The Freelance Mentalists.
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
  Son of Deed Poll (insights/alibites)

COUNTRY BALLOT (re) 2011 (releases) COMMENTS:
(in response to the pollmeister's annual query,"What is Country?") I like to think of country as boxed in by hills, trees, traffic, relocation, paperless trails, and all the stuff on and in the rocks in your shotglass. Western would be those wide-open spaces, suitable for going off-road with Bob Wills or ZZ Top or Willie's gang for however many aeons, and then back onto the Interstate. Though you could just as be easily headed for the next roundup in a red solo cup, echoing Giant Sand's "Baby It's Cold Outside" and/or the local militia band, since the almighty Sun has finally gone down, or it hasn't but the AC's good for another midsummer's winterlude, between appointments. Also, as our professional photographer friend pointed out in passing, "There's wires everywhere." (For previous, perhaps overlapping ponderosas of country's nature, please visit the Mentalists archive for some earlier year-end scribbles, ditto "That Home Across The Road"--meanwhile back in 2012, CB2011's attempt continues), Oh yeah, and country has a tendency to want to blurt out some obsessively balanced summation.
Early rock critic Nik Cohn once referred in passing to country's "elaborate sentimentality", which is surely appropriate, but what I value most is the keep-a-goin'  aspect of the aforementioned obsessiveness, in some cases the morbid vitality, as obsession gives even fatalism a hard time. As I've said before, it also relates to the idea of beat (Paul Goodman said William Faulkner was beat, "in a complicated way" , a Faulkner way, like, "Now they could cross Grandlieu Street, there was traffic in it now; to clash and clang of light and bell trolley and automobile crashed and glared across the intersection, rushing to light curbchanneled spindrift of tortured and draggled serpentine and trodden confetti pending the dawn's whitewings----spent tinseldung of Momus' Nilebarge clatterfalque; ordered and marked by light and bell and carrying the two imitationleather bands and the drill mealsack they could now cross..." Mealsacks, though no hosses in that scene, but dig it) : Ginsberg said it came from beatitude, and also from Herbert Huncke saying, "Man, I'm beat", after digging holes for the pot crop all day. Coulda been picking cotton, working at Auto Zone, doing taxes, figuring out the best place to take her or him, making a point or a date too many times,  whatever. So, to the cases in point:

This One’s For Him: A Tribute To Guy Clark
With a sharp, springy, never showy house band, led by a ditto vocalist always ready for non-pushy duet duty, and many guests whose distinctive phrasing and sheer lung power take these songs places their distinctive writer/co-writer’s wry, dusty, workingman’s storytelling minimalism implies (or not), this loving, lucid tribute mostly accentuates raging or talking back to  or riding out or getting the hell out of the way of  or otherwise dealing with the dying of the light, to the extent anyone can. All in the commons, sometimes stepping just far enough beyond the limits of  likely conversation to drive home the details of each lot, succinct and fluid. Clark’s people got business to ‘tend to. And no matter how picturesque and empathetic and mellow things may sometimes get,  “son of a bitch’s always bored me” is never too far away.
(Track Seven: Willie Nelson nicely deflates the excess melodrama usually found in covers of "Waiting For A Train" (yep, that moneyshot chorus), by taking the whole thing at a brisk, even business-like tempo, which actually makes it more affecting.)

Country can't just be conceptual of course, it's also the sound. Wanda Jackson's frayed, yet unstoppable munchkin splay brings the country out of The Party Ain't Over's bobbing New Orleans horns, its rockabilly, Latin, gospel and o yeah, its country songs too (don't ever take for granted that country always sounds like country).Producer  Jack White couldn't have pulled off  if Wanda flagged, but they got it. White's nervous Barney Fife bravura helps The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams to represent Hank's range, as does Hank's own The Legend Begins (speedy exuberance of very early tracks, and the finally unscrewed-with, appropriately edited Health and Happiness Show broadcasts).
Also soundwise, the penetrating clarity, so pure it courts distortion, sorta between Loretta Lynn and  prime Robert Plant soprano of  young Lydia Loveless perfectly suits the obsessive and even necessary truth-telling. She's a rebel against  social conventions, but she's also 21 now, and what is the deal with late adolescence, and principle vs. fear, with alcohol as the mirror? Her voice keeps it all spinning like a country hurricane, and a safe room too (its own sense of structure, wherever artist and listener are going). Obsession's  clarity and tumult  Keeps it more country than a show of somehow more fresh-than-vintage  folk-rock chops too, ditto Middle Brother.
