Off The Beaten Track: Music Reviews and Musings by Mary Leary

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Now comes band after band inheriting the mumbly and offhand, often pained vocals of Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, or Modest Mouse. In a long procession, some hoping to catch some Grizzly Bear buzz, groups of young men with beards and/or flannel shirts arrive to sing of a vanished America, a (somewhat mythical) vagabond freedom, and the clean air they breathed for a minute when they were two. Everyone is so determinedly “alternative” that I wonder what the alternative to them will be. I mean, Goths are a joke (to everyone but Goths), and that style’s been done and done. True punks are pretty cool, but they’re definitely following a predesigned template. Anything really odd or different tends to fall between the cracks because it scares or confuses people, or isn’t marketable enough to garner much attention (which is one of the reasons for this column).

Anyway, I digress: This installment is supposed to be about Americana-ish bands, not a discussion of the “alternative” concept, so… back to the soft-spoken guys with facial hair. Are they the children of hippies? No. More likely: Grandchildren of hippies, or yuppies, who are so gentle, so reluctant to come out and say anything overtly definitive or controversial… that… zzzzzzzz….

But all the music isn’t boring, and some of these bands seem sincere, and like they smoke a lot of pot. While these are likeable characteristics, they’re not enough to garner good ratings in and of themselves. When the sounds are creative, with a sense of humor and deep pathos, then I throw a pail of stars in their direction. That is why Backwords is now being studied by astronomers.

Backwords – The Buffalo Still Roam

Backwords Kicks Back

Backwords Kicks Back

Backwords does things that are pretty unusual given the members’ ages and related influences and experiences – or lack thereof. Like having doo-wop piano weaving in and out of the anguished (re: unrequited love and associated angst) “Oklahoma,” or mixing ‘50s-‘60s pop sensibilities with the kinetic energy of “The Beggars and the Bread” and the Neil Young/Band/Wilco-reflective “This Is What I Call Home.” Van Dyke Parks and Harry Nilsson’s compositional grandchild is conjured via the haunting “Homeland Security.”

As happens with “This Is What I Call Home,” the familiarity seems right, and any lack of innovation is well balanced by seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics: “I’ve felt earthquakes that rattled through my teeth/And I’ve come across stray dogs that I wanted to keep;” “I’ve chopped down trees but I’ll admit when I’ve done wrong/With all these galaxies, where do we belong?”

On “Earth from Space” the electric guitar even sparkles with a “Telstar” vibe. Dudes, what are you on?

When the title song meanders as long and slowly as a herd of buffaloes, banjo and toy piano add spice; it’s also hard not to empathize with such passionate depth. “Smoke Detector” balances echoes of Wilco/The Band with intelligent lyrics, a dash of Van Dykes Parks/The Beach Boys in the vocals, and-what’s that?-the willingness to criticize, albeit vaguely: “I’ll take you to the reservation and we’ll hide/The pine ridge in the reservation and we’ll hide… from all those dirty crooks in our lives.”

Brian Russ’s lead vocals, along with group harmonies, while on the soft side, are rarely mumbled, which is why I could understand all the great lyrics. Although Backwords sounds less like The Band than does These United States at moments (see below), it has found its way to the feeling of The Band more than many groups thus influenced. And its members seems to have arrived there genuinely (through, individually or together; working on a Native American reservation, absorbing the roots of American music, studying jazz, and simply living life as engaged, politically active artists).

When Russ revealed his admiration for the writing of Richard Brautigan and Flannery O’Connor (two of my favorites), I wanted to meet him for coffee (of which he drinks little, preferring tea from the Brooklyn Food Co-op – good man!).

The Buffalo, along with the just-released Factory Angels CD, can be accessed at the band’s site. I’m liking “Shots In The Dark,” from FA, so much I’m afraid it will keep me awake tonight. It also reminds me of Tuli Kupferberg (the Fugs) – but that’s another story.

Pic from Inside the Shut Up cover

Pic from Inside the Shut Up cover

Beautiful Supermachines – Shut Up (Chicken Ranch Records)

Beautiful Supermachines sounds like it couldn’t have evolved anywhere but the United States. I like how that isn’t used as any sort of marketing point. Also, although a couple of the members occasionally have beards, no one seems sewn into flannel garments.

In any case, gotta love a group claiming Don Knotts as a member. Gotta listen beyond opener “The Stadium Moves,” which sounds like other disillusioned, growing-older adults… but these reference T. Rex, and the Mersey’s “Sorrow,” so leave the CD in the drive… through the okay “Consumed” and the been-done progressions but startling lyrics of “Oakland 2008” (“Saw you bleeding from the hip/Saw you bleeding from the shoulder”). Interest grows with the piano-bass anchored majesty of “The Miserablists” (and more of that great T. Rex feel). And if “The Miserablists” is a poke at the Decemberists, all the better.

