Lads of the Canyon
8 Apr 2003: The Knitting Factory New York
Once upon a time not so long ago the musical sub-genre variously known as alt-country / y’allternative / No Depression / cosmic country / cosmic American music was born (mostly in the Far West), and its practitioners were demigods who stalked the earth with a fusion of twang and psychedelic feedback in their wake. Call them Cosmic Americanus Rex: the Byrds, the Buffalo Springfield, the Dillards, the Gosdin Brothers, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, Gene Clark, Gram Parsons, Michael Nesmith, Clarence White, Neil Young, J.D. Souther, Rick Nelson (and you know, where the hell is Ned Doheny?). These twang titans also sported fellow travelers for better (Little Feat, Jerry Garcia) and for worse (Parsons idolaters/body-snatchers the Eagles, the Rolling Stones). Somewhere amidst this first flowering of the dubiously named country rock, a more concise and pop-oriented version of what far out explorers such as Parsons and Nesmith were discovering sprouted up under the aegis of such ‘70s FM radio stalwarts as America, Seals & Crofts, Loggins & Messina, and Bread.
The Brooklynites in emergent countryish soft rock outfit Maplewood, who also do double-duty in such bands as Koester, Nada Surf, Champale and Winterville, pay not too slavish homage to both the acid-drenched pinnacles of cosmic Americana and the desert rock of America (RIP Ian Samwell). It’s definitely “twinkling Western sky music,” as Hendrix once said of their forebears Crosby, Stills & Nash. With the exception of “Sea Hero’s” bling-blip coda on disc, there is no electro or Theremin to make the compositions for their first long-player “modern”; “Desert Queen” shows the influence of “White Horses”, but this is generally hazy country, psych-pop which could potentially benefit from the full on Arthur Lee/Bruce Botnick orchestral treatment. Different from Arizona’s Calexico in that there’s no immediate symbolism of sand nor mariachi, and from the Los Angelenos in Beachwood Sparks for purveying tighter, more focused and less solipsistic tunes that might actually crack radio, Maplewood are one toke away from the cosmos and harbingers of a movement already afoot. As when Keith Whitley sang “Buck”, a backlash against late New Country and the teen pop that dominates the airwaves is well underway. Immediately, the lilting, easy, three-part harmonies of Steve Koester, Mark Rozzo and Craig Schoen (co-founder Ira Elliott was on tour with Nada Surf) draw the line in the sand between them and Orlando’s synchronized singing boy bands. If they don’t quite attain the heights of the Beach Boys’ supposed harmonic perfection nor that of those ‘70s masters Maurice White and Phillip Bailey—and there were two spots at the band’s recent Knitting Factory show where the vocal blend went flat—Maplewood nevertheless are prime contenders for the mantle yet to be bestowed by the giants: Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and the ghosts of Gene Clark and Parsons on high. The central problem with the Beachwood Sparks (woodsy theme a-go go here in these group monikers, no?) is that Chris Gunst’s voice is not strong enough to support their musical ambitions and Brent Rademaker, who is better, never sings lead. Maplewood’s Koester and Rozzo display no such weakness. This fact, combined with the gorgeous accessibility of their songs, especially the sublime “Indian Summer”, should see them poised to penetrate the mass in a way other “Return Of Country Rock” standard bearers like the Sparks, the mighty Bobby Bare Jr., and assorted idolaters of the post-Flyte, post-Sweetheart Of The Rodeo Byrds have not managed to do.
At the Knit, the sole whiff of angst came from the fragile and virtually chamber rock “Bright Eyes”, and somewhat from “Santa Fe” and the Sparks-esque “Sea Hero”. Otherwise, reflecting their slogan “Maplewood feels good”, the band effectively conveyed a hay cartload of peaceful easy feelings. Their music evokes a mythic (alternative) American pastoral of pleasant valley Sundays replete with a potential fiddle-heavy jam, sweet tea or lemonade sweating in a blown-glass pitcher, lazy dogs snoring on the wraparound porch and Mayan hammocks swinging ‘neath the flowering trees. Makes you want to hit the highway and fly on the ground past the outer limits. This was made literal during “Be My Friend” as its melody echoed the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born To Follow”, thus rolling the post-commune skinny-dipping scene from Easy Rider behind one’s eyelids. Even as Maplewood make plans to release their debut toward the end of the year, and they are more than primed for deserved adulation, their current minor tragedy is that they are not out in some place like the Jemez hot springs, but bound to Gotham. And for all that this metropolis possesses its own concrete canyons, peaks and valleys and the odd eagle gargoyle, this is music that belongs to the wider open spaces of The Farm in Tennessee, Joshua Tree and Topanga. Like fellow Brooklyn dwellers the Brought Low, who play another reviled ‘70s genre, southern rock, Maplewood are up against a hostile environment—which may be why their music provides such pleasure in a city like this.
