Jon Houlon was already thinking about writing political songs when Neil Young gave him a kick in the pants with Living with War last year.
"I'd already written a few hundred songs about myself," Houlon, the leader of John Train, says with a laugh. The country-flavored Philadelphia folk-rock band has just released its fourth album, the sterling life-during-wartime song cycle Mesopotamia Blues, and will hold down its regular Friday happy-hour slot at Fergie's Pub in Center City tonight before going over to Johnny Brenda's to open for Frog Holler.
"But I'm a student of folk music, and a lot of the people I admire from the '60s, like Dylan and Phil Ochs, wrote about what was happening in the world around them," Houlon continues. "Plus, I'm a huge fan of the Clash. So I thought it was time to start looking outward, instead of inward."
When Young put out his sonic salvo against the Bush administration, he challenged young songwriters to write antiwar music of their own. So Houlon, 39, who works as a lawyer for Philadelphia's Department of Human Services by day and leads John Train and the garage-rock outfit the Donuts by night, figured that was his job.
"I love Neil, but I thought that album [Living with War] was a little ill-considered, a little too from-the-hip," says Houlon, who lives in Mount Airy with his wife and stepson. "I wanted to dig a little deeper."
He read Jon Lee Anderson's The Fall of Baghdad, which pointed him to Rudyard Kipling's poem "Mesopotamia," a protest directed at bungling British leadership in what is now Iraq in the early 20th century, which Houlon put to a piano melody. He read a book of Iraqi folk tales, which inspired the steel-guitar-kissed "The Kind Merchant."
And to broaden the album's perspective, he included songs by his favorite Texas songwriters Butch Hancock and Terry Allen, and reached back to cover Vietnam-era songs such as Tom T. Hall's "Mama Bake a Pie" and John Stewart's "Draft Age," which in turn compelled Houlon to write the Iraq war sequel "Mulloy 2006."
Though between John Train and the Donuts, he's released 10 albums in the last decade, Houlon calls himself an "amateur musician." There's nothing amateurish about Mesopotamia Blues, however. The production by Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner of the album recorded at Fishtown's Miner Street studio brings a skilled and versatile roots ensemble to life, and Houlon succeeds at writing story songs, not screeds.
"I can't really say there's a message in the songs," Houlon says. "I'm writing more descriptively than prescriptively. I'm trying more to make a painting than make a point."
- Dan DeLuca