On “(Nobody Cries for the) Missing-Hearted,” David Williams has the cracked semi-mumble of King of the Hill ’s Bobby, which makes me smile and open the case to see a picture of the band by Derek Erdman that could have been drawn by Mike Judge. And Beautiful Supermachines is in Austin. Things are starting to make a warped, appealing sort of sense. Then there’s this explosion, “Carolyn Says,” which offers: (1) Affirmation that everyone in the band has gone off his or her medication, and (2) The kind of furious catharsis I’ve craved since Pere Ubu, Thinking Fellers, Polvo, and vintage King Crimson shoved their needles in my arm. Nothing else gets it as well as “Carolyn Says,” but “Local Honey” mixes some of that “hurting people hurt” juice with stimulating interplay. This is a project to watch—or, if you need things in tidy categories – to watch out for, at least until the band’s been herded back into the psych ward. Even then you may not be safe, as Track #10, bouncing with Teenage Fanclub/Stones-ish riffing, is “Diagnosis = Permission.”

Bobby of King of the HillWilliams has been involved and/or pivotal in so many creative movements that I could go on and on… happily, The Onion did just that:

These United States: Everything Touches Everything

a jesse elliottMaybe after reading this a few people will call me a “big ole meanie,” and… one of those words might be accurate. But I’m just not feelin’ the excitement expressed by scores of women and almost as many men re: super-cute Jesse Elliott (photo, left) and his charismatic posse. I’ll start with some positives: Having rushed three albums out within about 16 months, These United States is on a serious roll. The band seems to do fun, spontaneous shows. Occasionally it gets on a Neil Young or Band wavelength.

After reading pages of gushing comments, my expectations for Everything Touches Everything are fairly high. The first few songs sound more or less like U2 and Coldplay (“I Want You to Keep Everything”) or Modest Mouse and Coldplay (“Conquest and Consequence”), which I find annoying, depressing, and not even slightly Americana-ish. The handful of tracks I can stomach includes “Will It Ever” and the Band-imitative “I’m Gonna Assemble A City.” “Good Bones,” the one I’d pick for airplay, most successfully meshes a contemporary vibe with The Band.

From what I’ve seen, I’d much rather go to a TUS show than listen to EVE, and I like some of the earthier tracks I’ve heard from its other CDs better. So there.

The Band

Apparently a lot of younger musicians have been studying The Band. That’s pretty crafty, because The Band was one of the best things to happen to Americana-ish rock in the last century — in fact, in the mid-late ’60s it helped create the genre (without the “ish”) as well as influencing the merging of British folk with rock. Only Levon Helm was born in the United States (Arkansas). The others were Canadian, but before hooking up with Bob Dylan they spent years and years playing bars and roadhouses, at times with showman Ronnie Hawkins, across the United States and Canada. By the time The Band helped Dylan scandalize the folk scene with electricity, it had studied American music (blues, soul, country, zydeco) so intensely that it seemed more roots-bound than many Americans, and startlingly arcane.

The cover photo for its most lauded album, The Band (often called “the brown album”), showed a group of men who’d already spent eight or more years “paying dues.”  Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson looked like they’d emerged from some time in the 19th or early 20th century. The music was rich in history and deep cultural feeling. Upon first hearing “When You Awake” from that album I started dancing, near to tears of joy, amazed at its ebullience, its reflection of my experiences with country grandparents; of rubbing elbows with ghosts from another century in the South, where I lived until I was 12, and then in Mystic, Connecticut.

“Whispering Pines” is one of the most beautiful evocations of heartbroken desolation I know, although “It Makes No Difference,” from Northern Lights-Southern Cross, offers serious competition. Maybe you’ve heard “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (not the Joan Baez rendition). And “Up On Cripple Creek” paints a crystal-clear picture of a happily messy relationship.

Now I’m going to do the meanest thing of all — share The Band in action. The first video is from The Last Waltz, a farewell show that was filmed by Martin Scorsese on Thanksgiving, 1976 at Winterland in San Francisco. It delivered much more than even the greediest fan could have expected, with collaborative and distinct appearances from artists including the Staple Singers, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Eric Clapton (who quit Cream after hearing the first album, Music from Big Pink, and who wanted to join The Band), and Ronnie Hawkins.

Instead of seeing these video shares as mean, let’s spin positively: As with Erik Satie, the Beatles, or Howlin’ Wolf, I’m inspired by this level of human achievement. Maybe you’ll start sharing my tradition of inhaling the Last Waltz DVD with friends some time between Thanksgiving and the end of December. Weary as I can be of hearing this Dylan song covered, I can hardly point a finger, being prone to play it myself. Here Richard Manuel’s performance has a lot to do with the definitive version’s defiance of  gravity: somehow it’s both earthy and ethereal. For now, m’dears, that’s about the sweetest thing I can offer.

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