Given propulsive backing by a rhythm section consisting of drummer Judd Counsell and bassist Jude Webre, the shimmering “Darlene”, referring to that immortal rock & roll crossroads Hollywood and Vine, and the yearning “Desert Queen” explicitly suggested that the Knit was not necessarily the best room for Maplewood. Their sonic memory reaches back to the halcyon era when the latter Flying Burrito Brothers needn’t have sung “California Jukebox” as an elegy for the Corral hippie honky-tonk in Topanga. Maplewood belongs on the Palomino stage of our buckskin fetish-suffused minds with young men in Nudies and footloose and fancy-free gals in the sprigged, Gunne Sax-inspired dresses of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly’s Judi Rosen, not trapped and dour in Loisaida hipster threads as I found them last Tuesday night. It definitely remains for a comparable audience of Saint Gram-imprinted peers to rise up to meet the country rock revival and help the scene evolve—just like the hordes of Brooklyn rockabillys who swarm the room when Shelton (sorry Hank Williams III) blazes into town. [I say revival for there has been an overlooked breakdown in the genre during the past few years as Wilco, the Jayhawks and Ryan Adams abandoned the high harmonies and other rusty trappings of y’allternative to embrace power pop and the blues rock template of the Glimmer Twins. Despite whatever No Depression is hawking these days, the movement cannot subsist on suburban boys who play upright bass and don string ties and western shirts as if they just stepped off the set of Hee-Haw forever.]
Maplewood may need to summon a bit more onstage charisma once they become highway stars, but my remedy for that is to pray for collaboration between them and Calexico’s own “Desert Queen” and High Priestess, Stevie Nicks. There’s a match made in honky-tonk heaven. Perhaps as a bonus track to their forthcoming release, Maplewood should consider a cover of Buckingham Nicks’ “Long Distance Winner”, if they really want to capture the cream of the California canyon sound. They already embody the “California jukebox”, yet, like Hendrix declaimed, they’re aeons beyond surf music.
Now David Gates’ contributions are kinda hazy even in this radio baby’s ‘70s-centric mind—save for Earth Wind & Fire’s fabulous cover of “Make It With You”—but America and Seals & Crofts certainly loom large as Maplewood influences I can celebrate. “Horse With No Name” is the one song I can play on guitar and the Isley Brothers’ nonpareil take on “Summer Breeze” proves out Seals &Crofts’ gifts—I also adore “Diamond Girl” (and one of them was married to a sister so that makes them African by association). At the Velvet Rope online, a thread pondering Ryan Adams’ supremacy contains a post as follows:
<<"Who the heck wants to hear this century's David Gates?">
“Ryan Adams wishes he was the genius that is David Gates…”
If Gates was genius and Maplewood are his most satisfying heirs, what does that make them? Do not allow these last two generations’ love-hate relationship with ‘70s cheese prevent you from catching Maplewood’s next show, on April 23rd at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, or clamoring for them to hit the happy trails out west (they’re headed to the City of Angels in May). A guest appearance by their Richmond, Virginia, resident friend Alan Weatherhead of Sparklehorse, in to play pedal steel on several tracks, may seem de rigueur but this ain’t your stoner uncle’s country rock. Yes, the band has contributed music to a Bravo profile on Kris Kristofferson and they’ve already gotten spacey with the Super8 in Joshua Tree, but none of them seems tortured or hard-livin’ enough to go off the rails like a Parsons or Clark or Roger McGuinn. Let the fair autumn breezes of their best song “Indian Summer” be indicative of Maplewood’s collective mental and emotional state. At the Knit, they got subtly funky on “Carolina Jasmine” and sang of “bright eyes of the West”, “count your lucky stars” and “the city shimmers” reaching for the sky. Sonically, socially, these seem like slightly dreamy but well-adjusted guys without pretension—Rozzo joked about “another costume change” at one point as Schoen switched from electric to acoustic guitar, but Schoen bore the sole nod to retro in his rust fringed shirt. No vanity or cowboys and indians dress-up here.
My desire is that this great band evolve to the point that they can deliver a cosmic American masterpiece on par with Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name—Schoen got the jet sound nailed with his lead playing intermittently, and “Gemini On The Way” was redolent of the galactic, spooky loops to be found on “Laughing” and “Cowboy Movie”. This century does need a widespread movement of country fans with their minds blown as counterculture to the Nashvegas and crumbling pop mainstreams. Maplewood’s music, edenic and etheric occasionally bordering on ambient (let’s coin “ambient honk” here if Buddyhead can invent jock emo as “bro-mo” and “e-bro”), pitched towards the stratosphere with its ringing voices and plangent guitars, is an apt soundtrack for getting back to rural essentials and constructing the New Jerusalem. Even if the time is long gone when Mark Rozzo & Co. could spearhead a revolution as rich and provocative as that of the (O.G.) Charlatans at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, there is a dire need for more bands like Maplewood who are alert, tasteful and respectful enough to make the world over in Ethiopia-spawned Dionysus’ image one song at a time.