Chicago’s Souled American's album, Around the Horn, may be the most uniquely beautiful alt-country album you’ve never heard.
When tracing the family tree of alt-country influence, Chicago’s Souled American is far too often forgotten. Isolated from the Whiskeytowns and Uncle Tupelos of the genre (bands that sound downright joyful in comparison), Souled American sits in a deserted alleyway, crafting music perfect for a soundtrack to a night of driving on an abandoned country road. The fact that the group sold fewer records with each consecutive release only makes them seem more darkly fascinating in retrospect.
Of course, this comes as no shock: There’s little commercially viable about the band’s brand of lethargic country, typically characterized by Chris Grigoroff’s slow, warbly guitar picking and Joe Adducci’s hauntingly strained, awkward vocals; and yet, a song as rewarding as “Second of All”, from Around the Horn, the band's third album, balances rich melody and texture to the point that it’s a crime for the band's records to remain so hopelessly unavailable. Sure it’s moody. Depressing as well, but sadly beautiful -- like Lambchop only with the layers of orchestral sheen peeled away to reveal a red-raw twang. Since when does depressing music feel this good?
Released in 1990, Around the Horn begins with a pun sung in a wonderfully affecting two-part harmony: "Watches know their time is right / beaches know they're more than sure." Thirty seconds in, and the band refuses to be pinned down. Perhaps this is the closest the group comes to traditional pop structure, and it’s closer to the exception than the rule. Souled American specializes more in dirge than song, and the more rough and gnarled around the edges, the better.
Fittingly, the album’s gloomiest selection is also its longest: “Rise Above It” marries a disturbingly sluggish 3/4 melody with a slippery bass presence (supposedly a rare six-stringed Fender Bass VI) , eventually fading into nothingness amid some barely conscious moaning. It’s a skeletal melody at both its best and worst. The disarmingly straightforward couplet "My sweetheart’s gone and left me /and my little sister, too” becomes utterly desperate when filtered through Adducci’s shaky moan. And the song still implores one to “Rise Above It”? Another wrist-slasher on the house, if you please!
In second place is “Old, Old House”, a plodding ode to an abandoned house “that will soon crumble down”, and an “old man who walks through the garden / His head bowed down in memory.” Indeed, the album's lyrical content may be its least satisfying trait, often consisting of generic love-lost clichés similar to those of "Rise Above It". But when have country lyrical clichés ever sounded this sincere? Of course, no lyric sheet is supplied and some of Adducci's mumbles are simply impossible to decipher. Not that this is such a bad thing: the despairing mood simply engulfs the listener, whether or not each phrase is intelligible.
Few bands can claim an album track written by a member’s mother, yet “I Keep Holding Back the Tears”, credited to Vicki Adducci, defies the status quo with ease. As usual, the lyrics express pure loneliness: “She was taken away from me / By an angel above, you see / But I feel her here inside my room tonight” The music, however, sounds like an off-kilter country tune played at half the pace -- as if imitating the effects of playing your 45s at 33 rpm.
Around the Horn also has three drowsy instrumentals (“Durante’s Hornpipe” “Willdawg”, and “Luggy Di”) scattered about the album, each demonstrating a twisted melodic instinct. The traditional “Durante’s Hornpipe” is among the album’s most openly tuneful moments, whereas the other two both explore strangely distant guitar layers atop ever-bending bass riffs.
And in the middle of all this comes an oddly affecting reinterpretation of Little Feat’s “Six Feet of Snow”. The vocals are still lined with that chilling anguish, even as they paint a picture of ice coating a car’s dashboard: “Oh, don’t you know how much I hate to be so cold? / So alone / I’m coming home.” The song is a subtly addicting departure from the Little Feat recording, and the Souled American rendition is both freezing and warm. It’s easy to describe what’s heard, not so much to label what’s felt with Souled American; simply put, the band covers a breadth of human emotions deeply rooted in nostalgia and longing;
Two members of Souled American have left the band since Around the Horn, though this hasn’t kept them from releasing three more albums throughout the 90’s before dissolving into inactivity. Nonetheless, the band that supposedly changed the life of the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle played two Midwest shows this summer (their first in years) and has prepared material for an eventual new album, which would be their first since 1997’s Notes Campfire.
Around the Horn is likely to appeal to those moved by the catharsis of Neil Young’s brilliant so-called Ditch Trilogy: Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night, and On The Beach, the dark counterpoint to Young’s pop-country radio hits from Harvest. Fans of primal alt-country in general (running the gamut from Woody Guthrie and John Prine to Gold-era Ryan Adams) could do far worse than seek out Souled American.
Unfortunately, the band’s records remain out of print and all-too-difficult to get a hold of. However, in 1999, Tumult, a San Francisco-based label, was started specifically for the purpose of re-releasing their early records. Currently, Souled American’s first four records can be purchased on two double-CD volumes entitled Framed, and available from