Song List

Cactusman Versus The Blue Demon

Boris McCutcheon

No, it’s not for kids! The concept for the cover and illustrations came from a dream Boris had about… well… battling a blue demon. Colorful cover aside, the songs range from quirky to serious to sublime. This is an album filled with surprises that continue to reward on each new listen.

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A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 24, 2006

Boris McCutcheon, the self-described “singer/songwriter/farmer,” actually comes from New England. But his music always has shown a Southwestern sensibility. To borrow one of his song titles, both the words and the music seem singed by volcanic winds. McCutcheon’s first album, inspired by a stay in Nambé, was called Mother Ditch. His second release, When We Were Big, recorded in Tucson, had song titles like “Diablo Waltz” and “Fine Suede.”

That Southwestern sensibility is even more pronounced in his latest album, Cactusman Versus the Blue Demon, recently released on Frogville Records under the name of Boris & The Saltlicks.

It’s acoustic-based desert-rat music, celebrating the harsh beauty but warning of the cruelty of the desert and its denizens. “I pity this poor place,” McCutcheon sings in “Volcanic Wind,” the album’s first song, “All these creatures have God on their face.” The tune starts out with a “crazy woman” on the side of the road feeding Alpo to the coyotes.

McCutcheon’s songs are sometimes somber, sometimes exuberant, sometimes sardonic. And often inscrutable, like the concept behind the title. (According to McCutcheon’s Web site, Cactusman and the Blue Demon were characters in a series of dreams he had in the early ’90s. And here I thought the Blue Demon was the old lucha libre star.)

He can be a straightforward storyteller. For instance, “Seeds & Candy” is a harrowing tale of a city couple who freeze to death in the mountains of Utah, sung over an irresistible Celt-rock backdrop, with McCutcheon himself on mandolin.

There’s lighter-hearted fare here, too. “Don’t Get Weird” is a bluesy number (Kevin Zoernig slinking in with some nice Jimmy Smith organ riffs) that starts out romantically. “The moon is rising and you delight me.” But trouble, not hot romance, seems to be ahead. By the end of the first verse, he’s pleading, “Don’t get weird, don’t get weird ...”

But the real masterpiece on Cactusman is “Caves of Burgundy.” With a melody that suggests some long-lost Steve Young tune, the lyrics suggest a supernatural encounter, like those spooky old British ballads Steeleye Span used to be so fond of, where malevolent beings seduce unsuspecting humans to follow them to Elfland, which ultimately turns out to be hell.

What I like best about this song, though, is the insane interplay between Zoernig’s tinkly-winkly toy piano and Brett Davis’ strangled, screaming guitar during the final fadeout.

It would be impossible to talk about this CD without mentioning the wonderful artwork on the front and back covers. A series of cartoons by artist Neal Cadogan depicts the cosmic showdown in the desert between the two title characters. Buy this album so McCutcheon can afford to pay Cadogan to make a Cactusman video.