Speaking of whom (another insert)
Middle Brother's s/t album is what I didn't get, at least so far, from latest Deer Tick, where McCauley seemed too assimilated, what w other songwriters' worthy contributions and a certain evenhanded approach within angsty considerations too, although the Gacy thing  does takes it beyondo. But Middle Brother's set is infused with the scratchy star power of first two DT albums (enhanced rather than blurred by  sometimes not knowing which of the triad is singing and/or writing lead). Even has the Dawes dude wanting muse to break his heart so he can sing "with blood and guts/but I can't do that, I'll just sing like myself." Not coping a plea, he makes his quieter approach work this time, then gets loud in a forthright, Deer Tick/McCauley-compatible way, without imitation.Third man Vasquez also fits, and like Will Hermes said of Monsters of Folk, sometimes we get group therapy when listening for group harmony (not too much of either in this case). And if soap opry too, it's all over the kind of country folk punk tombstone splattered with there-stands-the lass type testimony which is just a natural attraction for extreme housecleaning measures.
Singles again:
A Note To You definitely finds the music in the words of Woody Guthrie's diaries, letters, postcards, margins, grocery lists, whatever. Even Van Dyke Parks' opening instrumental seems like Woody's voice and perspective, def ditto "You Know The Night", in its epic minute original version, summoned by Jackson Browne from whole chorus lines 'n' clothes lines of pages, re the night Woody met his future wife Marjorie, and it works as well in the four-minute radio edit--Jackson Browne, people! Whether you're a JB fan or the opposite, this is one of the wonders of the world. You know the night when you hear it, pretty soon, and right along and in a good way.
I loved the meld of motive and emotive, measure and pleasure in Jason Isbell's debut album, Sirens of the Ditch, on which he was backed by the Drive-By Truckers (one of their most consistenly satisfying full-lengths, along 'companying Bettye Lavette and Booker T.--you listening, Doc Bob, Uncle. Paul, Mr.Willie, Rev. Al?).   The second album, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit was keyboadier, rumbling gravelly, smokey, speculative,  recalling at times Traffic's expanded touring line-ups, including the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (in terms of early 70s Angloid-Alabama atmospherics, if not MSRS standards of performance), and a bt of Randall Bramblett. Too lose, Isbell, may have thought, so 2011's Here We Rest is more song-centric, more thematic. Fine title: Alabama's state motto, and supposedly the meaning of its name (though state historians have long since debunked that--it's apparently somewhere in the vicinity of "Thicket Clearers", or something else not very close to "Here We Rest," which sounds more like generic epitaph. Fittingly enough, but that's where Isbell's once deftly sardonic touch rests here (amidst too stiff arrangements, bearing loads of literary yet overly literal details about alienation vis the Road, yes, speaking of the 70s--but also speaking of recent times, so no groupies 'n' blow, just being away, yet still in the budget-busted South), almost  But there are a few exceptions. "Codeine", which begins with a complaint about a lame bar band, soon surrounds an ambivalently separated husband with a tasteful, fireplace-flickering-though-watered-booze arrangement, the neo-rootsiness  perhaps reflecting the narrator's  retro, why-can't-she/we-be-like-was sentiment and reflexive, even a-hole tinge--but in any case leading him though the tremulous, sing-along (female voice coming in too) chorus," One of our friends/Has taken her in/And given her codeine"--leading him and her and everyone into that last, melismatic word, as it somehow tightens into renewed, barely emphasized focus at its very end--just a little hovering trap, snapping shut. Not necessarily the end, just the facts, ma'am and sir. Which calls for another round, another verse, another mood-shade, and fades eventually, with no OD of melodrama, no release. The live version of this on World Cafe's studio session with Isbell and the 400 Unit, was unplugged, I think, anyway unbuttoned, flabby, with no jams. But some other album tracks have been sounding better on the radio  than they did back to back on the CD player, so mebbe  another subject for further study.
The Bangles' Sweetheart of the Sun thrives in or near the L.A. smog, a whiff of acrid reality principle sweeping through the 60s as 80s as whatever decade this is and back again, flowers and weeds, rippling in the breeze of a hothouse with the roof rolled back, or  maybe Laurel Canyon? Someplace cozy and resonant and rocky, with walls inviting climbing. In "Never Be Through With You," with Greg Leisz on steel, Hoffs  calls like she's called, compelling and compelled: a standoff mebbe, strutting in need and testimony. (Also in cowgirl boots? Would that be so wrowwng?)
