Music

Willie Nelson: Band of Brothers

Willie Nelson still makes records that are smart, funny, sexy, and heartbreaking.


Willie Nelson

Band of Brothers

Label: Sony / Legacy
US Release Date: 2014-06-17
UK Release Date: 2014-06-16
Amazon
iTunes

What do you say about an 81-year-old man who had his first hit as a songwriter in the 1950s, writing half of a dozen of the greatest songs in the history of American popular music between 1958 and 1963, including "Hello Walls" for Faron Young, "Pretty Paper" for Roy Orbison, "Funny How Time Slips Away" for Billy Walker, and "Crazy" for Patsy Cline? These four songs, done before his first album as a solo performer, would have been enough to cement his reputation. But in the next six decades, he released 68 solo albums, ten live albums, 37 best of compilations, 27 collaborative albums, acted in 34 films, and did the soundtrack to two of them. Nelson has worked with basically everyone: old country stalwarts like Webb Peirce, Merle Haggard, and Dolly Parton; ancient pop crooners like Don Cherry; cutting a blues album with Wynton Marsalis and a reggae track with Snoop Dogg. He founded the alt-country movement, being one of the original "outlaws" with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, thus moving the focus from Nashville to Austin. He worked for a decade with the Highwaymen, a supergroup featuring Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and again Waylon.

Nelson releases an album or more a year. This is not the ebb and flow, the comeback as elderly master (see recent work by Glen Campbell or the late Porter Wagoner). He has always released an album a year. Some of them are very good, and some of them are alright but not great, and very rarely a dud appears. I keep thinking about this new one in relationship to his fellow Highwaymen, but also Dolly. Looking through the list, Waylon burnt bright but quick, and his work was not as significant as Kristofferson, Cash, or Nelson. Kristofferson is a better actor and his '70s material is unequaled, and he had a moral bravery mixed with a reckless quality. Nelson was not singing about supporting the Sandinistas during most of the 1980s. Kristofferson continues to act, sings beautifully, and has become his secular saint for both New Nashville, and for the Keep Austin Weird movement. He tends to act more as well, with a clutch of performances since 1998’s A Solider's Daughter’s Never Cries, being smart, tender, and almost prophetic. Cash’s work near the end of this life was an exercise in believing his hype. Taking Rick Rubin’s belief that he was an American Jeremiah, he forgot all of the other qualities that marked his best work -- a sense of humour, a wisdom about what it meant to construct personae, an irony, and a pious quietude about his own scholastic Christianity.

Thinking about Dolly as well, because she has released as much work as anyone on this list, and she has a new album -- her film work is more uneven, but contains amazing performances. In the last decade, she released several very good traditional blue grass albums on the label Sugar Hill. Sadly, her newest one, with a voice that breaks on the low notes and cracks on the high note, is not one of them.

After 500 words of context, one thinks about Willie. I have not heard all of the albums, and not seen most of the films. I try to keep up with him, because his work was so consistent. I was worried that he was becoming a walking pot joke, and he kept releasing work that evaded the problems of other country singers of his generation. This work was fueled with a brilliant, mercurial energy. I was excited to see how he sung, even after 60 years of performing. He seemed nimble, joyful, occasionally mournful, and capable of work that was unlike anything that could be produced. He made dumb choices, but post tax problems, he made really smart choices too, and his batting average was world class.

I should write is world class, because this is a brilliant album. Not a brilliant album after almost 100 other albums, not a brilliant album for a man who has been working for twice as long as I have been alive, but the best country album of the year, and perhaps the best album this year. Willie's voice is flatter than it used to be, and has lost some of the melodic sweetness of the '70s and '80s. That is a mark of aging, and instead of mourning, or denial, he chose to work with an elderly voice. This is like Edward Said’s discussion of Late Work, when he tries to figure out what it means to have this disruptive, radical work near the end of people’s lives -- works that break expectation of a master; or a kind of summing up, a desire for a sensible end of life solution. Nelson manages to synthesize both methods here. He is like Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant, perfect short stores, which seem so normative, but if carefully attention they become heartbreaking in their lucid morals of human nature. But, he is also very funny, and often his humor rests on sex. A kind of louche, radical human comedy -- not a leering old man, but someone who knows that his libido and his brain will check out about 20 minutes post-mortem.

Often these story songs, move from the heavily localized, to the universal, with a slippery, salmon returning to mate, libidinal energy, but there are also works that read like the best sermons. Willie can sing about a lover, and admit to basic romance breakdowns -- holding the biggest heartache in town, losing his breath, being weak in the knees. But then he sings, “I try to speak / But the words don’t come / And I am scared to death”, and you can hear the death rattle in his yearning, and it becomes a collapsing -- of sexual desire, of fear of death, of settling into the silence that marks the delta where these two rivers flow. You can see this in “Send Me a Picture”, a song that begins with “Send me a picture when we were together / And we hold a picture / In the palms of our hands / When life had a future” and the picture seems so post-mortem. He talks about dreaming about a lover, about hoping never to dream about her again, and unsent letters. Meanwhile, the wheezing violin, underneath it all, is funereal. To hear this song, the lover might as well be on the far side of the Jordan, especially when midway through, he talks about “time passing away”.

But then he sings songs like "Wives and Girlfriends", a goatish anthem of mistress and wife, with a raucous western swing, and he calls himself a heathen, and Apollo meets Dionysus over Shiner Bock somewhere between Austin and Dallas. Or on the reverse of “Send Me a Picture”, a bluesy litany of all of the ways a woman has failed him. It's maybe a bit hypocritical, with the usual tension between the male satyr and the female slut, but considering last year’s collection of duets with women, I think that we can give credit for personae and forgive him. Sometimes they combine into works of thorny works of profound theological insight. "Git Go" with Jamey Johnson is a song that begins in the Garden, moves onto a quasi-libertarian argument about politician corrupting, a radically pacifist argument about capital and war (“rich kids go to college and poor kids go to die”), and ends up with a discussion of the crucifixion. With the plain simplicity of “Jesus hang on the cross for you and I”, Nelson turns around something as nihilist as Dylan’s Master’s of War, or Owens’s late poems about generals, into a reminder of the constant renewing nature of the holy spirit. Held in tension, the sacred and the profane entwine.

Some of that entwining is autobiographical. "Songwriters" is about all the pleasures that they can receive, some technical, and some less so (a song that features tour buses, kapoks, rum in Jamaica, and “true love but mostly one nighters”). It features one of the great Willie Nelson lines: “We write bridges, we cross them, and burn them / Teach lessons but don’t bother to learn them”. Don’t let this album fool you, Nelson is not only willing to spend his retirement years teaching us lessons, he is bothering to learn them.

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To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

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10

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

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8

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

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