[17 December 2008]
2008 was the year that saw No Depression magazine fold up its tent, an unexpected casualty of a larger magazine purge. Ultimately, the magazine would reemerge with a web presence and a reduced print schedule, but its demise seemingly lent credence to claims that the Americana movement was pretty much dead. True, the Americana tag might seem like a dark little niche, but the sheer fact of No Depression‘s treatment of the term as an umbrella with room for blues, R&B, jazz, country, rock, and anything else they felt like including, stands as proof that the niche argument is a bit of a trap. Americana’s dead only if you think of it in terms of Uncle Tupelo clones, and heck, even those will probably make a resurgence soon.
Besides, with cascading financial crises battering our home pages, 401(k)s, and bottom lines on a daily basis, it sometimes doesn’t seem far-fetched to think we’ll be living like the Joads from The Grapes of Wrath pretty soon. As we load up the family and join the battered old minivan convoy to the next road project or picking season, every musical style from crunk to Celtic will become a means of documenting the American experience. Before long, the only person prospering will be John Hodgman, sitting pretty on an empire of canned goods that he’s accumulated in exchange for assigning hobo names to weary travelers.
Or maybe not.
What’s more certain is that 2008 is one of the most difficult years in recent memory, in terms of picking standout releases. There were so many outstanding records, but no one record stood head and shoulders above the rest.
But it did seem—perhaps because of the genre’s traditional real-world concerns—like a lot of the year’s best releases sensed the storm clouds gathering.
It’s easy to imagine many of the songs on Heart of Stone climbing the country charts in the hands of any number of manicured big-name acts. Right now, though, they’re in Chris Knight’s hands—which means they’re dense, literate, often grim, and uniformly excellent. Comparisons to Steve Earle have always made sense because of Knight’s hard-driving style, but with Heart of Stone‘s emphasis on character studies, the John Prine references fit better than ever. Knight now seems less interested in his traditional tales of violence and death, instead concentrating on stories of personal struggle that don’t necessarily rack up a body count. Backed by a full band, and with production from the Georgia Satellites’ Dan Baird, Heart of Stone features one great song after another, making a compelling argument that Knight’s the best dang country singer more people should be listening to.
This listener was firmly in the camp that bitched and moaned about the emphasis on conventional songwriting that Calexico brought to 2006’s Garden Ruin. At the time, optimism and the band’s excellent track record fostered speculation that Garden Ruin might seem fallow, but that its ideas would actually take root. Well, it didn’t take long for that ground to provide, because Carried to Dust might be the band’s best record yet. All of the best Calexico elements are here—the horns that evoke desert vistas, the jazz-laced excursions, the ramshackle wanderings—but this time, the focus on tighter songwriting leads the band to build upon some of their themes in layered, complex ways. Carried to Dust dispenses with Calexico’s time-honored method of roaring out of the gates with horns blaring, and seeing where the desert winds take them (in fact, the album’s one nod to the past, “El Gatillo (Trigger’s Return)”, might be its lone weak spot). On Carried to Dust, they’re taking the Southwestern flavors that have inspired them for years and using them to make something bigger and more satisfying than their regional influences.
It’s been a while since we got an honest to goodness rock ‘n’ roll record from Alejandro Escovedo. His last few efforts have been amazing and substantial, but mortality-laced offerings like 2006’s The Boxing Mirror and ambitious examinations of the American Dream like 2002’s By the Hand of the Father haven’t really called for walls of guitars. Maybe it’s the weight of Escovedo’s revelation a few years back that he had Hepatitis C, but his last few years have produced pensive and meditative work. In a way, the same could be said for Real Animal, which finds Escovedo taking a trip down memory lane. But there’s no mistaking the celebratory vibe of songs like “Chelsea Hotel ‘78” (even as it casts a wry eye back at the “scene” at the time). Plus, you’re unlikely to hear cellos rock harder than on “Real as an Animal”, which Escovedo and Chuck Prophet (who co-wrote all of Real Animal‘s songs with Escovedo) wrote for Iggy Pop.
David Eugene Edwards really shouldn’t be considered such an enigma. As the leader of Woven Hand (and onetime leader of Sixteen Horsepower), all he’s done is bare his spirituality for all the world to see. Granted, it’s informed by more fire and brimstone than we’re used to hearing in our megachurches and Sunday School classes, but it’s not like his internal struggle is that much different than anyone else’s. Throughout Ten Stones, Edwards continues to chronicle his efforts to live true to his own ideals, and to present his concept of a God who radiates love, but who also hasn’t forgotten that He wrote the less forgiving parts of the Old Testament. That alone would lend Edwards’ songs much of its “creepiness”, but he also favors a direct, confrontational musical style that sounds like the personification of internal conflict. “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” is the lightest track on Ten Stones, and it still sounds like it could be the theme to some as-yet-unfilmed Goth romance. As for “Kicking Bird”, his warlike adaptation of a Plains Indian chant? If I’d have been on my farm back in the day and heard this rolling over the hills, I’d have wet my breeches.
