The Silos have been making great rock and roll for going on 20 years. The band formed in 1985 in Gainesville, Florida, released two independent discs (including the remarkable Cuba) and hit the big time with its self-titled major-label debut, a disc that Rolling Stone gave four stars and said was filled with understated songs and a “kind of honesty and humanity” that was not fashionable in the rock world of its day.
That was 1989 and the Silos remain something of an enigma. Led by singer-songwriter Walter Salas-Humara, the trio (now based in New York), continues to record music that flies in the face of fashion, offering a mix of straight-on rock tinged with elements of folk and country.
In the past, this mix has met with critical raves, but not a lot of commercial success — the band was dropped by RCA after The Silos. Five releases on small independent labels followed before the band was signed by Nashville’s Dualtone Records, home to some of the more interesting bands of the roots-rock or alt-country movement.
Like many of the bands collected under the alt-country banner, bands like the Old 97s and early Wilco, the Silos borrow liberally from both country and classic, blues-based rock, creating a sound that is seemingly less polished but far more energetic than most of what gets played on either mainstream country or classic rock radio.
The band’s first new release for the label (Dualtone also re-released Cuba in 2003) is a roots-rock masterpiece, a near-perfect mix of grinding and jangling guitars, crunching rhythm section and impressionist lyrics. Salas-Humara has the kind of well-worn voice that adds a touch of authenticity to everything he sings, a voice that can sound weary, resigned, angry or ecstatic, but always real.
Their new disc, When the Telephone Rings, released on Dualtone, bursts from the speakers with raw energy and never lets up, even when the band slows things down. Salas-Humara’s guitar rides atop a raucous mix, twisting and turning in an anarchic swirl, as bass player Drew Glackin and drummer Konrad Meissner lay down a solid and driving foundation. The opening track, “The Only Love”, is a swooning rocker that sets the emotional and thematic tone, with Paul Wallfisch adding a churning organ, Amy Allison smoothing Salas-Humara gravelly vocal and the legendary Richard Lloyd of Television spinning a jangly, jazz-inflected guitar solo.
“Only love can send you to the sky,” Salas-Humara sings in the song’s chorus, putting forth what might be the disc’s manifesto. For Salas-Humara on When the Telephone Rings, there is the effort to keep moving on, to live life “Dancing along / With your head held high / Holding onto life” (“Holding On To Life”), an effort that proves increasingly difficult, and maybe impossible.
The characters in these songs are searching for the strength to deal with the hardships that life is throwing at them — a father, facing economic bad times, tells his son, “Some years you’re flush / But it’s never as good / As you think it will be / Other years you’re broke / But it’s never as bad / As you think it will be / Money don’t mean nothing at all”, and as Salas-Humara in the role of the father repeats the line and then bites it off, you’re left wondering whether the father truly means it or if he is just fooling himself.
This complexity is Salas-Humara’s genius, to be able to write straightforward lyrics that leave the listener wondering what is not being said. On the title track, a series of haikus that eschew the traditional reliance in pop music on the rhyme is both an ode to New York after 9/11 and a meditation on lost love, on a year moving to close, on the surprising continuity in nature. Autumn rains chill and flowers bloom amid the concrete and the singer ponders memory and pain and yet, as the year comes to a close, there is a “deep blue sky” — all washed over with Glackin’s chillingly beautiful lap steel guitar.
“Even in New York / How I long for New York / When the telephone rings.”
There are songs of failed love that seem to be about more than the busted love affair — “Don’t Wanna Know” — and songs in which the singer longs for escape, from his life, his world, the world as we know it. “Holding on to Life” pounds out an anthemic chorus, obscuring the devastation that the song implies — a horrible accident and the final burial, described cryptically, poetically: “One sweet seed / Planted in the dirt / A chorus of angels / Looking for work.” (There is a hidden track at the end that reprises a portion of the song, sung by an elementary school chorus.)
Salas-Humara and his bandmates understand the uncertainty that is life and they have created a rocking, passionate monument to it.