In case you haven’t noticed, something’s gone horribly awry in alternative-country. The old guard—the ones who led the revolt against the capitalist sheen of Nashville country—has started doing some bizarre things. Take Ryan Adams, for example, who now spends more time crafting his hair and “dangerous” image than crafting his songs. Then there’s Jay Farrar, the one who supposedly possessed the genius in Uncle Tupelo, who has settled into a career of unwavering, militant mediocrity. Don’t, by the way, believe the critics: The new Son Volt album isn’t that great—it’s simply listenable, which is a huge improvement for Farrar. Wilco, the other offspring of Uncle Tupelo, hasn’t made a country album in a while, and they seem hell-bent on talking the self-indulgent Radiohead route to obscurity. Even the elders have gone bonkers. Lucinda Williams rapped on her last album (where’s Gilbert Godfrey to scream “What the f—-?”), and Willie Nelson just released a reggae album, as if a love for marijuana makes you an honorary member of the genre. Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need a Hero” is going through my head right now, which is a sure sign that something, indeed, has gone very, very wrong.
Dameon Lee, a.k.a. Lowlights, just might be that hero. On Dark End Road, Lee and his collective (there’s a dozen other musicians featured on the album) make what Gram Parsons famously dubbed Cosmic American Music—an eclectic, spacey mixture of folk, country, and psychedelia. While Parsons’s music, however, was only cosmic in its nods to the drug-inspired haze of sixties rock, Lowlights makes music that actually feels like space: lonely, vast, and eerie. This isn’t the Technicolor drama of Major Tom, but sepia-stained, slow-motion surrealism. Lowlights achieves this feeling not through obvious gimmicks (backtracking, feedback, incoherent solos), but by letting the music breathe; its songs are not psychedelic in approach, but in execution. Violins play lonesome melodies that drift in and out of songs; choirs of voices descend from the air; vibrating keyboards play dirges, then recede into the background. The whole album possesses an open, empty feel that is more disquieting than soothing, much like coming out of the storm shelter to see that the neighborhood is now a pile of debris.
This tone suits the songs well, especially since Lowlights respects the country tradition and write ballads about broken hearts, drinking too much, and just regretting every decision in general. “The One I Love Is Gone” is pretty self-explanatory, but only in lyrical content; the sound, however, is much different than a standard heartbreak country tune. As a violin weeps in the background and a banjo plods slowly along in the foreground, creepy record pops faintly explode. In “The Way You Were”, the narrator is haunted by memories of his former lover, and the music underscores his regret: A limping guitar barely manages to keep time while an injured harmonica struggles through the air. Likewise, in “Snow Is Silver” the narrator remembers a warmer time in his life: “Snow is silver / Underneath the pale moonlight / Late December / On a cold winter’s night / Watched you naked / Danced around like a flame ” It all feels like a slow motion movie, mirroring the insipid grip of regret and memory. Indeed, Lowlights prefers to not to tell you about heartbreak, but make you feel its nagging sense of falling through empty space.
Lowlights writes an impeccable ballad, but the band also up the tempo quite convincingly. “Drive Thru” is a gritty, catchy rocker that is frantic yet uncluttered, sounding like the Replacements as produced by Daniel Lanois. “Dark End Road” begins slow, then gains steam from a menacing bass line that leads to an orgy of violins, pedal steel, and crashing drums. These faster songs are placed at different spots on the album, which might keep a few listeners from slitting their wrists, drinking themselves into a coma, or barricading themselves in a room out of paranoia. No matter the tempo, though, Lowlights displays an impressive mastery of every aspect of its music, from the accomplished musicianship to the artistic production. Then again, when you’ve got enough musicians to start a village, surely you’ve got every musical whim covered.
Lowlights reminds us just what alternative-country was all about in the first place—remarkable musicianship and impassioned songwriting. On Dark End Road, there is plenty of both, minus the ridiculous shenanigans that plague the genre today. There’s no rapping here. There are no pictures of Dameon Lee on the album cover standing in front of an American flag with a $300 hairdo designed to look rebellious. There aren’t even any “important” messages within the lyrics. There are only good songs, crafted with care and artistry. Now there’s an alternative.