Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Salt Sex Slaves

Best known for 2005's critically acclaimed Greetings From Cairo, Illinois, Stace England emerged as an intriguing geographical yang to Sufjan Stevens yin. Live performances featured extensive multimedia, documentaries in the US and Europe and stellar press on both sides of the Atlantic. England and his new band, The Salt Kings, continue his storytelling mastery with another slice of unknown US history on Salt Sex Slaves, weaving tales of brutal salt production, kidnapped free blacks, ghosts, slave breeding and murder in a supposed Free State, the Land of Lincoln, into a volatile, provocative Exile On Main St.-ish stew.
On my first listening, the emotion and poignancy of these songs hit me hard. This is a story of one of the worst periods in American history, that of slavery, and so few happy endings come out of that period that one would have to look hard to find them. England doesn't bother because his point is not happy endings that came out of slavery, his point was that there were people in America and a time in America when atrocity was the norm, and ignorance was the justification for it. Not only that, but it was no secret. Even the government participated in it. England holds up the legend of the Salt King like Sam Shepard's buried child, a rotten corpse pulled from the ground to reveal true horrors of slavery, heart-rending of lovers torn apart by capture and enslavement, the heinous gloating of men who kidnap a beautiful young woman and return her to slavery, a dastardly pastime of the Salt King.

Even the song in which the Salt King gets his comeuppance, delivered by a slave who reaches the limits of his tolerance and chops off the slave owner's leg with an ax, is sad. The man knows that his life will be forfeit, leaving him lynched by nightfall, and he gives his life for the chance to maim the Salt King, driving his ax against muscle and bone. The lesson to be learned in this story is that there was no good side to slavery, there was never any way for anyone to come out of it unscathed, nor should they have. England gives not so much a history lesson as a lesson in man's inhumanity to man in a historical setting, but that relates directly to the present day. In the time of the Salt King, the inhumanity toward those of a different skin color was justified by the riches of the salt trade, a commodity that was taken from the ground and made rich men of the few who controlled the many. The parallels to our current drive to take oil from the ground at the cost of as many lives as necessary are made with style, melody, and fierceness by England, which adds to the very raw emotion of this record. Just as the slave drivers were and the oil men are, England's rock and roll cry for someone to feel shame is relentless. (Source: Amazon Review)

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