The Ascetic Junkies - One Shoe Over The Cuckoo’s Nest Album Review
  • 5/5
Reviewed by Billys Bunker

Whip Smart Folk ~ Not Naïve or Cloyingly Earnest. Real folk pops up when it’s needed like Phil Ochs, Jack Clement and The Ascetic Junkies. They ask if we are “too naïve to change the world.” Phil asked that with “Love Me, Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” And the music rocks, folks.

Wier blier, limber lock,
Three geese in a flock.
One flew east. One flew west.
One flew over the cuckoo's nest.
O-U-T spells out.
Goose swoops down and plucks YOU out.
~ From Ken Kesey's novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

Well, the one on the right was on the left
And the one in the middle was on the right
And the one on the left was in the middle
And the guy in the rear was a Methodist
~ From "The One On The Right Is The One On The Left" by Jack Clement

Sure, once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
Ah, but I've grown older and wiser
And that's why I'm turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal
~ From "Love me, I'm a Liberal" by Phil Ochs

"This album was recorded almost entirely in a wood-floored 2nd story bedroom in Central New Jersey, and then mixed and mastered in a carpeted 1st story bedroom in Southeast Portland, Oregon. It can be enjoyed in bedrooms of any floor style."
~ The Ascetic Junkies

As playful as The Tom Tom Club and just about as prescient as Phil Ochs singing "Love me, love me, I'm a liberal," Kali Giaritta and Matt Harmon have the chops to sing out the sacrosanct and dig a little deeper into the psyche of lovers and citizens and post-punk Amerika. The arrangements on this acoustic album are just this side of Bela Fleck good with all the imagination and invention a listener wants without just sitting around being impressed. This is folk music recorded in two bedrooms with the intimacy you might expect and an art rock complexity applied to down home warmth. This is whip smart folk gone beautifully wrong and decidedly elsewhere. This pair puts the hip back in hippy for a take on living through our current calamity might keep you smiling in the unemployment line.

Right out of the package, this CD has a ton of energy. These songs are arranged with the drama and dynamics, first rate picking, and imagination worthy of Eno in the execution. Chances are you'll smile from the rush being taken first by the hand and lead somewhere you haven't quite been before. Now, this album found me in a lazy week with lots of dishes and house cleaning to do. I didn't write a thing, but made a home for myself and listened every day. So I've heard this album like normal people with dishes being done and the disc spinning in the stereo. It was with a soapy dish in my hand this album finally seeped into me. The dazzle of the break neck pace cracked open like a geode and I found myself crying over the sink. Kali and Matt lead me to the military cemetery and introduced me to one good man lost. They questioned my earnest protest, and pulled the curtains on my isolated complacent self-righteousness. They became my friends.

The Ascetic Junkies write first-person story songs, as did Phil Ochs with "I Ain't A Marchin' Anymore" and many other songs. The value of such a song stems from a depth of empathy. If AJ were preaching to the converted and pummeling the presumed guilty, they wouldn't be worth a review. They did it right. The left and right get equal time in passionate parody all with enough sympathy to keep them from being cloying. Walking the streets of Northside in Ohio, I see the characters of these songs living out their own respective flavors of damning certainty in distorted enlightenment. As my father once told me, "Every time you point your finger, there are three fingers pointing right back at you." So, I'm stung by the song Amsterdam. If I can't help but think I'm right about the world, despite a nod to humility, the words of the song slap me upside the head. "Am I too naïve to change the world?"

I'm old enough to be taken back to the days of Phil Ochs and Jack Clement when I was too young to protest but thought at the age of six I could go door to door for Bobby Kennedy. Now I'm 53 and living in Ohio. Along comes The Ascetic Junkies, and I'm feeling naked listening to The Ascetic Junkies. They rip through a song with heart and humor as dazzling in the insight as the arrangement. I was smarter when I was younger, and had more hope. Matt and Kali have opened up my heart again. It hurts but I feel more alive. I wonder if that six year old I was would be proud of me. That's what "One Shoe Over The Cuckoo's Nest" has left me feeling. It's time to love again.

(An email interview with Matt follows this review.)



