"County Fair" was reviewed in the Syracuse New Times, some few weeks after it was issued in the summer of 1998. Here's what it said . . .
Dana "Short Order" Cooke creates a nostalgic County Fair
By Larry Hoyt
By no means is Dana "Short Order" Cooke your average singer-songwriter. In a genre too often known for its sensitive writers--most consumed with heartaches and angst--Cooke looks the other way, into a world of irony and pathos--a world that's half-filled with murderous madams, three-legged dogs and puke-covered carnival workers.
Thankfully, balancing out these freakish curiosities are Cooke's other, more personal songs of youth's grand adventures. If his recent eight-song CD release County Fair (Spike Records) were a film, it would play out as a short, directed by Federico Fellini, based on a script by J.D. Salinger, with a soundtrack by Ray Davies.
As with his debut disc Wildman, the songs on County Fair continue Cooke's songwriting journey of metaphors, an exploration of life becoming art. Each song here is a well-cut gem, mixing keen observations with wry humor and, yes, more than a hint of sentimentality.
"Sky Diver," reprised from the Wildman CD, sets the scene and creates the mood: "Here at the county fair of my youth/ Nostalgia's served, but to tell the truth/ It's different than it was, I figure/ Either it got smaller or I got bigger." The melody is beautiful, the arrangement pure and vocal harmonies by Shrinking Violets caress the ear.
Another simpler tune, "Treehouse," impresses as an outright classic: "Lordy mommy where the boy of mine?/ That boy be missing all the time/ His room's a mess and his chores aren't done/ And the boy's as scarce as the midnight sun/ Where the boy do go when the boy not here/ Oh he climb to the top of a tall, tall tree/ Where the boy go when the boy does wrong/ He hide in his treehouse all day long, hide in his treehouse all day long." If Mark Twain had written songs, they'd probably sound a lot like "Treehouse."
Murder, insurance fraud and small-town politics form the intrigues described in "Eva Coo," a country-tinged tale of Otsego County's most celebrated old-time murderess, told, for the most part, in the first person. County Fair also touches upon such varied and unusual topics as the dream life of a mangy three-legged pooch, the thrills of a demolition derby and the stillness of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on Christmas Day.
And when Cooke writes a song about connecting with his father and male relatives, he chooses to focus on their shared hairless bond. In "My Father's Bald," Cooke recounts the plight of the follicular challenged to the strains of a thoroughly engaging klezmer arrangement: "I've searched the world for one role model/ With a bean bare as a bottle/ But no man's selling beer or cola/ Looking like Joe Garagiola." The seventh track on County Fair, "My Father's Bald" also opened Cooke's Wildman CD, but a tune this clever and catchy definitely deserves another spin.
The disc ends with Cooke's most overtly sentimental piece, "Oughta Be a Law," a memory-filled ode to the joys of small-town American life, before the malls took over. Cooke obviously loves these childhood memories, with his devotion to the old ways extending to his murderous threat aimed at anyone defiling his landscape of innocence with modern freeways and congestion.
Musicians adding support on this project include guitarist Arty Lenin, cellist Paul Brantley, fiddler Henry Jankiewicz, mandolinist and singer Hanna Richardson, bassist John Davey, drummer John Mengucci, horn player Tom Witkowski and vocalists David Kleiner and Liz Pagan. The CD was recorded and mixed at various studios, including Penguin, Screaming Skull and Second Story Productions, which may account for the unevenness between tracks.
Syracuse may someday be known as the music center that helped launch the careers of such talents as Tony Trischka, Hamell on Trial, Marty Sexton and Karen Savoca. Based on his intelligent songwriting, Dana "Short Order" Cooke may well join that select list. Cooke clearly possesses the writing talent of a major artist, easily the equal of his heroes Loudon Wainwright III, Richard Shindell and John Gorka. As a musical memoir, County Fair is a minor masterpiece, certainly one of the best local albums of the year.
Copyright © 1998, Rway Communications a division of RAS, Inc. Syracuse New Times content is Copyright 1998 by A. Zimmer Ltd., used by permission.
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All songs copyright Dana L. Cooke, except where otherwise noted