Heck, the way things are going, James McMurty might need to revisit his 2005 hit “We Can’t Make It Here” and give it a few more stanzas about mortgages, bailouts, and corporate shenanigans. Until then, Just Us Kids closes the door on the Bush years (it’s safe to say McMurtry’s not a fan) with a clear “don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out” snarl. If Kids concerned itself only with songs like “Cheney’s Toy”, we’d have little more than an entertaining screed on our hands. But McMurtry’s long proven himself best when dealing in particulars, so songs like the Katrina-focused “Hurricane Party”, the old-guys-looking-back focus of the title track, and the struggling relationship of “Ruby and Carlos” stand as poignant cross-sections of life. McMurtry knows what he does, and does it well, and maybe the dry humor and misanthropy he’s exhibited before were just preparation for the hard task of chronicling what’s ahead.
There’s some excellent rock and wry wit on Asking for Flowers. Songs like “Oil Man’s War” (about a draft dodger heading for the Canadian border) or “The Cheapest Key” (with lines like “A is for all the times I bit my tongue / B is for bullshit and you fed me some”) satisfy, but when you get to the album’s more introspective moments, that accomplished loudness fades away. “Run”‘s tale of a woman awaking to the outside world, “Scared at Night”‘s lessons about death, and “Sure as Shit”‘s blunt profession of love, and a host of others show that Edwards is a major songwriting talent.
It may be unfair to the members of Old Crow Medicine Show, but they’re becoming really well known for their drug songs. Tennessee Pusher (as its title might indicate) won’t change that, but at least a few songs take on the self-reflection and recrimination that has to come after an all-night “Humdinger” fueled by whiskey, women, and “Alabama High Test”. “Methamphetamine” and the title track examine the darker, societal costs of the good times, and that sense of subtlety carries over to the rest of the album. “Motel in Memphis”, about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., sounds like a lost Del McCoury track (about the highest compliment you can bestow on anyone with a foot in the bluegrass world). The group’s telltale youthful exuberance is still here (right down to the joyful double-entendres of “Mary’s Kitchen”), but it sounds like the band might be considering ways to put that energy to a purpose.
Lucinda Williams is apparently in love, although, depending on the song, it’s either with a guitar or a man. Whatever. What’s important is that, unlike most artists, she doesn’t get all moon-eyed and insufferable and soft-focus about it. Sensual, sure. Raunchy, definitely. Heck, when Williams is singing about being in love, that achy slur that’s powered so many tales of heartbreak begins to sound like a blissful haze of spent passion. Backed by her band, Buick 66, Williams finds a way to put a tasty guitar solo in even the most sensitive ballad. It’s not all roses and flowers—Williams is practically the poet laureate of country pain, after all—so there are moments of shadow amongst Little Honey‘s exuberance (“Plan to Marry”, after all this talk of Williams’ happiness, doesn’t follow an expected path). But even when Little Honey doesn’t work, it’s always consistent in its off-the-cuff, joyous mood.
At this point, you’d think Joe Ely’s songs (and Ely himself) are solid and unchanging, like a windswept piece of desert rock. As he showed on albums like 1995’s Letter to Laredo, however, he’s more than willing to change things up. On that album, flamenco guitarist Teye gave Ely’s new songs unexpected delicacy, and in a live setting gave his standards fresh new faces. Flash forward a decade and Live Cactus! finds Ely deferring to accordionist Joel Guzman, who’s played with Ely on a number of occasions, for the same sense of reinvention. These are Ely’s songs, but Guzman—who may be one of the best accordionists alive today—repeatedly makes a claim for these being the definitive versions of old favorites.
The Dexateens offer Lost and Found for free on their website, but it’s hardly a throwaway album. Loud and brash, the disc features snaky, intertwined guitars that recall the Stones at their meanest and most vintage, and the Drive-by Truckers at their loudest. Bathing their songs in an Alabama drawl, the Dexateens make a racket that serves notice: They might just be one of the next great American rock bands.
Bubbling Under (in alphabetical order):
The Avett Brothers, The Gleam II (Ramseur)
Bonnie Prince Billy, Lie Down in the Light (Drag City)
Hayes Carll, Trouble in Mind (Lost Highway)
Justin Townes Earle, The Good Life (Bloodshot)
Dr. John and the Lower 911, City That Care Forgot (429)
The Felice Brothers, The Felice Brothers (Team Love)
Giant Sand, proVISIONS (Yep Roc)
Otis Gibbs, Grandpa Walked a Picketline (Self-released)
Buddy Guy, Skin Deep (Zomba)
John Mellencamp, Life Death Love and Freedom (Hear Music)
Randy Newman, Harps & Angels (Nonesuch)
Conor Oberst, Conor Oberst (Merge)
Various Artists, Awake My Soul (Awake)
Watermelon Slim and the Workers, No Paid Holidays (Northern Blues)