1. DRACULA might be my favorite Halloween song. Guess it's a road song headed east to "Dracula's town." With the preponderance of social commentary and insight on this record, I have no doubt that eastern town may not be in Transylvania. Suffice to say it's a place people don't look each other in the eyes. It's a short sharp shock to open the album with lots of fancy picking and a bite. Kali's voice brings home the frenetic pace of this one. The Ascetic Junkies are quite undead, if you ask me.

2. KALI, ALL I DO is a fast talking love song from Matt to Kali with a thicket of complexity and honesty might stop you dead. "And if you want to kill me, go ahead and do it! Just do it!" That slide guitar cuts like a knife to the quick and dirty. Maybe Matt's take on passion quickens the pace and gets restless in the arrangement. I've heard a few songs sung one singer to the other onstage, but this one clearly takes the cake. "So I fell for you a little bit late." That's fifteen minutes late if the song can be believed. "Quarter to nine instead of half past eight." Timing is everything. "Damn it, we're best friends." Yikes! I have to wonder if the audience gets to enjoy this one just a touch more than Matt, even if he's managed to make up for his tardy heart. Folk like this rocks so hard there's no real meaning to the category. Damn fine song. Heartbreak played zero to 60 in a matter of seconds. The breaks a brutal. All this angst can be sung at the pace of the barker at a cattle auction. It's a fun ride!

3. GONE SHOOTIN' slips into deeper waters with a character song sung from the right wing to the nobility of heroic martyrdom tricked by a lost cause. I've listened to this album for two weeks, and this is the song that brought me to tears while doing the dishes. Preaching to the converted leaves me cold, but this song brings the war home after eight years of death covered over with stealth. I didn't support this war in Iraq. I'm a good liberal. But I live in Ohio and there are noble folks here who believe this country is worth dying for. The pain of loss in the eyes of a man at Long John Silver's fish place with his "Veteran of Iwo Gima" hat comes to mind. He has been a registered Republican his entire life, but he registered Democrat to vote for Hillary and voted for Obama this year. We were both alone at the fish place. He sought me out and wanted to talk. It was a painful decision for him.

Now this song works like this. "I sent my brother to Iraq" It's a short song. It's a short story didn't take long to happen. A young woman's brother joins up full of piss and vinegar with her support: "Brother have no fear because the Lord is on our side." Then the letter comes from overseas. "We bought some lies, we did. Now I'm stuck here in the middle and I'm just a kid." It took just three weeks to get that letter from The Front. Three weeks later the next letter on a different header: "We're sorry for your loss."

This song moves fast. It's a short song. I've been awake for less than an hour this morning, and I'm dropping tears. I'm a liberal but this is my country. I've counted the losses in numbers. This one disillusioned boy in this short song is just like all those soldiers I met at the airport coming out to Ohio last Christmas. I haven't mourned their loss. One soldier at the airport joked with me he longed for the days when we had a "clear goal and an exit strategy like we did in Viet Nam." I laughed. I'm not laughing now.

4. A PROTEST SONG isn't that preaching to the converted thing I've come to loathe. "Half of your heart is over in Austin town, the other half of your heart is over in Iraq." Phil Ochs had the same insight in his song Love Me, I'm a Liberal. "It goes on an on an on." This song is haunted by a divided heart. "Half of our art well it's taking up city real estate. The other half of our art is going on about peace." The predicament of protest in America is how little it costs to be self-righteous. "Half of your heart is easy to know. The other half of your heart, well it won't die slow." The dedication of a bleeding heart liberal does not compare to the sacrifice of a purple heart patriot. "You can take it out on anyone you want. You know better than them. That's alright, I guess so." I take from this song that half of our hearts "have been safe and sound." I have to admit it gave me a rush to be right about this war. "it goes on and on and on and on and on." Good people die. They were willing to die for something they believed in. I didn't risk much to support them here at home. I've been half hearted. "At least half of your heart, well it won't die slow."

"Right and wrong are made out of thread. It can be rent or bent or broken."

