'Round the Dial: Big Willie Style
Wednesday 22 November @ 14:46:19
BY TOM HALLETT
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell, no!” – John Belushi
SONG OF THE WEEK: “These Things” – Tim O’Reagan
No time for jivin’ this time ‘round, gang—dig into these here reviews and I hope they help keep ya warm ...
Lost Highway Records
The first thing that comes to mind upon hearing alt.country high priest Willie Nelson’s latest outing is WOW!! What an album! The second thing that comes to mind is WHY? Why in the hell have any of Willie’s previous albums ever been weakly produced or employed less-than-stellar backing outfits?
This album does a far better job than any before it at proving that Willie deserves all the press hoopla and critical acclaim as a singer/musician/songwriter (and I mean ALL three at once, not just one or the other from time-to-time, but ALL three at once) as Emmylou Harris, Neil Young or Johnny Cash before him have.
Somebody’s got a special level in Hell waiting for him/her when it comes to making wrong turns with Mr. Nelson’s recording career. I’m guessing it’s a series of guys in suits and ties who still think country/Americana music means late-night hillbilly radio broadcasts, not songs about whiskey rivers and girls who steal your record collection and bein’ down to stems an’ seeds again. Thankfully, the man seeks out like-minded souls, smokes enough weed to keep his brain sheltered from the robots in Nashville, and once every couple years or so, puts out an album that proves why he’s so goddamned good in the first place.
It doesn’t hurt that the producer on this album is also one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Ryan Adams, or that Adams uses his kick-ass backing band, The Cardinals, as Willie’s band here. Thing is, even with all the special guests and great material and the NEED the world has for music like this, I still think this is Willie’s finest release since Red Headed Stranger,—and that’s not a qualification I make lightly.
There is a paucity of the maudlin here—an aversion to the tendency another producer might have had to want to turn Willie into some kind of cannabis-hardened cowboy hippie who had a lot of great songs but needed other people to sing them. On the contrary, Adams resisted those impulses and here has Willie singing material that sounds like it was meant for him, from Canadian folk-poet Leonard Cohen to ’70s pop maven Christine McVie to late alt.country spiritual compatriot Gram Parsons, as well as some of his finest self-penned ditties to come along in a coon’s age.
Why it took this long between well-produced and artistically viable and musically-challenging Willie albums I’ll never know, but thank God (and Comedy Central) Toby Keith and his ilk aren’t stinking up the works here. Songbird contains a mix-and-match of Willie originals and favorites, and I for one have to say that it’s great to finally hear Mr. Nelson capture the sad beauty of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” “Sad Songs And Waltzes,” and old chestnuts like “$1000 Wedding.”
I remember the first time I ever heard the title track to this album, Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird.” As written, sung and (mostly) played by the angelic-voiced Christine McVie, it was one of my least favorite cuts on the Rumours album. Well, OK, I was only 12 or 13, true, but I preferred the outright rockers or the mysterious, witchy Stevie Nicks cuts at the time. It’s taken me a lot of years to fully appreciate all of Christine McVie’s gifts, but a few years back I realized she’d been as much—if not more—a part of Fleetwood Mac as any of their other members.
This song, which deals with a lover singing an ode to a fellow lover who’s also a singer, always felt like a sad, lonely surrender to me. Now, finally, after all these years and through Willie’s voice, I hear that yes, it is sad, and it is lonely, but it’s by no means a surrender. Lines that McVie seemed to just toss off (maybe it was her accent, maybe it was just the shading in the production of the vocals on Rumours), here, under Willlie’s weathered, wise hand (and pipes) sounds less like a white flag than a proud, self-assured personal anthem: “And I wish you all the love in the world,” croons Willie amongst layered, shimmering, calming instruments, “but most of all, I wish it for myself / And the songbirds keep singin’ like they know the score / And I love you, I love you, I love you like never before.” Fucking mind-blowing.
“Blue Hotel” rings out like a ‘60s juke-box standard, layered with phenomenal organ runs and hair-raising gospel backing vocals, “Back To Earth” is both timeless and a broken-hearted love anthem for the future—and brings forth a subject that many love songs leave neglected. In front of weeping pedal steel, lightly brushed snare and loping bass lines, Willie tells a universal Truth that’s rarely uttered from the point of view of the heartbreakee: “Now I know just how you felt that night so long ago / And the dream for you had ended and you let me know / So I bounced from sky to sky / Tryin’ to keep the dream alive / But everything I did just made it worse / Guess my heart just settled back to earth.” This song is what it feels like to finally, irrevocably realize what it feels like NOT to be in love with the person whom you think loves you, and whom you thought you loved. It’s scary, it’s awe-inspiring, and they’re definitely words to live (and love, or not love as may be the case) by.
“Hallelujah,” “$1000 Wedding” and “Sad Songs And Waltzes” are, each in their own ways, triumphant re-workings of country-rock/folk standards by a guy whose voice NEEDED to be on them—so thank Adams (and The Cardinals—Jon Graboff, Brad Pemberton, Neal Casal, Catherine Popper, Mickey Raphael and Glenn Patscha, as well as the awesome, gospel-inspired chorus that inspires and uplifts many of the tracks here) for that, if nothing else.
