Unless you’ve been otherwise out of tune with the comings and goings of alternative rock during the past 25 years or so, David Lowery really needs no introduction. The 50-year-old Lowery is the mastermind between two of America’s better known alt-rock bands of the past quarter century. He is a co-founder of the quirky ‘80s group Camper Van Beethoven, mostly remembered for “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and its cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men”. Lowery also went on to form Cracker, a more traditionally roots-rocking, more mainstream 1990s outfit, which had a minor MTV hit in “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)”, and that’s not to speak of “Low”, a song that seemed to be nearly ubiquitous during my first year of journalism school. (An editor for the student newspaper I did a bit of work for was a bit of a Cracker fan – some may say fanatic – and I recall him plugging quarters into a bar’s jukebox to hear that song on repeat while attending the paper’s Christmas party at some long-gone Ottawa, Canada, dive. What’s more, I’m pretty sure I heard “Low” on the radio an awful lot during a dismal stint working in a lumber mill in between my first and second year of university – that is, whenever the dial was tuned to a rock station and not one of but two dreaded New Country notches on the dial.)
It has obviously taken a really long time, but Lowery has finally come out with what would appear to be a solo album in the form of The Palace Guards, so named according to Lowery’s liner notes because, of all of the nine songs to be found here, he likes the track with the same name the best. I say “what would appear to be a solo record” in that last sentence because the press notes accompanying this CD say that Lowery is stopping short of calling it a genuine lone outing. In a way, it might be true that The Palace Guards isn’t really the start of a career outside of a band context for Lowery because Cracker’s Sal Maida and Johnny Hickman make guest appearances. On the other hand, the record is said to have been several years in the making, as Lowery had gradually amassed a collection of songs that didn’t really work in the context of either Cracker or the in-recent-years reformed Camper, not to mention the fact that Lowery felt these tunes were unwieldy to play in a live setting. Lowery might not like it, but wouldn’t that qualify as criteria for a solo album? Anyhow, so as to not offend the talented singer-songwriter, perhaps “side-project dalliance” might be a more apropos way of categorizing The Palace Guards. In the end, whatever floats Lowery’s boat is fine by me because, “solo album” or not, this long player, while being a little short on his traditional roots rockin’ rave-ups, once again showcases his deadpan wry wit and country rock-tinged songwriting. Fans, both old and new, will have a fair amount to lap up.
The big (and unfortunately unintentional) draw of this record – just to get this out of the way fairly early – is that the spectre of the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse looms large. Linkous contributed a keyboard part to “Big Life”, which might just be one of the last things, if not the last thing, he committed to tape that will ever be released publically – unless the fifth proper Sparklehorse record (not counting the Danger Mouse collaboration Dark Night of the Soul) that Linkous was recording at the time of his death ever sees the light of day. Unsurprisingly, The Palace Guards is dedicated in part to the memory of Linkous, a dedication that goes beyond the role he had playing keys on one song. Lowery and Linkous actually have quite a bit of history together as the former did some production duties on Sparklehorse’s 1995 debut, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot under the pseudonym David Charles, and the pair wrote “Sick of Goodbyes”, which appeared in slightly different interpretations on both Cracker’s Kerosene Hat and Sparklehorse’s Good Morning Spider. Some of Linkous’ quirks have rubbed off on Lowery, whether it was deliberate or not, as both The Palace Guards’ “Big Life” and “Deep Oblivion” actually have the cadence of classic Sparklehorse songs.
“Deep Oblivion” is a slow, meditative track with what could be a droopy mellotron as well as a sad steel guitar, and you can literally imagine Linkous singing this song in his trademark cracked, fragile voice. That’s actually a heartbreaking thought, that Linkous isn’t going to be around to cover this song, because you can only imagine the possibilities of what he could have done with this. In fact, all this song needs is some radio static and studio trickery added to it and it could very well be something Linkous cooked up in a dark, moody dream. As it stands, though, the song does feel like an outtake from the 2001 Sparklehorse disc It’s a Wonderful Life. Likewise, “Big Life” is a big, brassy country-rock song with a pinch of a brooding quality in its verses, that, too, wouldn’t be out of place in the Sparklehorse canon. You can get the sense, in an oddly prescient move, that Lowery is even singing about Linkous in the song: “And I was thinking about my favourite underground music icon / he sang his whispered songs with broken wings and such.” It seems that this subject then falls on hard times, but, of course, in Lowery’s version, “It came out alright, because it’s a big life.” If this is indeed a deliberate nod to Linkous, we all know that things didn’t work out in the end. Still, it seems to be a nice backhanded reference, and, again, it just breaks your heart to realize that the pair will never have an opportunity to work together ever beyond this contribution.