5. WINDOWS SELL THE HOUSE might have seemed arcane before the collapse of the real estate industry in this country. There is a rule of thumb that "Windows sell the house." I smell a metaphor. "So close the closets, there's no need to go out. Don't lock me out!" This is the song of the emotional shut-in. This is a hand-clap romp to the man "stuck in the basement playing his guitar, because I don't know where you are." The music drives hard through the cold with that slide acoustic cutting deep. "I've done my share of escape" comes from a basement boy with a guitar. "I've been locked in my room, it's been all day. I've been stuck in my basement. I've been playing my guitar." Autonomy! Autonomy! Guess there's a need for this song waiting for Meals On Wheels with nothing to show for the time alone. Love isn't mentioned here once. It's the subject of the song.

6. THE DIRTY SONG goes country with "They're always talking about those girls, the ones who just give it away." I find myself thinking of King Crimson's "Ladies of the Road," with a sly sweet grin on my face. I think I'm one of those boys. "When it comes to you, they can talk about me to. There's not a dirty thing I wouldn't love to do. I guess I'm just one of those girls." A little sex won't rot your teeth. "Everybody wants to despise them. Guess you aren't supposed to give it all." Is this a country rag kinda thing? Maybe. You'll find this song in the sweet and sorrow part of the menu. No waiting. "I don't need no promises. You don't have to worry about me 20 years from now." It's served on dirty rice. "Life is too short to be respectable." Finish it before you read the fortune cookie.

7. AMSTERDAM might be my favorite song on the album. An doubled tonic deep octave on the piano keyboard steps into the intro to establish a sense of import to this piece. There is a mea culpa in this song stings like a bee. The character singing this song is a knee-jerk or deeper liberal living in a 21-person dorm in Amsterdam taking in the world and "trying the very best I can." That's not a town rife with protest or known for it's depth. "I can't sleep tonight in this 21-person dorm, because something just ain't right." This isn't a Peace Corps trip. "I'm frying out my very own brain in Amsterdam." Yeah, that's a metaphor. Amsterdam is a state of mind fried on mushrooms watching Jon Stewart right here in Ohio. That song is about me. You too? "To be brave, to be wise, being the free spirited child child I know I am. But there is something in the air and I can't sleep tonight in this 21-person dorm something just ain't right. It just ain't right. Because I am worried about the fighting in Iraq, I really am. But I'm busy getting high in Amsterdam." I'm convinced I'm one of the good ones. "I'm a good person, so I have believed. But I'm worried. Am I too naÔve to change the world?" Tears sometimes flow in recognition. I don't make them come, they don't obey me. "Something just ain't right." This song is about me. You too? There's so much to do. "It just ain't right." The end is exactly right and gets to my heart. "I am trying. I'm trying. I am trying the very best I can."

Hope can have a sobering effect.


8. KANSAS ROAD TRIP might begin with a click of Dorothy's ruby slippers, but this story is about that black and white reality not the Technicolor trip to Oz. "God is not on your side" echoes the import of one of Dylan's handful of overtly political songs "With God On Our Side." Guess the irony was unnecessary but the meaning was the same. "Irony is just a tool," chimes in from Matt while I wrote those lines. A choral from Kali sings the "oooo" for emphasis. "With all the lies you told your children now, be sure you never tell them how God is not on your side." The banjo of truth is invoked in this one. An electronically induced male chorus squawks through the Vox box. "Schools and churches and protest signs. There's a funeral so you can break out the signs." The "nation is selling what God said." Yeah, I know. We are about to change all that. It will still be a little true. We will still be a little wrong, a little cruel, and a little dumb struck comes to humility. All that certainty is the enemy of truth. We still march into battle wearing old school ties, feeling good about what we think we know. Hope we don't become that burning city on a hill. "God is not on your side." Human. That's what we are. Just that. To err is human. To forgive is devine.

9. TAMBOURINE SONG is pound for pound more rock than folk bare it's toothy grin to support earnestly. Methinks I hear a fuzz box. "Nothing ever gets me. Nothing ever gets me. Nothing ever gets me love. . . . Nothing ever gets me like a tambourine." There's a rockin' rhythm on this one from that acoustic guitar. The words fly by fast but there's enough in that whirlwind of lyrics to hit that self-critical sore spot you've been nursing through the album. These guys are the recipients of a prestigious and fictitious songwriting prize after all. And they deserve that faux accolade. This one rocks.