In “Stella Blue,” Willie probably encapsulates both the feel of this record (mature, smart and respectable, yet still blue-jean comfortable and with a heartfelt, affable wink) and the personal vibe his listeners are waiting for with the line, “In the end there’s just a song / Comes cryin’ up the night / Through all the broken dreams / That is you / Stella Blue...”
Over melancholy axe riffs, moaning keyboards, and softly-strummed bass lines, he takes every ounce of the pain you, and I, and he and the whole damned world around us feels and pours it out into a shiny, full-as-shit shot-glass. Here’s to you, Willie—thanks for another good ‘un, pardner. Thanks also again to Ryan Adams, for a respectful and tasteful job that sure in the hell needed to get done—you’d be “Crazy” (yep, Willie wrote THAT one, too) not to check this stuff out at losthighwayrecords.com.
Bartered Soul Records
Ray Barnard and his merry band of countrified pickers, pounders an’ grinners are no strangers to the Twin Cities music scene. Cold Mississippi finds them poised at that precarious point in their career where this could actually be a breakthrough album for them. By breakthrough, I mean this stuff is good enough, hits the notes in all the right places and comes from the right place inside that, by all rights, it should be in the hands of a major label right now.
Now, I won’t cut corners nor hem and haw here—Ray’s brand of low-key, polished Americana is a bit on the safe and cautious side for me (at least on record—I admit I’ve never seen ‘em live), but I can’t go without saying that this music is real, and honest and from the heart. It’s just not as full of bitter, whiskey-soaked drama as my usual preferences require.
That being said, the songs populating Cold Mississippi are a heady and varied brew, indeed. From the sweet, sentimental grooves of “Midway” to the country gospel roll of “Psalm #116” right through to official album closer, “Why (Am I Treated So Bad),” Ray and the boys hit all the right notes, identify with both universal and personal subject matter and display a highly skilled talent with their respective instruments.
I’d bet that, with the right PR, Ray and the gang just might catch the ear of some trend-sucking Nashville wonk and get their stuff at least out where people outside the Midwest are aware of it. Like I said, don’t get me wrong—I don’t necessarily think Ray and the band have anything but the best of intentions, nor do I think they really want to be part of some evil corporate music machine. But hell, if a band is this good and populated by decent guys and just happens to play the kind of music that might get through to the robots listening to your local FM country bullshit station and cause them to go on to find Lucinda Williams, Tim O’ Reagan or The Drams, let ‘em go, I say. Better than Big And Fucking Rich.
A highly professional, slickly produced effort from some local boys who’ve paid their dues and are ready to move on to the next step—wherever that may be. Best of luck, boys. I can tell you mean what you say, and I hope you get a chance to say what you mean to the rest of the world soon. Interested parties can find out more info on Ray and the band at thecopperheads.com.
If We Can’t Escape My Pretty
New West Records
Formerly known as Nic Armstrong & The Thieves, this outlander band from the New West label has decided to pare its moniker down to just IV Thieves, and that’s just fine with me. Now that we know who they are, let’s talk about what kind of music they make, and why they’re appearing at random places around the U.S.A. and causing all kinds of music chat board fuss.
Equal parts Supergrass-ian romp, dark Kinks-ish humor and snarling Radiohead-y guitars, IV Thieves is just “foreign” enough to American ears to cause them to stand out from the pack, but not so geographically oriented that their universal messages of love, heartbreak, pain and growing up (in an age when growing up seems to happen a lot later than it did for your own parents, or were they just fooling us?) doesn’t charm the figurative pants off of and ring the bells of just about any citizen of any area that just happens to love good rock ’n’ roll.
Album opener, “You Can’t Love What You Don’t Understand,” buzzes, snaps and crunches along like a runaway train full of unstable old dynamite, Armstrong laying out his sometimes jaded, sometimes amazingly tender takes on the subject of amour as haphazardly and hurriedly as if he were laying the actual track ahead of himself as said train barrels directly under him at full throttle.
“Catastrophe” is veddy, veddy UK-influenced, bucking, crackling and stomping along with a snarky urgency: “You have to act your age ... for this love that hurts ...” while “Take This Heart” shuffles in like a well-trained pool shark to a predestined meeting with his final take, and “The Sound And The Fury,” while it may sound like the title to a bad car-chase film, is actually a dreamy, melancholy ode to lost hopes, unanswered questions and fragile dreams.
This track actually reminds me of a song Southern songwriter Vic Chesnutt might have penned had he grown up in a place that features images of Queen Elizabeth on the coins and people who regularly use the term “guv’nor.” Call it deep rock melodrama if ya want, I just call it good shit.
The whole album is one sharp, fresh surprise after another, bringing on the kind of feeling you might have had the first time you heard Teenage Fan Club or XTC or the aforementioned Supergrass, and one gets the feeling that this is one band that’s only getting tighter and more refined as time passes. Can’t wait for the next one boys—in the meantime, I’ll quote one of my faves from here (“The Day Is A Downer”) and say, “I’ve got to get up in the morning,” so I’ll catch ya next time out. Check out the IV Thieves for yourselves at newwestrecords.com.
That’s it for me, gang. Tune in next time you spin the ol’ ’Dial this way for more of your favorite rants, raves, & rockin’ roll reviews. Until we meet again—make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/events/CDs you’d like
to see listed in this here column, or you’d just like to tell me your deepest, darkest—send replies to: Tmygunn77764@yahoo.com. ||