I made this slide show to one of my (many) favorite Uncle Tupelo songs (from Still Feel Gone) a few years back. It’s not prefect by any means but I wanted to capture the feeling of living in small towns (in Texas in this case) and ‘looking for a way out’. Whether or not that is always the right way forward or not I am not too sure about, but I guess a lot of people can relate to that urge, I certainly can or rather could when I was younger.
Yet another artist I am just getting to know, her new album Sundown Over Ghost Town should find its way into my home and CD-player real soon. This song is quite old though, but excellent.
Ex-Uncle Tupelo and now Wilco singer/songwriter and guitar player Jeff Tweedy just as I like him best. Solo, acoustic and heartfelt (actually, the same can be said about most artists).
Two rather different, but equally excellent versions of a great, great song.
It’s been 20 years since Bloomed was originally released on German label Glitterhouse Records. It became, at least for me, an integral part of the Alternative Country music experience. 20 years later I still count it as one of the very best. On top of my head I can only count Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992 as having a similar profound impact on my life as a music lover and being quite as excellent as well as related in sound, from that period.
Fast forward to March 2014 and the album is re-released on Buckner’s current label home Merge Records, bless them for it. Haven’t got that release (yet!), but I hope that some of you reading and not knowing what I am talking about, will possible be encouraged to check it out (it’s even released on vinyl, all you vinyl buffs out there).
Let me tell you, you are in for a hell of a treat. Some of the facts first. At the time living in San Francisco and playing in a band called The Doubters, Buckner recorded this album in Lubbock and Austin, TX with producer Llyoyd Maines and a bunch of artists that Maines recruited, Texas music legend Butch Hancock amongst them. To say these musicians and their contributions are merely the icing on the cake would be both wrong and right. Right, because, as the 5 bonus tracks (also included on the Merge re-release) on the 1999 Rykodisc/Slow River re-release I am writing about here, attest to, show, that none of the 12 tracks on the original album would be something short of brilliant without them. Wrong because they are absolutely stunning and outstanding. (Almost) exclusively acoustic instruments, no drums (just a tiny bit of percussion) add to the airy, open and crystal clear sound, with Buckner’s striking (once heard, never forgotten) Californian drawl that is very well suited to the music found on here.
To call it Alternative Country is maybe a little bit misleading but it’s certainly not straight, old-fashioned Country either. It’s very hard to name personal faves on here – I love all of the 17 songs on here, really. The range of different moods encountered on Bloomed range from the dark, brooding and slow (22, Mud, This Is Where), to the lively, uptempo songs, such as Daisychain and Rainsquall and everything in between. Buckner’s excellent acoustic guitar work is always featured prominent in the mix, but as I said before, the cast of aces accompanying him add a whole lot to making the album as great as it is too. Take Surprise, AZ, featuring some exquisite harmonica by Butch Hancock and a Dobro by Lloyd Maines alongside Buckner’s acoustic guitar and what you get is one of the best and loveliest songs I have ever heard. Album opener Blue And Wonder is augmented to fine effect by Joe Carr’s mandolin, Rainsquall features a what I suppose to be slightly distorted and quite loud pedal steel guitar to rather dramatic, but well suited to the lyrics of the song, effect.
To mention all of the great contributions Lloyd Maines adds to Bloomed would be very cumbersome indeed, but as he is well-known musician I hope some of you know what he is capable of – being not intimately acquainted with his work I would say he outclassed himself on here (feel free to correct me).
Also adding to considerably to Bloomed’s quality are Buckner’s lyrics. Although they are mainly about personal matters and relationships, both imagined and experienced, but when listening to the album I have to say I’m taking a long road trip in my mind. Imagining it starting in California and ending in Texas you probably get the right idea of what I’m talking about.