10. (WHOA OH OH OH OH) comes like a ballad replete with complexity in the execution and simplicity in it's aspect. "Where was I today? Well, I was worrying away." He goes back to bed hoping "It's all in my head." This may be a mission statement. "If I get to feeling like I'm not coming home, you can send me a song." I was once told by a prize winning poet that I read poetry as thought it were Bible, and that's the way it should be read. "Where are we today, I know it's not to late to make it so just fake it for me. And anyone who says that I should just give it a rest can shove it 'cause I'm above it or at least I like to believe that it's all in my head. Yeah, it's all in my head." This song is "inhibition on a mission." It's an inhibited mission statement. Guess I'm an Ascetic Junky. Add that addiction to the list. "This is the first time I've got nothing to say." Fat chance. The AJ's are okay. We'll be fine so long as we can sing our very own failures into poetry. "I love you. Yeah, I love you." We all blush.


This email interview was meant to be source material, but Matt's "answers" to my "questions" were too good to choose from. Note the stranger the question, the better Matt's answer.


First, that's my brother's name. Props for keeping the "Billy" into adulthood and not going to 'William' or 'Will'.

[Hey Matt. I only joined the Billy Club when I turned 52. For whatever reason, I was never called Billy as a kid. That's my born name though. ~ Billy]

Second, Kali's in bed early trying to get over a nasty cold, and I just happened to see your amazingly long (and highly – you'll see why that's a sweet pun in a moment – entertaining) response her question, "what kind of quote do you need". So I decided to get really high and respond to all of your questions and musings in pretentious band-getting-interviewed format. Voilà:

Q. New Jersey to Oregon? What you are you nuts?

That depends on what kind of nut you're talking about. We were actually based in Boston where we both went to college. Then we decided to move to a new city. We went to Europe for a couple months, and then returned and lived at Kali's family's house in NJ to spend a little rent-free time recording our album. She and I moved here afterwards because we'd heard great things about the people, the music, and the great outdoors.

Q. I'd rather ask what the hell are you up to than get some careful answer to a technical question. Curtis Eller gave a great response when I asked him to come up with some cool crazy shit that happened to him on the road.

Curtis Eller… I remember really liking one of his songs when I heard it, though I can't remember what it was called. I do remember that he has a fantastic mustache. The craziest place we ever ended up after a gig was a big house in Syracuse. Wait, that's not what was crazy about it – it was an ex-Governor's mansion currently inhabited by an unknown number of people (15 or 17 – our host wasn't sure) attempting to live and function like a commune. It was the house equivalent of an acid trip. There were three floors, and each floor seemed to have multiple sub-levels, random little mezzanines. They had painted every room themselves, sometimes with beautiful and sometimes with frightening results. There were signs everywhere that said things like "the following people haven't paid rent yet this month" and "does anyone know if Rob still lives here". There was a baby girl being raised, and a crazy semi-homeless old man whose name had inspired the baby's middle name, only backwards (Ydnar). It was great.

Q. You guys write beautifully. I love the blurb about recording in two bedrooms one carpeted in the album.

Thank you!

Q. Here's a question: What's wrong with traditional earnest folk music you gotta do all that arranging and stuff?

I don't know if I would describe us as earnest people. We're starting to shy away from the word "folk" because it seems to give venues the idea that we're going to be a quiet band, which we aren't. Lately we've been kicking around "indiegrass". Any ideas?

[I came up with "Sophisti-Folk." That won't probably stick. ~ Billy]

Q. What do you guys got against protestors? You some kinda semper fi marines or something?

I wonder, if I say "yes", if we'll have some group of patriots digging up dirt on us in a few years, claiming "The Ascetic Junkies LIED about military service!" Actually, though, that song is partially about this girl I knew whose boyfriend was a marine. It's about her point of view on things, and then about the opposite type of person's view on things. Vague! Mysterious!

Q. Whose your favorite East German 12-tone composer?

I actually have an answer to that – Anton Webern (well, I think he was Austrian, but close enough). Not because I really listen to 12-tone music, but because my dad really loves Webern, and so I happen to know of him and enjoy him.

