The Silos: Cuba

[16 January 2003]

By John Kenyon

Remember 1987? It doesn’t seem so long ago, not until people start celebrating the 15th anniversary of things that happened that year. Not until you remember that Rolling Stone was once a place to turn for a heads-up on pop culture that hovered well below the radar, well outside the mainstream.

Though the mag is now little more than a sad knock-off of Blender without the slick pages, it once contained within its covers insights that could steer a young music lover with an open mind in the right direction. It was a magazine that could open one’s ears and eyes to the wonder that was the Silos’ Cuba.

I’ve long had it in my head that I first learned of the Silos in the “Hot” issue of the Stone, the one with Lisa Bonet, fresh off her turn in the soft-porn mindfuck “Angel Heart”, on the cover. That particular issue had staying power in my magazine stack—Bonet was pictured strategically nude more than a decade before Christina, oops, make that “X-tina”, thought it was a risqué move.

But, after a bit of Internet research, I’m pretty sure it was actually the issue containing results of the Rolling Stone Critic’s Poll for 1988, in which the Silos were dubbed the Best New American Band, that first clued me in (oh well, I still got to work in the term “soft-porn mindfuck”).

Wherever it was, it was just a short blurb with a photo of the band, but it was enough to send me down to the local Record Shack at the mall to pick up Cuba on cassette. Considering the time—remember, Lisa Bonet was on a major magazine cover sometime around this point—it was an absolute revelation.

What I brought home was a marvel, an album that not only contained 10 fantastic songs, but one that changed my whole way of thinking about what music could be and how it was made. These songs didn’t sound like anything else I’d heard. By then, I’d discovered the rustic sound of early R.E.M., the raw punk of the Sex Pistols and even the bloozy roar of the Replacements. But this was different, music that sounded like a few friends gathered together in the front room of a house with a microphone dangling from the ceiling. The drums sometimes sounded like cardboard boxes, and there didn’t seem to be a reverb knob in the same room as that where the vocals were recorded, or the guitars or anything else, for that matter.

Years later, when I finally taught myself guitar, it didn’t take long to learn the entire album, it’s songs based for the most part on simple, three-chord structures with a minor fourth in the bridge to keep things interesting.

But it lacked nothing for all its simplicity, showing that it didn’t take anything more than a batch of great songs to make a great album. The recordings of “For Always”, “Margaret”, and “Going Round” would be thought of as demos had this been recorded for a major label, but with their fragility and rough edges exposed here, they are near perfect. All the money and recording savvy in the world couldn’t make these songs any better, would almost assuredly hurt them, in fact.

To celebrate the disc’s 15th anniversary, Dualtone has reissued Cuba. It’s not a new idea: This is at least the fourth time the record has been released. The first, of course, came in 1987 with its initial release on vinyl and cassette. Since, it has been released with an increasing selection of bonus tracks as each was unearthed. This latest release adds two more tracks to the bonus selections, bringing the total to six, quite an augmentation for a tight, 10-song disc.

These songs—live versions of Silos-adjunct the Vulgar Boatmen’s “You and Your Sister” and the disc’s lead-off track, “Tennessee Fire”, both recorded at Milwaukee’s the Toad club in April of 1988—capture heady days for the band, still riding high on the accolades for Cuba and planning its major label bow and swan song, its 1990 self-titled disc.

If the tracks were recorded on something more high-tech than a handheld tape recorder, it wouldn’t be wise to admit it. They songs sound like a bootleg from the time would have sounded—tinny and distorted. You won’t find yourself listening to these much, but as historical documents, they’re a valuable glimpse at the band’s live power at the time. Particularly “Tennessee Fire”, its, well, firepower only hinted at on the studio version.

These and the other four bonus tracks, including an embryonic version of the song “Maybe Everything” that appeared in more polished form on the Silos’ next disc, are all fine additions, but it is the original batch of 10 songs that make this the Silos best album, and one of the best albums ever.

Band leader Walter Salas-Humara wrote most of the songs here, and each is a fine example of his greatest gift: concision. Salas-Humara is able to sketch out a scene in two or three words, capturing an entire father-daughter relationship in the line, “Margaret goes to bed around 8, I go to bed around 1” from “Margaret”. Small details capture more truth than a long-winded chronicle ever could.

He does so within the framework of songs that are best summed up as being “rock”. Sure, there are elements of folk, country, and even soul here, but they are rendered with a simple guitar-bass-drums structure—a violin added here and there for texture—that is best filed under plain old rock.

Some of the songs are almost painfully spare. The love song “For Always” is a quiet stunner, while “Going Round” is little more than vocals, violin and guitar. But the album has plenty of fire, from the roar of “Tennessee Fire” to the four-on-the-floor drive of “It’s Alright” and “All Falls Away” that close the disc.

Salas-Humara is abetted by a band including Bob Rupe, who left after the Silos self-titled 1990 release, eventually landing in Cracker after a stint in Steve Wynn’s Gutterball. Here he contributes two beautiful tracks, “She Lives up the Street” and “Memories”, and adds his deep vocals as a harmonic counterpoint.

When it was released, Cuba sounded out of time, almost a throwback. But the 15 years since have been kind. It sounds more powerful than ever, that out-of-time quality now a timelessness borne of the depth and breadth of the songs.

Salas-Humara has released a handful of discs under the Silos name in the past 15 years, all with something to recommend them. But with Cuba, he created his masterpiece.

On “Just This Morning”, Salas-Humara sings of the joy that comes with hearing a favorite record on the radio: “We were driving across the plains, heard that record and it made my day. Down around Illinois, Thank you DJ.” Hearing Cuba is a day-maker every single time. Thank you, Silos.

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