HOW IT USED TO BE: New music reviews by Mary Leary

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Bathgate gives Fleet Foxes a run for their...

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers: Starlight Hotel (Signature Sounds)
Chris Bathgate: Salt Year (Quite Scientific Records)
Dan Hubbard and the Humadors: The Love Show (Self-released)

If there’s anything that rings with subjectivity, it’s any given person’s notion of “the way it used to be.” Regarding the late ‘50s, Republicans who were middle-aged might remember a suburbia that felt charming and controlled (“How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”). Democrats who were in their early twenties might have fond recollections of wandering into a talented troubadour’s turn at some West Village coffeehouse; the stirrings of open minds. Someone with a troubled childhood might remember how good it felt to get on the school bus and out of the house, especially when riding with the driver who kept the radio tuned to an A.M. station.

For me, sound has a lot to do with feelings about “how it used to be” at any given moment. And life’s full of surprise and irony: at my grandmother’s, one of my favorite childhood places, the cuckoo clock and the birds she welcomed provided the only things musical, along with her round, cheerful voice. I have no particular trauma related to her love of The Lawrence Welk Show, since she tended to talk over anything on TV – and my revered uncles were always joking around.

Here and now, “Dang, that’s some sweet twangin’!” seems the inevitable response to Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers’ sophomore emission and first release with Signature Sounds. Seems inevitable to me, anyway. But don’t take my word for it – other than the rather pop-orientated (per composition and, to some degree, approach) sounds of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, and the bounce of western swing, I don’t really know from country. Or I haven’t been compelled to know much from country.

Really, the sounds on Starlight Hotel amalgamate country-western with folk and pop sensibilities that could only have been recorded as producers have tended to do since the ‘70s. The album’s a great example of nursing every nuance and lilt in every line of every song. The sound’s good enough to eat. And Muth has a delectably bright, full alto without a shred of excess or vibrato. She bears down on notes for emphasis but doesn’t whine. Remember that scene in Sweet Dreams, when a frustrated, at-the-ironing-board Jessica Lange (as Patsy Cline) snarls, in response to some country claptrap on the radio, “Lord, bitch! You don’t sing, you whine, whine.”

That part of that film wasn’t such a sweet dream, but there’s a lot to covet at Starlight Hotel. Muth often writes about bar life – and, sure as shootin’, that’s country. Her lyrics boast the literacy more typical of folk song scribes. What a woman named Zoe, who lives in Seattle, is doing making grits ‘n’ gravy soundtracks, is a question for the ascended masters – at least the ones chewing their cud above Nashville.

Chris Bathgate combines a good helping of Contemporary with several cups of “how it used to be,” if used to be was circa The Band, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, and maybe “When the Spell is Broken” by Richard and Linda Thompson. He may be into Iron and Wine and Fleet Foxes. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he casts a spell before opening his door every morning. Like Bathgate’s debut, A Cork Tale Wake, Salt Year creeps into one’s consciousness almost imperceptibly. In other words, first time through, the response is likely to be, “Pretty good.” By the second spin, it’s starting to hum like a classic – and a classic of full-album artistry, not just a few impressive songs with respectable filler.

The first track that perked my ears was probably “Borders.” It’s a song on which the entire epic turns: Something tragic is going down. I don’t know what that is, although it feels like lost love, a suicide (spiritual and/or corporeal), or both. When a musician opens himself this fully, I tend to respond from the soul.

Bathgate’s lyrics sing of joy, sunny interludes, lonely evenings, and regret. He addresses questions that lack easy answers. In other words, he’s managed an album about Life: not the easiest task, by any means. Salt Year may get less attention than the Fleet Foxes’ excellent, latest release. But it’s at least as important.

Stock artistry?

I wish I had one of the vinyl copies. The rich artwork conjures all sorts of “used to be,” including what devolved into “stock” illustrations and art (the kind you might find at a boardwalk show, in a mass-market children’s literature collection, or, framed, at the dentist’s office) from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Art majors, feel free to correct or be more specific in the comment section.

Meanwhile, a group of young-ish Midwesterners are having a fine time, starting with “Zoe’s Intro” to The Love Show. The follower, “Don’t Take Me Now,” exemplifies the working class/Petty/Mellencamp/Browne flavor of Dan Hubbard and the Humadors: If you can just keep driving forward, on the right side of the road, you may keep from getting torn down by unemployment, failing crops, and the myriad stresses of financial insecurity.

Hubbard doesn’t take these ideas, or this sound, anywhere particularly new. Still, musicians who inject this much passion and talent into their hoedowns create a good argument for such a comforting, familiar form. You can hear Hubbard’s Beatle-love in the harmonies of songs like “We’ll Be Fine,” which is maple-syrup-on-hot-oatmeal nice. If you’re planning a trip to the heartland, keep an eye out for one of his shows – they look to be awfully rejuvenating.

Anyone know what rentals are going for in Normal, Illinois? Anyone know how many jokes have been derived from its alliterative name (when combined with the state)?

Not to mention Indiana. It’s so easy to imagine how things used to be in the Midwest when I’ve never been there other than through the eyes of Carl Sandburg, Booth Tarkington, and several musical writers. But before we get to that, here’s a link to a free Dan Hubbard download:

(Not that I need a radio station to be awake at three a.m. Thank you.) To Indiana (and, believe me, it could get much worse than this):

I mean, a toe-warmer that ends a line with “…and my body had turned to carrion” snuck into the middle. And the bridge!

I take back everything I’ve said about the above contemporary artistes. It ain’t like it used to be. They don’t write ‘em like that anymore.

Maybe we should take into account my suspicion that Meredith Willson was a god.


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