Something very strange happened in the early ’90s: American roots music became hip. It went by a lot of names, and no one could agree on what to call it; meaningless descriptors like “alt. country”, “Americana”, and the utterly ridiculous “twang-core” were thrown around with reckless abandon by the music press at large. Even the fans didn’t know what to make of it; the mission statement of No Depression — the unofficial bible of the genre — proudly declares that it covers “alternative-country music — whatever that is”. However, despite extensive differences in style, the musicians involved in the scene shared some common qualities, plying their trade in distinctly American styles of music — be it folk, bluegrass, or country — and infusing their songs with a sense of urgency and passion that had long been absent from the pop radar.
But the genre met the same fate that awaits every good subversive musical movement, and was soon bought, sold, and compartmentalized. Mainstream pop stars churned out by the Nashville machine claimed to be alt. country, while many of the old standbys either moved on, faded into irrelevance, or became abject self-parodies. And while the genre did not die, per se, it certainly seemed that the old spit and passion — the same fiery drive that inspired a number of young men and women to seek Uncle Tupelo’s mythologized American Midwest — was diluted, if not completely lost and discarded.
This is perhaps why it is always welcome to hear news of Ted Stevens releasing another album. He’s an old hand at this, having led the beloved chamber-pop outfit Lullaby for the Working Class and releasing two previous albums (2002’s stunning Old Blood and the follow-up I Know Your Troubles Been Long) under the Mayday moniker. The new LP, Bushido Karaoke, holds no real surprises for those familiar with his oeuvre; however, it still contains the same ardor that informed his previous releases, and the same self-assured conviction that made even his most questionable musical moments ring with a certain pressing poignancy.
Mayday’s cast consists of the usual suspects (containing many members of the original Lullaby lineup and some old Omaha / Saddle Creek peers), and their MO remains the same, providing a discolored Polaroid snapshot of rust-soaked Americana for Stevens’ nearly paranoiac ruminations on isolation, desperation, and loss. The band channels a sound that is at once distinctly dated yet seemingly fresh; they manage to evoke all manner of countrified, dust-covered landscapes, ably conjuring twisted porches in old Appalachia, smoke-filled honky-tonk bars, and the mythical Old West that only ever existed in Sergio Leone movies.
Opening track “Pelf Help” recalls the slow 6/8 rock shuffles of the ’50s; the song sets an oddly familiar backdrop for Stevens’ anxious voice, his slow drawl endowing his narration with a smoldering desperation as he accuses a lover of abandoning him for “Residual ambitions from [her] bankrupt past”. Similarly, “Burn My Hands” is a measured, country-tinged ballad that easily recalls Stevens’ earlier work in Lullaby. Driven by a stumbling piano and delicately-picked guitars, it seems at first to be a simple love song; however, an unsettling background drone lends an ominous tone to Stevens’ voice as he sings lines like “there ain’t enough land to cover your soul”. However, the album is not all leisurely ballads and soft-spoken pleas; songs like the rollicking “Booze & Pills” and a toe-tapping cover of Gillian Welch’s “I’m Not Afraid to Die” easily recall vintage Jason & the Scorchers, while others — such as “Standing in Line at the Gates of Hell” and the driving “Father Time” — bring to mind the same deserted wastelands once treaded upon by the Man With No Name.
Other tracks delve even further into old America, summoning the spirits of destitute homesteads tucked deep into the mountainous regions of the east. “Billy Boy Blues (Day of the Dead Blues)” and the closer “Song of the Scaffold” could be mistaken for tracks off The Anthology of American Folk Music, were it not for the studio gloss and the addition of an electric guitar here and there; even modern pop isn’t safe from Stevens’ anachronistic bent, as he transforms the bouncy synth-pop of INXS’s “Old World New World” into a barn-burning bluegrass jam.
Of particular note is the production involved in the new recording; while it is not as lush as the board-work found in Old Blood, it is a marked improvement over the tinny and often muddy-sounding treatment given to I Know Your Troubles Been Long. Each instrument remains clear and distinct, without ever dissolving into the often-incoherent swirl of sound that plagued most of Mayday’s last album. However, the production in the new album isn’t exactly perfect, either; Stevens’ voice, while clear, occasionally get bogged down in the mix, and sometimes suffers from a little too much reverb. One of Mayday’s biggest strengths is Stevens’ clever wordplay and subtly sinister lyricism, and it’s a shame when his vocals get lost within the production.
While I am hesitant to say that Bushido Karaoke matches the same sterling standard set by Mayday’s masterful debut, it is undoubtedly the strongest album recorded since, and is a definite highlight in Stevens’ ever-growing discography. It is at once lovely and strangely discomfiting, a moving musical document evocative of blood, tears, and a startling sense of subdued beauty. And even though it is entirely debatable as to whether the great American myth of years gone by ever really existed, it will seem like it never really mattered anyway: occasionally, the storybook pictures are better than the real thing.