Solar Powered Radio” is a peak into a magic, alluring world, while highlighting the general malaise of the current times.
If there is one song that captures the essence of Carter as songwriter, however, it is “Missing Guru”. A true story pulled from the newspapers, it is the dark and sinister story of a fugitive “lowdown sneaky freaky swami”. While no other songwriter would attempt to touch such subject matter, never mind have to verbal prowess to manipulate such phrasing to music, Carter dives in, chronicling a through, complex situation that is as rich in imagery and texture as any song could hope to be. From the journey’s start in Texas, to Far East mountaintops and filthy dark holes reserved for those who commit such atrocities, the bone chilling lyrics unveil the disturbing plot as Carter’s vocal inflections scorn those guilty by non-action. Yet the writhing, provocative sitar hook and hypnotic rhythm suggest the lure and mystique of the perpetrator, affecting somewhat of an unconscious understanding how such charismatic leaders are able to seduce their followers.
As sonically diverse as the airwaves of the 1960s, Innocent Victims succeeds in creating an atmosphere that allows its artist to flex his muscles in new aural directions. The snaggle-toothed boy on the cover hints at the wry, slightly twisted lyricism all of Carter’s compositions are seeped in, but the songs contained within suggest an equally musical mind, with an ear tuned to both Brian Wilson and Warren Zevon.