[11 October 2007]
Just like patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, Americana has become the safe haven for folk-style musicians who are barely able to play a simple tune of unamplified instruments. That’s a damn shame because the genre started off with such promise. Like punk before it, the Americana movement stripped away the glitz and crap that characterized so much country music and took it back to its roots. Kiernan Kane and Kevin Welch served as Americana pioneers and have released some great albums solo and together over the past 20+ years, frequently with Fats Kaplin sitting in and playing on a variety of instruments including fiddle, steel guitar, oud, and even Theremin. This trio plays Americana the way it should be played—with heart, soul, and gumption. These three men know the music is not folk-lite or soft-country, but hard-headed and hard-hearted stuff grounded in the dirt of living.
The latest record billed as a Kane Welch Kaplin release is a shadowy affair with a kick-in-the-groin sense of humor. The songs speak about better times in the past as a sort of whistle in the dark way of dealing with the present. Living in the moment is hard enough; why even think about the future? That may seem glum, but it’s actually liberating. It frees one from the responsibility of trying to do anything but keeping on. Some people may cry or pray about their fate. These guys settle for what they’ve got.
The straightforward playing on the mostly acoustic stringed accompaniment (guitars, banjos, fiddles and such) compliment the bleak lyrics like a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser. The trio tends to favor notes over chords and play them for percussive and rhythmic effects more than the melody. They’ve all got nimble fingers and know how to make their instruments sing and moan. For example, Kane and Welch’s guitars create a sort of quiet conversation and commentary on “Last Lost Highway”, a Welch original about going adrift on the road of life, while Kaplin’s fiddle plays a sad refrain. The music makes the message clear—all life is a journey and no one really knows where he or she is bound, but we all know where we are going. Death is the only certainty. The only thing one can do is sigh.
Kane wrote seven of the dozen tunes on the album, Welch four, Kaplin one and there is one from the public domain, the baleful spiritual, “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” All of the songs fit together in mood and attitude. The album comes across conceptually as rumination on the human condition. Even Kaplin’s composition, the instrumental “Zagnut”, evokes the state of the soul with its haunting sound effects and rippling strings. The oddest song is “Dark Boogie #7”, which captures the paranoia of being judged by others while trying to understand one’s self. According to the song, one cannot even trust one’s mother.
It should be noted that there’s not a single word that refers to America on the entire disc. True Americana is not a cheap celebration of national values or historic events, anymore than true patriotism is waving a flag or as John Prine used to say, putting a flag decal on your car. Kane Welch Kaplin create music that harkens back to a timeless place in our country’s past without citing cheap platitudes or sentiments. The three deeply understand the immanence of our shared past and connect to it by writing, singing, and playing songs that honestly deal with the existential issues that have always faced us in this New World.