Thursday, June 24, 2021

Record Roundup: Americana The Beautiful

For the last four or five years, there's been an increasingly bitter battle over what it means to be an American. There are some of those among us who might even have found themselves questioning the whole enterprise, i.e. how good could this place be if it produced those people with those ideas? But most days, the good outweighs the bad, even if the latter can get an unholy grip on the reins for a moment. Turning towards albums like those reviewed below can be a part of both appreciating the good and gathering strength to resist the bad. We must be doing something right if music like this still grows here, alongside those amber waves of grain. Reap the harvest.

Hiss Golden Messenger - Quietly Blowing It The critic's job can be tough when an artist nails it in their own words, as HGM's M.C. Taylor does in his essay, Mourning In America, when he says, "I'm not sure what the difference is between celebrating and mourning. I feel like I was doing both at the same time." There in a nutshell is the array of moods, from joy and sorrow to hope and regret, found here, masterfully distilled and blended into a complex whole, like one of those whiskies made from 12 different barrels of varying ages. In that same essay, Taylor also talks about the difficult journey to Quietly Blowing It, which began in late 2019 when, blown out on the trail and unsure of his purpose, he cancelled his first Australian tour - he hated disappointing people but  says "it felt like the best $10,000 I'd ever spent" - and came home to his family. 

From the outside perspective, part of the conundrum Taylor was confronting is what might be termed the corrosive effect of success, which can burn off rough edges, dispel mystery, and tie up loose ends in the misguided quest for more of the same. When his last album, the beautiful Terms Of Surrender, earned his first Grammy nomination (for best Americana album), perhaps it also allowed some of those voices, both external and internal, to intrude enough for him to doubt his process. But the best defense against that lay in his own remarkable discography, now ten albums strong and stretching back to 2008. That Grammy nom - and the increasing attention that led to it - was arrived at without compromise, in his continual pursuit of realizing songs that combined the personal and the universal while paying homage to his musical forebears and honing his own distinct sound.

Beginning with three hymn-like chords on a keyboard (likely played by Devonne Harris, of Richmond, VA stalwarts Butcher Brown), Way Back In The Way Back welcomes you to the album like an old friend, with chiming guitar joining in and soon that Matt McCaughan backbeat I've rhapsodized about before (or it could be Brevan Hampden, who's just as good). As the song wends its way with a weary strength through lyrics that hint at the exhaustion Taylor described, a pair of saxophones join in, played by Stuart Bogie and Matt Douglas, lending muscle and building a foundation for a guitar solo both stylish and raw (sounds like Josh Kaufman, but the great Buddy Miller is also in the credits), and the sense of a man who knows exactly how to express himself is undeniable before the song is even over. But if he doesn't put the couplet, "Up with the mountains/Down with the system," on a t-shirt I will feel free to question his merch strategy!

Now, last time around, some sought to make hay out of the fact that Scott Hirsch, who had been on many prior albums, was not present. He's back this time, lending his lap-steel and synth expertise, yet Phil and Brad Cook, who were on several albums as well as being in the touring band from time to time, are absent this time. While Brad's sensitive bass playing and Phil's over-driven guitar and harmonica solos and dominating abilities on the organ are always highlights onstage and on album, HGM has always been Taylor's vision and I have seen nothing to indicate that anything interpersonal is involved. Scheduling is a more likely culprit, as both Cooks are busy in many kitchens, including their own. Hell, if Phil makes an album as good as Southland Mission again, I'll be actually happy he wasn't on this one. And never forget that Alex Bingham, who plays bass here, created what Aquarium Drunkard called the "song of the year" in 2019. This is all just to say: Whether you're a longtime Hiss fan or newer to the band and listened before you read the credits, you knew you were in good hands just by the sound of the thing.

The Great Mystifier is a nifty country-tinged mover, with twin-lead guitars tipping their hat to Duane and Dicky, while Mighty Dollar is molasses-slow, with a funky groove for Taylor to preach his anti-prosperity-gospel gospel: "It never fixed a broken heart/It never made a dumb man smarter." Give the man a mega-church for the truly righteous. The song kind of grinds to a halt, leaving a space for the achingly gorgeous title track, limned with Hirsch's lap-steel, to make its mournful way. "The shape of things/Don’t look so good/On the TV there’s a riot goin’ on," Taylor sings, recognizing our recent history while giving tribute to Sly Stone who caught 1970 with as much acuity on that classic album. Curtis Mayfield also gets called into the room on Hardlytown, with its rousing "People get ready" in the pre-chorus. If It Comes In The Morning, a co-write with Ana├»s Mitchell, also has a gospel flavor, providing a needed uplift continued by the solid-rock folk of Glory Strums (Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner). Thus bolstered, Taylor feels free to sink into the near despair of Painting Houses, co-written with Gregory Alan Isakov and one of the saddest songs he's recorded. 