Sights and people encountered in small, modest towns on a long drive (The Last Ride) and during a rainstorm on the highway (Rainsquall) while thinking about a woman in a ‘Gauzy Dress In The Sun’. Perhaps it’s indicative of the American psyche of having time to think about you, your own little world and the people inhabiting it while being on the road is what the album’s lyrics are all about. They contribute a whole lot to Bloomed’s appeal for me.
It’s a real shame that Richard Buckner’s career has been so fragmented and never lived up to the things promised on this album – I pretty much lost track of his work after 1998’s Since. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s supposedly not being very easy to work with preventing him having a stable working relationship with some people, musicians and label-wise, that would be befitting for his music and career. But that’s pure speculation on my part and he’s worked with Merge Records for the last 10 years so I may be wrong.
In any case, Bloomed is an utterly fabulous album, and my words cannot begin to adequately describe its class and certainly not how much I adore it.
Pieta Brown : Mercury
(2011 Red House Records)
Pieta Brown is Greg Brown’s daughter and married to Bo Ramsey, a longtime musical partner of Greg Brown. So you could say the apple doesn’t fall far from the stem, listening to Mercury. It’s released on Red House Records, the label Greg Brown releases his albums on as well (and that he founded back in 1981) and does feature Bo Ramsey, who delivers his always outstanding and tasteful guitar work throughout the album. In contrast to Ramsey’s fine 2008 album Fragile (see my review here: http://wp.me/p3wknx-4t) he’s accompanied by another guitar player, Richard Bennett, on most/all tracks. Another (rather more prominent) guest on the album is The Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler who is playing another guitar on So Many Miles.
It’s the first album by Pieta Brown I bought (but it won’t be the last) – and I like it a lot. The sound is a bit more contemporary than on either Greg Brown’s or Bo Ramsey’s albums, but that’s of course completely natural, given she does belong to a different generation. It doesn’t mean though that she doesn’t sound like a young women very much informed by her upbringing and (thankfully) possessing none of the hip big city vibes you could expect.
The sound is both modern and rustic at the same time, her voice the most defining characteristic on the album, at once a bit childlike and clear as well as self-assured and a tad raspy, hard to describe for me, but easy to love.
Naturally for me, the tracks with the least musical accompaniment are the ones I like best, namely I Don’t Mind or No Words Now (which isn’t THAT stripped down, but extremely lovely nevertheless). The album starts with the life-affirming and up-tempo Be With You, the next track Butterfly Blues is a fine showcase for Bo Ramsey’s trademark economic, bluesy lead guitar work – but it’s more than that, as it’s also an excellent song. Title song Mercury and the following How Much Of my Love are some of the more dreamy songs very well suited to her voice. I’m Gone and I Want It Back are lyrically, and in the case of I’m Gone musically, some of the more muscular and self-confident songs, the first one a fast(ish) Blues-Rock song and the second a slow, gorgeous Blues-Pop-Waltz song with a lovely string accompaniment.
Night All Day is the only track I find quite hard to like, a bit too bluesy for my taste. Closing Time is somewhat disappointingly not the Tom Waits song (would have loved to hear what they could have made out of that) but it’s a splendid song nevertheless. I rather like Glory to Glory a lot too – its fun, with a number of varied guitar parts, one of it sounding slightly old-timey, and I love the simple drums/percussion work on it too.
Mercury is a brilliant album and Pieta Brown well above most the other female Country-Folk-Pop artists of her generation, both as a songwriter and as a singer if you ask me.
Ever the songwriter for thoughtful songs about people who possibly don’t quite get what they deserve, but try hard one way or the other nevertheless, Slaid Cleaves has written yet another of his beautiful, melancholic songs.
It also shows that , even in 2011 (or 2013 for that matter), you don’t need anything else than an acoustic guitar if your songs are good.
I haven’t been listening to this band for ages, and then I stumbled upon this great video, recorded in June ’13 at Glitterhouse Records’ Orange Blossom Special Festival. I actually helped to organise first two incarnations of the festival ages ago, so I feel a little bit sentimental watching this. Anyway, I digress, a smashing song.
