Tennessee Williams is attributed with saying the Southern Gothic literary style his name was often attached to described “an intuition, of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience”. Though his tales do not necessarily adhere to the stylistic criteria used in labeling a work Southern Gothic, New Orleans singer/songwriter Gill Landry reveals a true understanding of the purposes and effects Williams spoke of. The Ballad of Lawless Soirez , Landry’s solo debut, has an almost cinematic feel, as if an homage to a time and place both destructive and strangely alluring. Landry as narrator rambles and stumbles through a bleak landscape, down dimly lit avenues littered with dashed dreams, keeping company with friends, lovers and dubious characters who share a singular characteristic in common: the lonely hopelessness of their existence.
Lest his woozy narratives appear an imaginative concoction created through the use of characters or images lifted from the art of a forgotten age, a look at the arc of Landry’s career progression proves he certainly knows what it is to live the life of an itinerant musician in communities defined by their beguiling eccentricity. Landry has performed as a busker on New Orleans streets, as the co-creator of versatile old-style band the Kitchen Syncopators, and most recently as a sideman, contributing banjo and steel guitar to the sound of fast rising Americana group Old Crow Medicine Show. Now a member of the Nettwerk label, as are his friends in Old Crow Medicine Show, Landry has a chance for his music to gain broader attention and appeal.
Incorporating elements of blues, folk, jazz, and country, Landry’s songs exist in a veritable stew of styles and structures that is diverse yet harmonious, much like the multi-cultural city from which he hails. On the album’s best moments, Landry achieves a strange synergy, telling stories of people whose private earth is about to spin off its axis through a sound just focused enough to communicate such messages without distraction. Straightforward in structure, songs like “Lawless Soirez” and “Dixie” use simple variations on a shared acoustic folk center to highlight the feelings which Landry wishes to convey. The former employs exotic horns and more insistent rhythms to illustrate the hard luck tale of a man who admits “I was born a rambler, guess I always will / Once you get the habit you just can’t stand still”. The latter draws on warmer guitar sounds and dulcet strings to share the story of an almost familial bond between a band of dysfunctional drifters: “We drank to the future, we drank to the past / We drank to the moments we knew wouldn’t last / Leaning on the shoulders of highways that abused us like friends / And we caught those trains just like a disease / With our heads in the clouds and our heart on its knees / Looking for something that we may never find.”
Other album highlights draw a more defined inspiration from jazz textures and performers, both past and present. “Loneliness” sounds is if it belongs to a period rarely revisited in modern music, assuming the feel of an intoxicating rag complete with metered guitars and sweaty, sultry horns that evoke images of Prohibition-era speakeasies and the genesis of such musical technique as a powerful art form. “Ugly Town” (a tune that sounds like it could be found amongst the work of Elvis Costello) and “Desiree” take a slower, more soulful approach, aptly expressing disgust and desire respectively in ballad form.
Though Landry’s effort to construct a timeless aura around his songs succeeds in most instances, there are occasions where his musical language fails to accentuate his attempts at authenticity and consistency. “Anjolie”, for example, suffers early and often from histrionics created by Spanish-inspired guitar and overly accented percussion, contributing to the creation of a picture that is more exaggerated caricature than detailed portrait. Plagued by an opposite problem, several tracks lack the musical punch necessary to deliver their message. While there is nothing functionally or inherently amiss on these tracks (which reside mostly on the album’s second half, songs like “Mutiny” and “Magdalene”), they lack something of the spark exhibited in the album’s excellent opening stanzas, seeming mediocre and even detached in comparison.
As a whole, The Ballad of Lawless Soirez gives a glimpse into an artist who, though largely unknown to record buyers, has honed his talents through hard work, out of the glare of media hype, to the point of developing a variety of resources with which to tell his compelling tales. Landry’s songs deserve an audience and will reward those who seek out this creative, capable storyteller.