 Then there's the way young Alabama Shakes make a bottle tree of their downhome soul chops, messages tucked into said bottles: "One two three, won't you dance with me? By the bulllet holes in my sleeve. I could be your ticket home. (Clark's characters might perk up their ears here, certainly the ones on John Doe's Keeper, where love songs with teeth include "Little Tiger", which might be about one of Doe's daughters, prowling through discreetly observed private sorrows; a laidback motellude of a modern day Bonnie and Clyde, though if that's what they are, she's the only one who does the time, h'mmm--but he's there when she gets off the bus, he's gon' help her do the parole; a fella who may be going back in time, or surely to some place where he and she paid their dues, and she should still be paying them, to keep her place in his sense of things (hey come to think of it, this might be a sequel to the parole song, I just thought of that--sounds like a grand quest, though); "Lucky Penny", duet with Patty Griffin; and the one where he and current squeeze are having fun with whacky neighbors in sweet home Oildale, suburb of Bakersfield. Then there's the transfigured (or at least much more intimate than the original) great lost r&b classic "Moonbeam" (the moon giveth, or bringeth into view, and taketh away).  Followed by the battered wife, flipping the finger to the bartender who can offer only pity (and another round of the same ol'), swaying on toward the Greyhound station, singing along, until she/Doe's rolling the notes, the breaks back and forth: "Roses are red/Violence is too/Everybody knows/I'm painting the town/Blue." A brighter blue than the X original, and maybe as lasting, judging by this almost upside the head sunlight bouncing off the traffic instead, it's alright (she knows when he'll get home too well, she's the one cleaning her clock this time).
The Blind Boys of Alabama have taken the gospel trail with a variety of companions, including the adapted chestnuts of Jagger-Richard, Dylan and Waits, not to mention a collaborative album with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. this time it's country, with co-production by Jamey Johnson, who also sounds very much at home singing on several tracks, without pushing the doctrine--it's all more poignant than that, including Lee Ann Womack's turn (also in the way she finds her way through the clutter of Buddy Miller's Majesty of Sliver Strings, for the non-campy "Meds", written by Marc Ribot! Yeah, Miller's men are trying to make more than a high-chopsy noodlefest, and it would be, if they'd written for and/or backed Womack and Griffin alll the way through). Not too long ago, when asked if he still believed in his religious songs, Dylan replied, " I do when I'm singing them." That's what it's all about.
Bonus section--like the drum solo, possibly time for your latest  bathroom break:
notebook scribbles re Miiranda's Four The Record--- Starts out like Coe, Mellow mischief, though eventually hey wouldn't this make a good sassy gal video, "Fine Tune" hot n bothered though also a just a bit Steve Milleresque, maybe for P&J Top Ten, the two [?] she wrote w out collabs are deepest? "Safe" seems magical thinking of material girl, but it's all subsumed in lyric and sonic imagery as salvation, comfort lovedrug etc, then "Dear Diamond", which is wrapped around my finger like him, seems like gonna be gloating but she feels guilty, burdened with the secret whose existence she can only confess to the dear diamond,glass-cutting, many-faceted and splendored diary thing, she can't quite unfold the secret--c'mon, roses won't tell, the diamond won't either--so magical images of power also cost, as she says, and she nails names her self in "Nobody's Fool"--but the music's always enjoyable at the very least, consolation prizes worth keeping always):(some are there to easily suggest how she'll do better, nay, slay, with 'em on stage)(also dig the jostling, minor key cabaret punk oompahpoid, begins with her cutting my bangs with rusty scissors, never mind the decorously painted lips bitten, "stoicism" is actually the "soft" way she won't be, won't fold away her sorrow like "My Mama's Broken Heart"--which is not a brash, rash or insensitive comparison, in this gathering of momentum and shadows, the pulsating hurt  just starting to surface would be good to have Gogol Bordello cover.Hey presto! More on "Safe"--As with " Eugene" (best track so far on H3's windy baggy Ghost To A Ghost/Guttertown, his track also a bit Gogolesque) providing misery with fast brooding company, rattling the candles like she say she'll rattle in your drink when you're thirsty (that's in "Safe") No kerosene ect here, we jumpcuts and arcing subsets of theme and style provide musical sublimation the tone of it just won't settle for anything less than  HELL YEAH (dito Sunny Sweeney, rolling blue but rolling)
Woulda Shoulda Coulda:
For all that, I feel kinda bad about ditching the sweet hoot of Merle's Working In Tennessee for Doe, but Merle seems a little too detached, relatively speaking
Still, if this were a Top Twelve, he'd be in there (with the somewhut random canon of Willie's Remember Me Vol. 1. Which might as well be Vol XXVIII,but/and its keepers include "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! That Cigarette." At least he's not mining coal [a pretty un-Texan practice, rat?] like on "Country Music," his 2010 T-Bone Burnett production). Original Rolling Country 2011 comments on Merle:
Working In Tennessee is a lot of fun, mostly barroom/boxcar/daydream sing-alongs, with a natcherly blooming windowbox of the fatalist, affirmative and absurd, especially on "Laugh It Off." Flexes some mellow heart muscle too (some, not a ton, which wouldn't suit him, nor me).
