Music

Members of the Folk Supergroup the Lower Lights Release Solo Albums Evoking the Lonesome West

Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Dustin Christensen's Sad Songs is an excellent example of an EP set that has the structure and thematic coherence of an LP. Debra Fotheringham's latest complements with the most searching and self-assured music of her solo career.

Sad Songs Mixes 1/2
Dustin Christensen

Dustin Christensen Music

27 Jan 2017

The Darkness and the Sun
Debra Fotheringham

Groundloop

6 Oct 2017

Not long ago, there was a popular narrative, a seeming consensus, regarding 1980s pop/rock music compared to that of decades surrounding it. Listeners and critics have cited period-specific approaches to instrumentation, recording, mixing, mastering, and songwriting as reasons why many considered this popular music's lowest point. But in the decade since that narrative peaked, a number of well-received albums from artists of rock, pop, dance, and hip-hop have received positive attention for some of those very '80s signifiers, creating yet another look at a period of music that was once written off. This reappraisal is also happening in country music, though with a slightly different set of reference points.

Dustin Christensen's latest release exhibits aspects of songwriting and production that could be described as '80s-influenced. His voice, especially, invites comparisons to any number of male vocalists on a timeline starting with Neil Diamond and ending around Ed Kowalczyk. Yet Sad Songs Mixes 1/2 is no mere retread of past styles. These two EPs are evidence of how well Christensen the singer-songwriter understands the song craft of a previous generation and how capable he is of keeping that tradition alive.

Anyone who's heard the Lower Lights, the gospel/folk/country supergroup in which Christensen serves a key role, knows these are musicians for whom traditional music never sounds tired. Old Time Religion, the Lower Lights' most recent album, was one of 2016's musical highlights—another superb installment of the group's ever-invigorating approach to classic material. But Sad Songs Mixes 1/2 exists in a narrower context (of genre and tradition) than the Lower Lights' trip through the "spiritual songbook."

These songs are originals, written by Christensen, with various co-writing credits for Matt Warren, Trevor Henderson, Paul Jacobsen, Chris Gelbuda, Brent Cobb, and Jordyn Shellhart. Christensen's voice is up front in every song, and his vocal skill gives a unifying identity to both sets. While seasoned ears will hear nods to 80s rock and country throughout, there's something welcomingly unpretentious to how Christensen plays in that territory.

Mix 1 begins in solitude, with the line "I'm Mr. All Alone, I stay at home 'cause I don't have the courage to leave." But a later verse offsets that first impression, "I'm Mr. Bright Blue Sky with open eyes, and I'm letting the light find me." That contrast of stagnation and action frames the album more generally, as it turns out that neither of these EPs encourages sustained sadness, with hope being the overriding mode throughout.

So Sad Songs is a misnomer if it causes a prospective listener to expect stereotypically sad-times country rock. Refreshingly, these songs also lack the dissident affectations of recent critically acclaimed country releases by singers like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell. And in a time when established country/folk/rock artists like Mark Kozelek and Lambchop are steering into deeply sad songwriting and/or experimental forms, there's a lot of value in Christensen's brand of tastefully delivered, tuneful optimism.

Christensen uses several metaphors for staying hopeful. This technique is more effective when a dominant idea or image permeates an entire song ("The Rio Grande") than when several expressions compete for the listener's attention ("Vacant Motel Heart"). The two main recurring themes of these EPs are love and desire, and the singer/songwriter's exploration of those themes is distinguished by discernment about the too-high or unrealistic expectations sometimes placed on getting the things one wants. "All You Want" is indicative of this clear-sightedness that tempers worldly love and desire: "You can find someone and still feel lost / Have all the money in the world, and you still end up counting costs."

"Let Mercy Find Me" closes the first EP. With a melody that seems influenced by Twila Paris, Christensen uses the song to visualize a rest beyond the end of various struggles. As a closing track, its function is quite similar to "Walk into the Sea" from Low's The Great Destroyer, though Christensen's take on the imagery is more uplifting. The CD edition of Sad Songs requires shifting to a separate disc for the second EP, an act that provides a needed transition between the contained, quiet "Let Mercy Find Me" and big Mix 2 opener "Vacant Motel Heart".

The second set is even more focused on the theme of love than the first, and the sequencing of this set contributes to the particular view of love that Christensen develops during the course of the album. For instance, it's significant that "You Could've Loved Me" appears before "Love Me or Leave Me Alone". The earlier song, a confession, admits personal failings before the later one, a request, makes demands. "Love Me or Leave Me Alone" is one of the Sad Songs that seems ready-made for other artists to cover. Lucinda Williams would no doubt offer an inspired rendition, and it just so happens that "Something Great," which comes next, has a chorus similar to her classic "Sidewalks of the City".

