My, my this is awful. Her last album was fine. What went so wrong here? This is just a pile of cliches turned up to 11.
Neko Case & Her Boyfriends’ second album Furnace Room Lullaby is a calculated take on country music that manages to be more than the sum of its parts. This is a real country album. But it only arrives at the realness of country music in a circuitous, even backwards way.
The album consciously stakes out a range encompassing crafted ballads (“South Tacoma Way,” “Porchlight”), sly waltz (“Thrice All American”), driving rockabilly (“Whip the Blankets,” “Mood to Burn Bridges”) and hazy lounge jazz (“No Need to Cry”). The album limps most of the way, with a kind of contrived indie rock vision of what country music is supposed to sound like, complete with all the clichés. That is the best part!
All sorts of country affectations are employed across the album, like slide guitar and fiddle, but most notably the rock-styled rhythms from the drums and Case’s countrified vocals that sound nothing like those of a southerner. She has a distinctive way of singing sustained, crescendo-ed notes in a dramatic way, often book-ended by clipped phrases with half-yodeled melisma, and also frequently bolstered with washes of legato keyboards or backing vocals. Yet, the album succeeds precisely because the illusion of authenticity fails. No matter what urban mannerism she laces through her country songs — the essence of insurgent (alt) country is using the devices of country music usually directed to rural audiences to appeal to urban middle-class audiences — something persists that seems to cut through those very mannerism. It is somewhat of a frequent occurrence that “rock” musicians make country music to tap into its supposed authenticity, at least implying that authenticity is lacking in rock music, but Furnace Room Lullaby preempts that by its obviously artificial performances. And, really, country music is a set of arbitrary and therefore artificial devices just as much as rock music. What emerges then is something else, an existential denial of all authenticity and a kind of triumph of crafted artifice that builds up an approximation of the idea of authenticity through non-authentic means. Is Case then simply pretending to be what she really is? This is a really intriguing way of staging what are songs — all excellent compositions mind you — mostly about personal identity forged in the crucibles of relationships, a hometown, and a trajectory of subtle but undeniable ambition. The underlying question that looms across the entire album is, “Who am I?” Case never ventures an affirmative answer, but keeps pondering that question over and over again.
Neko forges music from her Pacific Northwest roots with a cautious nostalgia. “South Tacoma Way” is the album’s epic story of loss. Of course themes of heartache and resignation come up is every song; some call it “country noir”. These songs make your problems seem either easier or shared. The highlight of the album may well be “Thrice All American,” about the city of Tacoma, Washington, Case’s adopted hometown and winner of the All-America City Award three times — but the song is also a waltz.
Neko Case & Her Boyfriends manage to combine all kinds of influences. It all works. At this stage of her career, before fully succumbing to the banality of indie rock, Neko was as brave as any singer-songwriter out there (though most of these songs were written with collaborators). She was okay with being a little like her heroines — Poison Ivy from The Cramps, etc. On “Guided By Wire” she tells of “those who’re singin’ my life back to me.” It is that binding of her identity to those who (circularly) give her meaning that raise the stakes here. There really is no “true” identity, just tentative links to people and places, many of them commonplace. Country music at its best always made that same point.
Blacklisted is a dark album. It’s was a new direction Case is heading into, and she knew it. The loneliness of this new position is evident. There isn’t much musical idolatry here, though she keeps one eye fixed on the past. Her stories chronicle things witnesses and remembered, observed tidbits pulled together to form the songs.
Neko Case has changed quite a bit since Furnace Room Lullaby. Her songwriting is that much more isolated. Her sense of humor scarcely surfaces. A weariness seems to have taken hold long before the songs took shape. Now a passion for something timeless is her calling card.
The songs are a mixture of jagged lyrics and smooth sounds, with lyrics so ragged and blunt that listeners come away bruised. Case has moved into somewhat more traditional country arrangements performed with small, eclectic combos. Her lyrics, however, stand opposed to traditional subjects. Blacklisted eschews “heartbroken woman” themes. Her best outings, “Wish I Was the Moon” and “Ghost Writing” among them, are deeply personal. Yet even at her most confessional, her songs remain framed in the Americana she adores. This isn’t a new way to write music, but it’s a fresh approach for Neko. While still one to romanticize the ways of lonely scoundrels, she employs a different kind of drama than in the past. Of course, honesty isn’t always the best policy. The truth can border the mundane. So there’s a danger built into her craft. It would be nice to say she has the situation under control at all times. That isn’t the case. But it’s better to have Neko overexposed on record than obscured.
On Blacklisted, Neko’s delivery doesn’t have much immediacy. Still, she is reaching. But for what? Unfortunately this was the first step towards capitulation to the mundane and banal aspects of indie rock that would garner her more commercial success over the next 5-10 years. This one is medicore at best, and pales in comparison to Furnace Room Lullaby.