Q. I think music can get people through a month they wouldn't have done so otherwise. Your album is good enough to do that. So why don't you write pretty little happy songs? What's the point of being challenging and honest?

Thank you. I'd classify at least some of our songs as pretty and happy, but successfully pretty little happy songs are often harder to write than challenging, honest ones. I think, actually, that my very favorite songs in the world are on the extreme edges of that spectrum – either 100% unabashedly happy-go-lucky, or laden with subject matter like murder or divorce or murdering your ex-spouse. Either give people something to dance to, or explore the depths of the human condition, I guess?

Q. Best I can get from you is maybe responding to your harshest imaginary critic and saying why you think your music matters. I already know it's the real deal. Pretend I'm stupid and set me right.

We never get criticism. The worst criticism I've heard was in the form of a compliment we received from an enthusiastic first-timer at one show we played – "You guys sound just like a cross between U2 and Alanis Morissette". Our music matters because it matters to us, and because we can almost always get people to dance and stomp around to it, which has to be a good sign, right?

Q. Any favorite poets? Did you move to Oregon to be closer to where Roethke once taught?

I don't know Roethke, but I like Shel Silverstein a lot. We're actually in the process of making a song version of his poem "Rock 'n' Roll Band" for this Shel compilation that Vancouver, BC's Peppermill Records is doing.

Q. Did you move to Oregon because you are addicted to hac-e-sac?

I suck at hacky sack. Hacky suck.

Q. I would like to know if you are a friendly songwriting duo or a couple. Howard and Ros Larman used to joke about being married. Guess they got tired of denying it thought I think that would have been incest. You love each other or what?

We are a couple who love each other, but we're also a friendly songwriting duo. It sounds like more of a paradox than it actually is. We met in Boston, were best friends for a while, and then fell in love and moved into a house and started playing together.

Q. What I want to know is stuff that is interesting and unexpected about the music you love and write. You'd make more money typing for lawyers. I did.

Are you saying I'd make more money typing for lawyers than answering these questions? That may be true, but I'm enjoying it.

Q. You obviously could do that same new thing other pop musicians are doing. So far after several spins of the album I think you are more connected than that two-clever-by-half Elvis Costello stuff, but what you are doing is very sophisticated. Phil Ochs would have liked you guys. My friend Danny Peck played Phil's last concert when he was 14 and I think you all would get along fine. There's something funny that goes on when you sing a song tweaking the beard of the self-righteous: Nobody thinks you are singing about them. Oregon might be the belly of the beast comes to recycling and environmental liberals tanning in the rain. Why did you leave the squalor of New Jersey for a place that sports bumper stickers about Californicators and statements like: "You've seen the scenery, now go home." Have you found God's country or are you still experiencing culture shock.

Thank you for the assurance of Ochs' approval. I like your statement about nobody thinking you're singing about them, or tweaking their beards. People do like to hear what they want the song to be about though – one of my favorite things to hear from friends, family and fans is what they think specific lyrics are about. Also, the east coast may have some fun squalor, but we really wanted to try living in a new part of the country, and I'm really happy with the choice. I haven't seen God around here though… I hear He hangs out in the suburbs.

Q. Who is more like you? Pete Seeger or Lambert Hendricks & Ross?

I don't see a point in answering that.

Q. So pick your pleasure. Correct a misconception. Tell a funny story.

A current pleasure: Christmas lights as an alternative to normal lights.

A common misconception: 'Ascetic' is interchangeable with 'Aesthetic', 'Acidic', 'Hasidic', or 'Athsletic' (we actually got that misspelling on a marquee at a gig recently).

A funny story: Once, on a train, a man tried to sell Kali and I scraps of what appeared to be partially-eaten bread out of a clear plastic bag we saw him bring out of the bathroom. A couple minutes later, an older female passenger hit him on the forehead with a rolled-up newspaper.

Alright, I think I'm done. I'm sure this is way, way more than you ever wanted, but I felt like I couldn't just answer one since you took the time to write all that. Feel free to use as much or as little of it as you please. And thanks for writing us a review! I'll email you the lyrics tomorrow.


Matt / the AJ's