To this, xhuxx a.d. responded:
Favorite song is the homelessness one about Saginaw that shares its name with a much worse Red Hot Chili Peppers hit; "Laugh It Off" second place probably. Solid record, but there's a lot I could quibble about, if I had time to quibble these days.
And I then 'llowed:
Xxhux's aforementioned quibbles with Working In Tennessee might well incl use of sureshot themes, re aforementioned barroom/boxcar/daydream sing-alongs, but his whiff-of-bs-bearing paper airplanes are bullseye or close enough, often enough for lazier me to be impressed--he really is Working it, somewhut. Top Ten? We'll see.
Another close call: Steve Earle's I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, track by track pretty strong, but overall maybe a bit too repetitious point/effect/and/or approach-wise, still deserves some context, from my feature:
In 2009, eight years after beginning his debut novel, country singer-songwriter Steve Earle decided he really had to finish the thing. He also felt the need to make a new album. Earle had moved from his longtime Nashville home base to Greenwich Village at the age of 50, while remaining blessed  by his improbably durable seventh marriage, this one to chanteuse Allison Moorer, having a baby with her, and still keeping up with world news. Despite such inspirations, Earle was atypically short of original songs. So he came up with  "Townes," an  often astute tribute to his formidable mentor, the late great Townes Van Zandt.
Earle  leads off with Van Zandt's most famous song, "Pancho and Lefty." The doomed, defiant outlaw Pancho's possibly treacherous accomplice Lefty slips across the border, to linger in the cold shadows of Cleveland. "Townes was both characters," Earle declared of the mercurially standard-setting, substance-abusing Van Zandt. Nevertheless, Van Zandt's crucial advice went beyond reading and writing: "He told me to always use clean needles, " Earle said.
In Earle's novel, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive", Doc Ebersole, who once claimed he could treat Hank Williams' alcoholism and spinal bifida with drugs, has fled to San Antonio's backstreets,  after Williams' death. The self-medicating Ebersole is often accosted  by the novel's eerie, jaunty namesake, Williams' last hit released before he died. A decade later, it's an eternal jukebox favorite of rich men and poor, also sometimes a cue for Williams' ghost, which can be backed into at any minute, as it pleads for another shot. All of the novel's characters, while evoking the songs and  struggles of Earle and Van Zandt, morph into visions of  "how different people come to experience spirituality," as Earle put it. He defined spirituality  as "a one-to-one encounter with God, or whatever word you use."
Earle's new album, also  titled "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," distills his own brand of frankly 12-step-based, self-observant spirituality. We're greeted by some wry celebrations: despite the fatalistic underbelly, which incl the glum gratification of the pirate and li'l emperor, Earle's still  " walkin' on the water, 'cause I never learned to swim." He and wife Moorer sound  at home while gliding through the discreetly psychedelic aura of T-Bone Burnett's Americana production, as they sing, "I love you baby, but I just can't tell/This kinda love comes from Heaven or Hell." (Well, that one did make Singles.)
Not quite country enough for these lists, but
Also: Snow Shadows, a recent studio album by Alana Amram. Her voice reminds me of very early Dylan, but without imitating him--also without his very early hillbilly thing, not that there's anything wrong with that .Spare, expressive, interested in beats, a tad cautious, but looking for the right place to jump, then doing it-- early Dylan in that sense. Songs by Vince Martin, whom I only knew from his collaboration with Fred Neil (on an LP I never heard, blanking on the title). Vince seems like he might be the Ringo to Fred's John, Paul, and George.  He  provides ready, moody, vivid vehicles for Alana and the lads’ green rocky road flavor of  folk-country-pop. I might be prejudiced, because I used to jam with her dad Dave (who wrote “Pull My Daisy” with Kerouac and Ginsberg, also plays classical and jazz french horn, piano, flute etc). He used to lead jams at Birmingham’s nascent civic arts fests in the 70s. But  Alana’s def got her own thing--Van Dyke Parks' judiciously applied sweet-and sour strings on a few woodsy cuts, album produced by Mark Sebastian, who wrote gritty "Summer In The City" & whose brother John plays on here too-- yeah, and she wears it with just enough, casual enough flair.
