Music

Bry Webb: Provider

The debut disc from the Constantines’ frontman Bry Webb is a stunning and revealing record full of worldly insight, and leaves you begging for more.


Bry Webb

Provider

Label: Idée Fixe
US Release Date: 2011-11-22
UK Release Date: 2011-11-22
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The debut solo album from the Constantines’ frontman Bry Webb, Provider, might come as a bit of a shock to long-time fans of the lauded Canadian indie rock group, which has either broken up or gone on hiatus, depending upon who you talk to. You won’t hear the Fugazi-meets-Springsteen sound that the Constantines were (are?) known to mine on Provider. Instead, you get some very slow and sadly beautiful songs played in a bluesy/country style. It’s about as radical a departure you could expect, something that Mark Kozelek might put together. However, Provider, well, provides a stunning background soundtrack of subtle ambience and skilled musicianship that proves that Webb can do other things than write soaring indie rock anthems, and fine ones at that. Provider is strikingly different territory, and those who feel inclined to come along for the ride will find an album that is richly textured, nuanced, extremely mature and wise beyond its years for a musician best known for simply rocking out.

The album opens with "Asa", which is a lullaby to the singer’s newborn son, a song that utterly shimmers with its ghostly bluesy guitar and Webb’s rich baritone voice lilting above this quite simple but effective arrangement. It is stark and astoundingly gorgeous, a healing meditation on the love one man has for his offspring. It’s the sort of song that makes you want to kneel before your speakers and openly weep. Here, as well as elsewhere on this stunning disc, Webb effectively illustrates that sometimes less is more, and he simply lets his voice and guitar softly carry the listener along in a transcendent state of bliss. "Rivers of Gold", meanwhile, is pure raconteur: while it is ostensibly about a miner panning for gold during the Yukon Gold Rush of the late 19th century, it is also a song that could very well be about his (former?) band: "I was working in a gold rush city," Webb explains, "I was playing in a band / We had an understanding that only we could understand / I was making a decent living in the Yukon Territory / Thinking about all those who came before me / I’m the one most free." Again, the song is successful as it leans towards sparse minimalism: it’s just Webb’s voice, an acoustic guitar gently and slowly strummed, and a pedal steel guitar offering up some tasty and shimmering licks in the background.

"Zebra", meanwhile, is another song that straddles the personal as it recounts the singer’s anxiety at becoming a father: "Zebra standing on the moon / Looking down upon the Earth / Helpless in the operating room / While the wife is giving birth." It is another low-key and soft, meditative song that is wholly universal and entirely relatable, one that swoons in its chorus with some delightful male/female harmonizing on some gentle "lie lie lie, lie la lie’s". It’s easy to just simply lie back with your eyes open and arms crossed against the back of your head and gently daydream to. Then there’s the stark and soaring "Undertaker", which is a track with built upon a humourous comment Webb’s grandmother made about the singer’s disposition. The song is anything but funny, as the singer-songwriter wonders about the effects of his relative fame on those that he knows. The cut is bolstered by a brooding brass section rubbing effectively against the plaintive acoustic guitar, and is ultimately rousing and triumphant. "Get Up You in Peace" follows as an uplifting minor key spiritual with glorious harmonies in its chorus, and is just as memorable as the tracks that preceded it. These first five songs make up a wholly satisfying and consistent opening salvo, one that asserts the power and transcendence of the author’s grasp and read on the material.

"Ex-Punks", which opens the second half of the nine-song disc, is a slight but noticeable shift in approach. It is the only song on the record that has a kick-drum beat and shakers providing percussion, and the bluesy guitar and thudding bassline, as well as some of the lyricism ("Let hungry corrupt the memory / Let them call the cops"), makes it seem like it could be a Constantines' song in another incarnation. It is hardly a misstep as it is engaging in its own right, but one gets the sense that it is a bit of a straggler on what is otherwise a well conceived album. From there, things right themselves back towards the overall thematic of the album: "Persistent Spirit" is a countrified number with pedal steel that could be a Wilco ballad from early years yore. "Lowlife" follows in the same drunkenly country vibe and feel. Finally, "Viva" is a lilting finely plucked gem that sounds as though it were played on a harp.

In overall style, Provider is a deeply personal and resonate album. It’s the sort of thing that you just won’t be able to get enough of, you’ll be reaching to play it all over again once it has finished, and even might wish was just a little bit longer. In some ways, the record feels like a masculine version of a Feist record, at least in its most fragile moments -- and that comparison isn’t untoward considering that Webb contributes guest vocals on Metals and is opening for Feist on her November/December 2011 Canadian tour. All that is left to be said about Provider is that if, indeed, the Constantines have been laid to rest, Webb has a solid future ahead of him as a solo balladeer. Provider is a stunning and revealing record full of worldly insight, and leaves you begging for more.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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