With all of this talk of death and endings over, let’s turn our focus to the beginning of The Palace Guards. In all actuality, the first two tracks are a bit of a weak point in terms of the construction of the record, as though Lowery wanted to play his lesser cards up front. “Raise ‘Em Up on Honey”, the album’s opening salvo, is a bluesy, harmonica-and-banjo-driven song that recalls the work of Neil Young with a dash of Appalachia. It’s, well, pleasant, but it really has nowhere to go except gradually fade out on a harmonica solo. The record’s title track follows next, and it’s a disaffecting song. It’s hard to see why this is Lowery’s favourite cut on the record, as it starts out with vocals and a strummed acoustic guitar, but then it suddenly and literally deflates, like all of the air has come out of the song, by slowing down its tempo to a crawl before picking up (and wheezing to a near-stop) all over again.
I have to admit that “The Palace Guards” gets a bit better on repeat, when you get used to the idiosyncrasies of the song’s structure, and it does have a churning second half that gradually works itself up from where it originally languished. It also boasts some witty lyrics, making it less an outright throwaway and more of a merely sonically inconsequential selection. Happily, the songs only improve from there, with the aforementioned “Deep Oblivion” following suit, beginning a stretch of tracks that are mostly low-key and generally softer than the bands with which Lowery is associated. True, the fifth song, “Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me”, does start out as a bit of a scorcher, but even it settles into a relaxed pace as it progresses, never really reaching the rock sound that opens it until the choruses, which is befitting to the spirit of the middle-aged songwriter that penned it.
Long-time fans will be heartened to know that Lowery remains as hilarious as ever and turns in the occasionally profoundly affecting line. In “The Palace Guards”, Lowery offers “I work my fingers to the bone / To bring the bacon, to bring the bacon home / I work my fingers to the bone / To keep the little piggies safe in the minstrel home.” That’s a neat twist to take the clichéd phrase about earning one’s keep and aligning it to something out of a fairy tale. On “Deep Oblivion”, Lowery observes with dry humour that “Oblivion rhymes with Vivian”. Then, “Celebrate the virgin and the patron of this Church” on “Marigold” could be taken as a double-entendre. And on “I Sold the Arabs the Moon”, we get a lovely image: “I was the man who sold the Arabs the Moon / [and] they festooned their flags with crescent moons”. That’s not to speak of the following trippy throw-off in “Deep Oblivion” (which I tend to keep coming back to, which only serves to show how much of a highlight it is): “The electric eels are fun but tend to bite.”
There are recurring motifs to the album as well, which keeps things interesting. There’s a reference to submarines in “Deep Oblivion”, and by the end of the record, we get a song actually called “Submarine”. There are also nods to the British pastoral in various tracks: “I was the man who sold the English the sea / They wanted the afternoon breezes at four / The sweet smell of spices from over the seas / The afternoon showers it brought during tea” and “We were crossing English channels in Victorian times / In midget submarines with parasols and twine.” What’s more, The Palace Guards is actually, at times, a record about the fear of losing your girlfriend or wife, which is a bit odd considering Lowery finally got married in 2010. The subject of “The Palace Guards” warns his lover, for whom he proclaims to “rip[s] [his] heart out every day,” that if she leaves, he’ll break all of her stuff – though he coyly adds “I’m only joking, it’s just my sense of humour, y’all”. Two songs later, there’s the particularly Tom Petty-sounding “Ah, You Left Me”, which our narrative begs “Why did you leave?” to the partner that has vanished. And, of course, Lowery’s protagonist pleads a track later that “Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me” and wants to be taken back. In a way, parts of The Palace Guards play like a storybook that folds in on itself, one that actually gets more enjoyable when you pay close attention to it, flipping forwards and backwards through the tracks to reveal similarities in images and allusions.
To be frank, The Palace Guards is not going to make you forget Telephone Free Landslide Victory or even Kerosene Hat. However, it is a fairly strong and consistent series of songs that, at times, reaches for the best of Lowery’s work. What it lacks is a feeling of musical consistency, though you get a sense that the lyrics (which, actually, don’t often rhyme in typical rock fashion) have been polished quite a bit. The Palace Guards almost – almost – would work even better if the CD wasn’t even included, and all that Lowery provided was a sheet of poetry. That statement, however, would be doing a disservice to the brilliance of the some of the numbers produced here. There are some quality songs, including (surprise, surprise) “Deep Oblivion”, “I Sold the Arabs the Moon” (which, at one point, Lowery sings with such intensity as though someone has just stuck a knife in his gut), “Marigold”, and “Big Life”. All in all, if The Palace Guards winds up being the unintentional start of a solo career — hey, I’m not gonna complain. It’s a generally solid and dependable disc – not a mere cap on 25 years of music making. More than two decades into his career, David Lowery has, more or less, just proven his relevancy, which, to crib from an earlier song of his, could just very well be what the world needs now.