Hon Mentions (close but not nec country enough, still some relevant appeal re sound and sensibility)
Tim Easton's simultaneous releases, one acoustic, one electric, and his live thang, worth checking out too:
And the Black Swans
Subjects for further study (I should listen more) On High Atmosphere, Diana Jone's voice has sensuous austerity,  a winter tree just flexible enough for a shudder, a curl, a lasso, a noose, a glint passing through sparkle, a tear, possibly even a beer, but don't push it. Miranda Lambert should cover the intriguing "I Told The Man" (careful with your wicked mitts on her sister buddy, Jones is on to you, reallly on)
Reissues (see above for mention of Hank's; had a similar take on Cash's Sun set. He seemed much more at home there than I expected)
Drag City's Mickey Newbury box is a wildly uneven space cowboy extravaganza (in its basically spare, basement galaxy way). But overall, it leaves quite an afterglow (though I got it as a promo; dunno what I would have thought as a customer, or if I knew the original LPs--some darn good [and darn bad] prev. unreleased tracks, I know that much)
Newbury brings the rain, while he ponders, way after midnight. Grim hallways, railways, but incense too. Kind of a dustbowl Donovan, if Donovan had been through Texas cotton fields and the Army, before getting back to the rabbit tobacco. But more of a personal darkness, however filtered through Music Row plot twists. His original version of "American Trilogy" (his combination and setting, for those unfamiliar, of "Dixie", "All My Trials" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic") is even better than Elvis's, in terms of calm gravitas and lucid overview (of experience, vs. what Elvis makes into a grand vision/illusion, although both versions def signify). You can also get a free four-track box sampler here:
Inserted later because I forgot; might look inserted:
Have a wild weekend anytime with Live From The Old Town School, going back and forth across the generations (1956 to the early 00s), via Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. Big Bill Broonzy, Pete Seeger (together and sep, much better than expected either way), Van Ronk, pungent as usual (rec for Beefheart vocal fans), Baez, John Hammond Jr., John Hartford (all three meh, but even they have some good effect in context), primo Dan Hicks & band (Hot Licks, Acoustic Warriors, or maybe in between?), Steve Goodman, Jon Langford, Martin Carthy ("Willie's Lady", awes), Malvina Reynolds, Odetta, Doc Watson (with Merle, I think), Oumou Sangare, John Renbourn & Jacqui McShee, Conjunto Cespedes. Mahalia Jackson ,Andrew Bird, Ramblin Jack, Joaquin Diaz, Hamza El Din, Merle Travis--well, you get the drift. Great sequences and subsets, for the most part, and lots of fun, if a bit near the knuckle, as old school Brits say.  Justification for inclusion on this ballot:  enough country and blues overall insofar as  a ricochet rainbow of mortality gets its licks in for sure, but so does the fried ice cream.. A bunch I'd never heard of as well, not just the folkie pantheon.
Neil Young's A Treasure turns out to be closer to Working In Tenn than I would have thought to expect, in terms of drollery, fecund foraging with Nashville cats (here touring as International Harvesters) and use of familiar elements. Only five prev unreleased titles, but the known ones haven't been redone on disc too often and everything's pretty sparky, except the first one, Amber Jean (and mebbe a couple others are too long). Several def (incl initial snoozes) def get better as they go along, which is not so common these days, much gracias. Fave: "Southern Pacific", where a forcibly retired railroad worker complains as the Harvesters klang and steam, way out on the redeye express. Kinda spooky--are they part of why he was retired? Note to self: This would have to be in Reissues, wouldn't it? Since Himes' Nashville Scene ballots have so far defined those as music rec. five or more years ago, and A Treasure's tracks, though just now released, are from mid-80s shows.
( Yep Roc's has or had a big sale on their 25th Anniversary series of Giant Sand deluxe and remastered reissues.A big sale in the sense you gotta buy all the albums to get a bargain, but still.. From 1985's Valley of Rain to 1994's Purge & Slouch.)
 ¶ 1/25/2012

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