Son Volt : Honky Tonk
2013 Rounder Records
Son Volt and me go back a long time. I have been listening to their records since their first album Trace came out back in 1995. But I have to admit that I stopped listening to their new records after Wide Swing Tremolo. The excellent compilation
A Retrospective 1995 – 2000 rekindled my love for their music when it was released in 2005, but I didn’t buy their next records Okemah And The Melody Of Riot and The Search. The first new record in which Jay Farrar was involved with after that time I bought was his collaboration with Death Cab For Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard on the Jack Kerouac-themed One Fast Move Or I’m Gone, (which is a fantastic record and which I will be writing about on here at some point in the future). I meant to buy the 2009 album Central American Dust, but didn’t manage to do so far, so that is still on my to-buy list.
After hearing only good things about Honky Tonk I bought it – and I don’t regret doing so. The first question coming to mind is: Is this still Alt.Country? As the title implies, it is leaning pretty far towards old-school Country more than the contemporary Alternative Country style Jay Farrar helped to create and define with Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt over the past 20 years or so.
There’s even a song on here called Bakersfield which sounds exactly as you would expect, it’s the most Country-Rocking song on the album and probably wouldn’t sound at all out of place in a Honky-Tonk bar in, well, Bakersfield. Even the lyrics such as ‘… there’s more brick walls than bridges on the way to your heart…’ could probably be found on songs played on mainstream Country radio stations – a far cry from the lyrics of early Uncle Tupelo recordings such as Still Feel Gone or March 16-20, 1992. Gone are the occasional harder rocking songs found on the early Son Volt albums (such as Route from Trace or Straightface from Wide Swing Tremolo). Mark Spencer’s pedal steel guitar is all over the place on the album and the songs are mainly slow to mid-tempo (and quite short, some of them are barely over 2 minutes long), but I like the slowed down ones best, which make the pedal steel guitar sounds exactly as I like it – I always loved their sound, not so much because they are a staple in Country music, but for their otherworldly, dreamy sound characteristic. Especially good are Angel of the Blues and Down The Highway which both fall into this category. In addition, Angel Of the Blues is probably one of the best songs he’s ever written, although the arrangement does play a big part in making the song as good as it is – the pedal steel guitar is the most prominent instrument you hear, the song very slowed-down, full of melancholic longing, a heavenly, if dusty, ode to the American heartland of which the band clearly is a child. Wild Side and Livin’ On (the latter featuring a lovely Accordion) are both other fine examples of Farrar’s knack for writing slow, dreamy songs immediately driving a hook in your heart (mine at least), such as Too Early or Tear Stained Eye (both from Trace), always the reason I loved Son Volt records so much.
The fiddle on Down The Highway actually sounds more Celtic than American (which is of course not all that surprising), contributing to making the song another highlight of the album for me, the eternal hope of finding better things (love in this case), somewhere far away – down the highway. The super-catchyTears of Change, Seawall with its dueling fiddle and pedal steel guitar providing the instrumental flourishes, and Barricades with a number of changes in speed are more of the good stuff, but it is album closer Shine On with some unusual sound effects and slightly dragging drums, providing a bit of sonic variety, perhaps lacking on most other tracks of Honky Tonk. So I am holding my breath how the next Son Volt album will sound.
I am very happy to report that I finally own this beauty
For those of you that don’t know this, it features the following 7” singles released between 1990 and 1992
Sauget Wind (always one of my favourite Uncle Tupelo songs) b/w Looking For A Way Out (Acoustic) and Take My Word
I Got Drunk b/w (Gram Parson’s) Sin City
Gun b/w I Wanna Destroy You (R. Hitchcock)
and That Year b/w Pickle River, that 7” was never released before in this form (That Year is from a 1988 demo called Live And Otherwise and Pickle River from another self released demo called Colorblind & Rhymeless)