“I am engaged emotionally,” confessed the writer, poet and performer Carl Hancock Rux on the wobbly “Ground.” Accompanied by Bronx-based vocalist Stephanie McKay’s Billie Holiday-esque vocals, the accomplished artist trudged through “ocean fronts and mud flats,” not to mention “cul-de-sacs,” on the third selection from his painfully mediocre sophomore album, Apothecary RX. This terra obsession runs through his impressive body of work; Asphalt is the title of his debut novel.
In Apothecary RX, Rux speaks of contemporary African-American experiences in ground, dirt and concrete: the organic soil of pre-great migration rural South, the cement of post-civil rights Northern urbanity. Rux plays on this heavily tread ground over tom toms that never laugh but drown in their own tears, a la our dearly departed Brother Ray.
Rux invoked Ray Charles’s by name in “Ground” appropriately, since the legend’s somber song “Drown in my Own Tears” captures Rux’s difficult childhood so well. Son of a paranoid-schizophrenic mother and a father he never knew, Rux was reared in a host of foster homes before being adopted at fifteen. He stubbornly made his way to Columbia University and weekly open mikes at the Nuyorican Cafe, establishing himself as an intellectual and a poet. Years later, The Village Voice would award him a literary prize for his collection of poetry, Pagan Operetta, and he would receive an Obie for his play, Talk. Some might call him a renaissance man, a heady jack of all trades. But this excursion suggests otherwise.
With Rux Revue, this black man crossed the final frontier into music, and Apothecary RX finds the confident intellect strutting his stuff, figuratively. This is by no means dance music; it does not lend itself to any movement or participatory interaction, strutting included. The exception is “Lamentations,” a percussive, catchy chorused wail. Prominent strings frame the song’s central proclamation: “Lies we lie to tell them well/ Lies we lie to sell ourselves.” Given Rux’s dense lyrics and disjointed, stutter-stop cliched spoken-word delivery, his words may fall closer to home than anticipated.
It doesn’t matter that most listeners will miss the copious allusions; they could bone up on smartness. It matters that Apothecary RX fails to compel aesthetically, preceding the effects of a popular audience’s intellectual shortcomings. Take “Me” for example. Rux recounts a poetic narrative. His emotive baritone briefly pauses after a word, a series of words or a phrase. He occasionally creates asymmetrical percussive combinations with other words. He speeds up to deliver a rhyming sequence. His intonation dives and peaks irregularly. This is the just the first verse, and it sounds worse than it reads. The chorus remains constant, as do the repetitive echoes by background singers whose musical talents no doubt surpass those of their astute employer.