Angels In The Headlights, a glorious slice of spaced-out cowboy music that seems barely tethered to earth, fluttering heavenward on Hirsch's steel wings, may be the shortest at just under two minutes, but if Taylor ever plays it live, I hope it goes on for 20. Sanctuary, which ends the album, could almost serve as a mission statement for the whole HGM project, with its perfect opening and closing lyrics: "Feeling bad/Feeling blue/Can’t get out of my own mind/But I know how to sing about it." It already feels like a standard, too, partly because it was released a while ago, but mostly due to Taylor's emotionally engaged craftsmanship, both with his pen and in the studio. The same could be said of Quietly Blowing It as a whole, which Taylor produced solo, arriving at one of the deepest expressions of his art yet released. Careful, dude - keep this up and you just might blow it for real by getting even more successful.

P.S. HGM is one of THE great live acts - if you want a reminder of all we've been missing since March 2020, check the dates to see if they're coming to a venue near you.

Jeffrey Silverstein - Torii Gates As he did on last year's wondrous You Become The Mountain, Silverstein is mapping out a very distinctive territory where tributaries of the New Age river flow into a gentle stream of sun struck Americana. A key element is Barry Walker Jr.'s pedal steel, which seems to take as much from Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks as it does from Nashville. Spare bass from Alex Chapman and Silverstein's guitar and vocals complete the picture, along with an occasional drum machine. Songs seem to emerge out of the atmosphere on repeated listens, and one they do, the mood and the melodies will be tough to shake off. No matter, you can just play it again...and again...

Corntuth - The Desert Is Paper Thin On his debut album, Music To Work To, this Brooklyn-based artist applied a canny songwriting sense to the tools of ambient music for a winning combination that was as good to work to as it was to just listen. Here, he takes us on an imagined journey through the American southwest, adding the organic tones of his own acoustic guitar - often miked extremely closely - and the pedal steel of Pete Finney, who's worked with Mike Nesmith, Beck, and everyone in between, to the electronic textures. The sound is sublime, with the looped nature of the songs making for a hypnotic experience. Between Silverstein and Corntuth, Hiss Golden Messenger has some good company in the spaced-out cowboy music genre - book a flight. The album releases on July 16th but you can pre-save the first single now to hear it on July 2nd - and keep an eye on Corntuth's site, Bandcamp, and Flow State for more information to come.

Amy Helm - What The Flood Leaves Behind The story we tell ourselves and others about why a record works or doesn't work is just that - a story. But the working or not working is a real thing that can't be explained away. So, I could tell a story about Helm's first two albums seeming to come from an obligation to her heritage as the daughter of the legendary Levon Helm, or maybe diluted by producers or music biz affiliations. But who knows? All I can say is that, while the second album, This Too Shall Light, was getting closer, I was not compelled to keep listening. That all changes here, with these ten new songs quenching a thirst I didn't know I had, and it's a drink of which I have yet to tire. I can tell myself story about that, too, about her prodigal return to Levon's studio, home of his rambles and where she may have first raised her voice in public. Or I could talk about Josh Kaufman, who produced and played a half dozen instruments beyond his usual brilliant guitars, and who seems to be able to create a place of comfort for artists, where they can produce their best work. 

And if you're a Hiss Golden Messenger fan looking for Phil Cook, he's here, too, along with expert rhythm section Michael Libramento (bass) and Tony Mason (drums). They're intrinsic to the success of the album, along with Daniel Littleton's electric guitar and the superb horn section of Stuart Bogie (sax) and Jordan McLean (trumpet), who even give some Garth Hudson wooziness to Renegade Heart, the final track. Helm has also come into her own as a songwriter, writing or co-writing seven of the songs here, showing an ease with her history (from Cotton And The Cane, co-written with Mary Gauthier: "My father was a sharecropper’s son/Handed hope and hymns to ease the pain" and "Heroin, I’m locked out again/On the side of the road") and a fine use of imagery (from Coming Home: "Found a picture of her/I framed it in gold now it burns up the room"), making songs that feel simultaneously new yet familiar, personal and universal.

Maybe she learned some of those lessons from M.C. Taylor, whose sterling song, Verse 23, opens the album, applying a Dylanesque resonance and concision to lines like "Some got caught in the wanting/And some lost the feel/Some got lost in their own eyes/And went crazy on the hill." But the true glory of the album is Helm's voice, rich and earthy now, reminiscent of Frazey Ford, and less concerned with conveying words as with carrying emotional weight. Whether on gentle songs like that opening track or the gutsy funk of Breathing, everything she does feels completely natural and from the heart. So take all the stories you've heard or told yourself about Amy Helm and close the book. This is a new volume and one I suspect we will be reading for a long time. It should be great to hear live, too.

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: American Harvest
Cornucopia Of Folk And Americana
Autumn Albums, Part 1
Autumn Albums, Part 2
Hiss Golden Messenger Holds Back The Flood
New Americana, Part 1: Phil Cook
New Americana, Part 2: Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon

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