S.G. Goodman – Teeth Marks (Album Review)

S.G. Goodman – Teeth Marks Album Review
S.G. Goodman – Teeth Marks Album Review

 

 

S.G. Goodman – Teeth Marks (Album Review)

The South loves to make heroes and legends of its own kind, to spin the tales of rather ordinary people until they acquire a kind of mythic permanence. The Kentucky songwriter S.G. Goodman, though, requires no fabulists to be compelling.

She is 33 and from a small Mississippi River town so emblematic of rural America that its slumping population statistics betray a war of economic attrition. From a lineage of sharecroppers, she talks in interviews about cavorting in creeks and gigging for gar, then sings of her complicated love for the dollar-store economy and her adoration of Spanish moss sanctuaries.

In a region where being gay can mark you for ostracization or damnation, coming out nearly killed her. “Space and Time,” the first song on her 2020 debut, even read like her farewell to the world.

She sings not just of a progressive South but of shrugging off capitalism at large, of dismantling the systems that still make the place so difficult. It is apt that Kentucky novelist Silas House penned a recent magazine profile of Goodman; she knows the truth of her home but also eternally reimagines its future, epitomizing our shared New South dreams.

The self-produced Teeth Marks is a sharp and thoughtful distillation of these modern American small-town complexities. Religious hypocrisy, financial ruin, systemic addiction, ruinous love, devotion so intense it begins to burn like hatred: Goodman finds space for it all in these 11 tracks, which glide between breathtaking a cappella eulogies and dive-bar R&B, between gnarled rock and plaintive ballads.

Goodman’s scenes are vivid and specific, like her nod to unswept floors or time marked by a procession of crinkled tin cans. Her conclusions, however, seem undecided and open, as if she holds too much hope for the characters and crises in her life to pass final judgment.

Goodman takes care not to slip into diaristic voyeurism. She studies each stone carefully before she tosses it into the pond, watching the ripples scatter forever.

Much of Teeth Marks deals with complications of identity and existence—namely, the friction between your expectations for and the actuality of someone you love, like, or simply know.

The broken waltz “Dead Soldiers” details a friend slowly losing a battle with alcoholism, steadily tumbling into a version of himself so damaged Goodman barely recognizes him. “Heart Swell” documents the disorienting effects of an unexpected breakup.

“The cicada choir is my backing band,” she croons, sporting loneliness with a grudge, like wearing dirty laundry because it’s all that’s left.

The staggering opener “Teeth Marks” mentions physical scars, as the title suggests. But it’s more about the permanent mental wounds left behind by the lover that never respected you, the one who never even tried to “see things my way.” These songs concern the communities and relationships we think we’ve built—and the damage they leave behind when the façade fails.

It is tempting with Teeth Marks to get lost in logocentrism, to become so absorbed with the stories that you don’t notice how very musical these tracks are. Goodman always lands her hook, no matter how desperate the tale is.

And there is, relative to lots of Southern indie rock, a staggering diversity in the assortment of inspirations and references. “The Heart of It” shimmers like R.E.M., then arches like Band of Horses.

“All My Love Is Coming Back to Me” has the nervy thrum of Lee Bains’ bands or even Archers of Loaf, a feeling amplified by an endless vibrato borrowed from Sleater-Kinney. The solo lament of “If You Were Someone I Loved” aches like old gospel or Ralph Stanley, while the motivational finale “Keeper of the Time” sways like Otis Redding until she rides out on a guitar jam that feels a little like a Skynyrd crescendo.

Remarkably, little of this suggests pastiche or collage. Goodman has synthesized decades of Southern music into a singular vision, cohesive even as the sounds shift. Her small but mighty set of collaborators helps.

Kyle Spence—now a member of Kurt Vile’s Violators, formerly of weirdo Georgia metal demigods Harvey Milk—provides the perfect drift for the lovelorn “When You Say It,” exquisitely framed by the crystalline piano of Athens’ Jojo Glidewell and the lambent pedal steel of Nashville’s Luke Schneider.

And on several songs, Goodman and longtime collaborator Matthew David Rowan play most everything, suggesting just how complete Goodman’s conception was from the start.

One of the best moments on Goodman’s 2020 debut, Old Time Feeling, came in the title track, a pugnacious song about people badmouthing or bailing on the South. “The Southern state is a condition, it’s true,” Goodman opined.

“Stick around and work your way through.” It was a protest song for making the place Goodman still calls home better. It was also honest about how backward that home can feel—a diet of “gas station delicacies,” as she put it, and the deafening sound of a “coal train gunning.”

Goodman returns to that mode for “Work Until I Die,” Teeth Marks’ most distinctive song and the one where she suggests another partial solution for at least one challenge of Southern identity.

Over drums that feel like a heavy-duty assembly line, she juxtaposes mutations of a 1988 hit by country superstars Alabama and the type of simple blessing one might offer over Sunday supper.

“Oh, bless this food to our bodies/And our bodies to your service,” she sings. “In the company’s holy name. Amen.” She is excoriating the modern religion of work, of wasting our lives building the wealth of others.

You wonder how many of the other problems she examines here—repression, addiction, depression—are symptoms of this condition, of Christianity crosshatched with commerce. For 40 minutes, Teeth Marks expertly surveys the th*rny landscape of the modern South; for these six, Goodman suggests there’s a way to change.

First, there is S.G. Goodman’s voice: raw and completely unique. Equal parts grit and balm, it is all emotion. S.G. can fly high with plaintive tones or prowl the low valleys of longing, sometimes within the course of one line. And she possesses the power to stop you in your tracks like a bite from the cottonmouth snakes swimming in the slough water of her Western Kentucky homeland.

Goodman’s otherworldly vocals take center stage on her Verve Forecast debut Old Time Feeling, where it soars above a timeless sonic blend of gritty rock ’n’ roll guitars, and sultry bottomland grooves, and plaintive folk balladry. Her voice was the catalyst for her collaboration with co-producer Jim James, the Grammy-nominated solo artist and lead singer of My Morning Jacket.

“When I first heard her, I was spellbound. But perhaps more important is what she’s saying on issues that affect working-class folks in rural areas.

I think she could play an important role in the healing we need to see happen right now,” he says. “She’s living proof that we can be wH0ever we want to be, no matter where we come from.”

S.G. Goodman was raised in Western Kentucky on the Mississippi River Delta, in a strict church-going family of row crop farmers. She went from singing in church three times a week to becoming a prominent member of the Murray, KY indie scene and an impassioned voice in the political and social movements she supported.