Mix 2 ends with arguably the strongest material from the entire collection. "Off and On" features Christensen and Mindy Smith in a duet about a come-and-go relationship. "Off and On" belongs to a tradition of songs like "Up Where We Belong" and, to a lesser extent, "Islands in the Stream". Those were massive hits in the early 1980s, and Christensen and co-writer Jordyn Shellhart master that style here. But it's difficult to know what opportunities would have to occur for their song to break out today.

"The Ruler of Your Heart", written by Christensen alone, corresponds to the perspective of "Waiting for the Magic" from Mix 1. That character needed encouragement, and this character is here to encourage. In this way, "The Ruler of Your Heart" provides a conclusion to the whole collection, not only Mix 2. Sad Songs is a rare example of an EP set that has the structure and thematic coherence of an LP, and an excellent one at that.

Debra Fotheringham - The Darkness and the Sun

In fall 2017, Debra Fotheringham released her first solo album of original material since Time, an EP from 2010. Fotheringham, also an essential voice in the Lower Lights, describes the period between solo releases as a time of hibernation or "woodshedding," time spent listening to other music. Though her experiences as a solo artist are different than Christensen's, her new album The Darkness and the Sun is a creative breakthrough similar to his Sad Songs, and the two albums share several themes.

As a singer, Fotheringham possesses a clarity and purity characteristic of singers like Karen Carpenter, Iris DeMent, Mimi Parker, and Nina Persson. While she's lost none of her melodic quality, Fotheringham explores subject matters on The Darkness and the Sun that bring a new depth to her identity as an artist. In interviews she cites Maria Bamford's creative process as an inspiration for her own path to creating these songs. This citation of a seemingly leftfield inspiration was also a feature of Promised Land, the 2016 LP from Lower Lights member (and Darkness and the Sun contributor) Ryan Tanner, who credited Charlie Kaufman's 2011 BAFTA screenwriters' lecture as the catalyst for that work.

Fotheringham begins her album with "Stranger in a Strange Land", which subtly interacts with Tanner's photography and art direction that isolates the singer in black-and-white landscapes. The lyrics position the singer outside of physical interaction and verbal communication, longing for things that are "all just out of reach". "Stranger in a Strange Land" is a variation on an emotional state similar to the one explored in Christensen's "Waiting for the Magic", and this song also invites the listener to see how that emotional state develops across this album.

The Darkness and the Sun has the feeling of being front-loaded, because the first three tunes are the most memorable material on the album. On "Drive Across the Desert", Fotheringham's delivery and the band's wide-open execution perfectly convey the journey mapped in the lyrics. Sonically, "White Bird" is the most interesting song on the album. Scott Wiley, the album's producer/engineer/mixer, previously worked with Elliott Smith, and the use of Smith-like doubled/panned vocals enhances Fotheringham's lyrics that vacillate between stasis and flight.

The title track of The Darkness and the Sun pairs with Christensen's "Let Mercy Find Me". But the shore imagined here isn't so merciful. Here Fotheringham addresses a figure or force that is nothing and everything and of whom her "hope to reach your shore always failed." "The Darkness and the Sun" seems to allude to the conflicts and contradictions Fotheringham says she had on her mind while developing the album. "Sometimes the Wolf" examines additional dualities that have left the song's character cynical and disappointed.

"Get Back" serves a crucial function on The Darkness and the Sun, because here the character in the song begins to move, temporarily, from despondency to hope, or from solitude to reconciliation. The defining phrase is, "all the reasons that I had to say why / I was saying goodbye / all sound like lies". In an album full of wonderful backing vocals, it seems significant that there are no other voices present on "Get Back" or "Apologies," as these songs concern the self, and selfishness, respectively.

"Winter that Will Never Come" directly involves Christensen in that he's featured as the backing vocalist. But beyond that direct connection, the song engages with the theme of waiting that permeates Sad Songs. Yet once again, Fotheringham's use of the theme results in a decidedly more ambiguous, likely downbeat, conclusion than Christensen's album-closer "Ruler of Your Heart."

This conclusion is what most distinguishes The Darkness and the Sun as a new direction for Fotheringham. On "You Elude Me", from 2010's Time, she declared, "I'll never give up this dream / Though you elude me." At present she's not prepared to wait much longer to connect. Instead she's "thinking hard about skipping town"; a product of her doubt and perhaps also a way out from her sad songs.

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