Posts tagged ‘Americana’
Article by David D. Robbins Jr.
Album: Uncles “Replacing Words With Other Words” (2010)
WHEN WORDS MATTER: Don’t let the nonchalance of the title of Uncles’ debut album, “Replacing Words With Other Words” fool you. This record is full of a type of lyricism and command of mood that you rarely run into in music. This Queens, New York-based band’s Americana-balladeering would be more at home in some non-descript Odessa tavern at the end of a gravel road than a Brooklyn night club. The lead singer’s voice is crackly and weathered, losing pitch at all the right spots, intoning a philosophical pain, like on the track “Made of Blood”: “I try to be wholesome / I try to be good / But one day I ache with rust / And I’ll return to the blood, to settle my guts.”
This is an album that fits in with Joey Kneiser’s “All Night Bedroom Revival” and A.A. Bondy’s “American Hearts”, with its battling between good and evil, God and the devil, heaven and hell and all that sleeping in the back of the church pew: “Sometimes you sell your soul / Just to watch it go / I had a dream in hell / The devil said, ‘Son, you can leave here when you like / ‘But most people choose to stay to pay the price.” It’s about dusty motels, early morning gin, rundown convenient stores, disappearing stars, wasted relatives, our ties to the land, lust, and the youthful shock of realizing that all things die — like the young narrator in “Deaf Dumb Dog”: “He made an ‘X’ marks the spot / And poured beer on the plot / Where our salty ancestors planted their crop / He said, ‘We plant dogs here son, and family trees.’ / And you’re tied to this land / Like you’re tied to me.” The lesson unfolds, wrapped in a line of folksy wisdom, like some kind of Flannery O’Connor story or Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp”.
The music is sparse, and often unsettling, with melodic honky-tonk piano stumbling around the album’s Dylanesque lyricism like a brown-bag drunk taking a deep pull, while trying to avoid walking off the curb. There’s somber violin, a tinge of twang, acoustic guitar, and bass. A quarter of the way into the song “Dust Rodeo”, a piano bridge is played with such subtlety, gently hollow and haunting.
“Replacing Words With Other Words” is raw and honest, with natural storytelling that is both stunning and sad. There are hints of Townes Van Zandt’s pain, Adam Duritz’s reaching vocals, and Bruce Springsteen’s love for oddity and turn of phrase.
If you go to Uncles’ MySpace page, they playfully cast themselves as a couple of bumblers, trying to find chicks and sporting guns in their press photos. But there’s nothing silly or flippant about this album. It’s a golden masterpiece. Their song, “Where Does It Sleep”, is a fascinating tale of misery, aching through these elusive but brilliant lines, “He was paying for his punishment / He was wary of the living and their living pain / He saw the Virgin Mary in an oil stain / She cried / Where does it sleep? / I’ll wake it … / Overtime at the OTB / Where time sticks to your hands like Vaseline / He was smokin’, remembering, she surely faked it / When he knocked down her door and caught her praying naked.”
Uncles’ “”Replacing Words With Other Words” is one of the most creative and breathtakingly sincere albums of 2010. It’s extraordinary.
BETTER WITH AGE: Bill Callahan, aka Smog, is following up 2009’s “Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle” with a live recording of 11 older songs called “Rough Travel For a Rare Thing”. Callahan has always had a way with words, and this sparse album is a reminder of just what a good songwriter he is. But it’s also not going to be one of those live albums that becomes a classic, or one that shed’s light on something fans didn’t already know about him. For the unfamiliar, Callahan has never been a great singer, but he continues to find emotionally evocative ways to deliver. He generally speaks his lyrics gruffly, but his voice has lately matured into a welcoming wood-rich baritone. Combined with his gift for observation, it’s the pathos of his words that works the magic. “Let me See the Colts” offers some tender western Americana, and lyrics with internal rhyme and a bleak folk-writer’s sensibility: “We walked out through / The dew dappled brambles / And sat upon the fence.”
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THE BRIDGE-MAKER: The songs on Sam Amidon’s album “I See the Sign” come in like a cool breeze, his voice soft among an elegant rustle of brass and woodwind, arranged by the talented Nico Muhly. It’s so seamless, Amidon makes these eleven intricate and complex arrangements feel as easy as swinging in a hammock. But the textures within these songs are a departure from the uber-laid back sways of “All Is Well”, Amidon’s second full-length album. Shahzad Ismaily adds his wide world of percussion to “How Come the Blood”, a traditional song about a man who kills his own brother.
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COVERING THE GREATS: I first ran across Carrie Rodriguez, years ago, on the album “Red Dog Tracks”, where she sung a number of duets with country legend Chip Taylor. It mixed toe-tapping country, Americana, pretty harmonies and romance. I fell in love, particularly, with a song called, “Big Moon Shinin'” — where the pair sung these sweet and shiver-inducing lyrics over soft guitar, with Taylor’s voice serving as the gruff balance to Rodriguez’s velvety slow-malt: Taylor: “I am a 12-year-old Macallan scotch, / On the third shelf of that barn / Waitin’ for you to just drink me up.” Rodriguez: “I’m some sweet words from the sky / Floatin’ down from a Van Zandt star / Waitin’ for you to think me up.” Now this world-class fiddler is taking up the topic of love again, but this time on her own, with an album of covers. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill release before the “real” album. Rodriguez has chosen to sing songs by a list of greats, including John Hiatt, Buddy and Julie Miller, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, Gillian Welch, Merle Haggard, Townes van Zandt, and her father David. She’s helped out by a backing band and guests Doug Wamble and Bill Frisell. Rodriguez chooses to sing one of my favorite Lucinda tracks, “Steal Your Love”, off her 2001 album “Essence”. Listen below to a live version of Rodriguez singing at Old Town School of Folk Music on April 11, 2009 in Chicago. – Words by David D. Robbins Jr. (Art manipulated from musician’s press photos.)
I’ve written about Emily Jane White before on this blog — and her beautiful way of bridging country, alternative folk and foreboding Americana. Thanks to the wonderful folks at La Blogotheque website, you can watch a video of White performing a set (which includes the track “Victorian America”) for a crowd at a Paris bookstore. Her newest album “Victorian America” is out now in Europe, but you’ll have to wait a bit longer for it to be available in the U.S. – David D. Robbins Jr.