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Gurf Morlix

Last Exit to Happyland

(Rootball; US: 17 Feb 2009; UK: 26 Jan 2009)

An Inscrutable Artist

Austin’s Gurf Morlix fifth album, Last Exit to Happyland, has an enigmatic title, which seems appropriate as Morlix is an inscrutable artist. There’s no song or lyric that makes reference to Happyland, heaven, paradise, or any synonymous places, although there are allusions to times of reckoning, judgment day, and selling one’s soul to the devil. “Last exits”, vis a vis last chances, don’t seem an option to the people that inhabit his tunes. Instead they find themselves at the “End of the Line”, on a “Hard Road”, or if they are lucky, at the “Crossroads”, as indicated by the aforementioned song titles. 


If that suggests darkness, well, duh! “You’re gonna get caught and you’re gonna bleed,” the Texan tells us, but he does this in a tender voice to gentle, or at least subdued, music. Life sucks. There’s that hurricane that wiped out New Orleans, women that leave you, and friends that kill themselves on this disc. This may not be blues music, but Morlix confronts some of life’s bleakest moments. Part of what makes him unfathomable as an artist is that he sees this with clear eyes and doesn’t whine about it. He just tells it like it is and uplifts the listener through the force of his music.


Morlix, who not only sings and writes all the songs on the record but plays all of the instruments on it (but drums) and produced it at his home studio, understands the mighty power of music. The gospel- inflected “Drums from New Orleans”, which features moans and wails from Ruthie Foster, discusses how the mysterious sound of late night radio from the Crescent City opened up new worlds and saved a lonely child from the cold, cold North. The kid is Morlix himself, a Buffalo, New York native who moved south soon after graduating from high school to start a musical career.


The other song clearly about a real person is the lilting shuffle, “Music You Mighta Made.” The song was written for his old friend and fellow musician Blaze Foley, whose suicide was also noted in Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel” (that Morlix produced). Morlix’s tune melodically recalls the music Foley used to make and the gentle soul he used to be to those who know and loved him.


Living in this world is rough, but Morlix can find sweetness in the struggles. He knows a “life of trying” has its on rewards. Some of this is expressed by the female voices that harmonize with him on this record. Besides Foster, Patty Griffin joins in on three songs and Timbuk3’s Barbara Kooyman sings on another. Morlix employs these women’s voices sparingly, but to superb effect so that when you hear them you can’t help but pay attention to what they are singing. When Griffin and Morlix’s voices mesh on “I Got Nothin’”, the effect causes the listener to shiver at the nakedness of the emotions expressed. 


And, of course, much of the credit must go to Morlix’s own voice. He doesn’t have a great range or sense of phrasing. Instead, he knows how to sing in a controlled fashion that allows for the lyrics and the instruments to serve the songs. It’s a neat trick, for this allows him to convey his music in a conversational and intimate manner. This album whispers instead of shouts, and that makes it all the more powerful in its execution.

Rating:

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


Tagged as: gurf morlix
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