One complaint frequently leveled at Alejandro is that his albums are rarely as good as his live shows. Even his really good albums sometimes sound overproduced. Well, this one goes a long way towards filling any gaps in that respect (I think it ended up being the long-awaited fan-oriented live disc the release of which was pushed back about two years). The last two tracks are throwaways (even if I was present at the Turf Club when one of them was recorded, the sing-along “Sad & Dreamy (The Big 10),” so technically I appear on this album!), but overall this album really finds all the passion and eccentricity of Alejandro’s live shows intact. He’s one of those mature songwriters, like Townes Van Zandt, Lou Reed, and a few others, that come along only rarely and can convey a whole bunch of emotions and experiences in a genuine and convincing manner, full of nuance and gravity. As reviewer BradL says, “He’s particularly good on the foibles of masculinity and, of course, hard love is one of his specialities.” I really like this set. It’s got some heavy rockers, some ballads, some covers — no Alejandro live show is complete without a few choice covers. The band is with him all the way through. Although this might not be the place to start, unless you’ve just witnessed one of Alejandro’s live shows, I find this one of the most enjoyable discs in the man’s catalog.
A Man Under the Influence is a portrait of the world Alejandro Escovedo knows. It’s about Mexican-American immigrants, love, music, and their effects on a man — brilliant in its simple honesty. This is a mellow but broad pop album with lush backing and sweet melodies. A Man Under the Influence is someone wandering the desert dragging his stories with him, and growing along the way.
Often, the sound here is slick and refined. Escovedo’s earlier work tended to have a gravelly wallop to it. He still has a sharp warmth to his songwriting but the attack is softer. Their still is a bite, but he can now convey the same themes to a much wider audience. A Man Under the Influence is about as good as anything Escovedo has done, save perhaps Thirteen Years (it also proved to be just about his last pop album before turning towards other things, from string quartets and harder rock). He doesn’t have to reach to hold on to touching tales of eccentrics and epics of friends and families.
There isn’t just a few great songs on this album; from beginning to end just about every song is a tiny masterpiece. “Rosalie” aches while Rosalie and Joe write letters to each other every day for seven long years, only getting to see each other once each year. “Rhapsody” perseveres in an imperfect world. “Across the River” is perhaps the most grippingly beautiful song. “Castanets” is a full-blown rocker complete with a girl in Arizona who ain’t got no rhythm. “Follow You Down” reflects on Townes Van Zandt’s profound impact had on Alejandro. Even “Velvet Guitar” adds a personal touch to the work. “About This Love” completes the package, tying up all loose ends.
Alejandro wonderfully orchestrates his band. The interplay of strings and his guitar weave exquisite textures into the songs. If there is any fault to the album, the pedal steel guitar is lain down a bit too thick at times. Such a minor fault is hardly a drawback.
Escovedo’s melodies are strangely endearing. While he’s not pushing heavy hooks, the songs stay with you. His words match his music, driving them deep into your memory. This is a durable album of remarkable beauty. Alejandro is a true master, and A Man Under the Influence is one to earn him the fans and glorious praise he so deserves.
Ryan Adams covers Taylor Swift‘s entire album 1989. The basic sound here is the increasingly slick 1970s rock flavored alt country that Adams has favored on recent studio albums. That is fine, unto itself. But if there was anything to like about Swift’s original album it certainly wasn’t the douchebag narcissism and malevolent mythologizing that sustained its songwriting. So Adams keeps that part and jettisons the rest. It kind of would have been more interesting if Adams had written new lyrics and sung them over the same music as Swift’s album. But Adams tends not to have good ideas like that.
Ryan Adams comes across as a pretentious twat. His music can overplay the histrionics. In just about every marketing photo he has carefully tousled hair, probably a tattered jacket, and perhaps even a cigarette dangling from his lips. And yet, in spite of all that, he can write good songs. The ever-present burning emotional content is usually framed as existential crises of an individual navigating complex and difficult to the point of oppressive social relations. This album, a selection of tracks from a larger, limited edition boxed set, is just Adams solo and acoustic. There is guitar and piano, some harmonica. The effect is a bit like when the urban folk movement of the 1960s sent its brightest starts to the Carnegie Hall stage. While his vocals still retain the histrionics, and the between-song banter is chock full of pretentious twattery, the minimalist accompaniment limits how bombastic the performances can be. The results are probably closest to his solo debut (and still best solo album) Heartbreaker. He may be the singer/songwriter you hate to love, but the best of his talents are pushed to the forefront here. Surely one of his very best solo records.
Lucinda was a key voice in the emergence of what would be called insurgent or alt(ernative) country. What separate this kind of country from others was, above all, the affinity for a less working class, more urban audience. It metastasized through the influence from the rock world. Lucinda Williams was released on a record label associated with what was then known as college rock, whose biggest act, well, ever, was the jangle-pop post-punk outfit The Smiths. The connection between these audiences is immediately apparent in the jangle rock trappings of the album’s single, “Passionate Kisses,” which sounds only a half step away from an R.E.M. hit. But it’s also there on the opener “I Just Want to See You So Bad,” which has organ backing and some thin, icy guitar riffs that resemble vaguely Elvis Costello. She’s name-checking the gritty urban modern rock of The Velvet Underground in the liner notes too. But Lucinda still sings with a clear and light yet sturdy southern twang — her voice here is smoother, more athletic and nimble (not unlike Sheryl Crow) than the grittier, coarser instrument it became years later. Among everything brought to bear on the album, the country roots are still a dominant force. In the slower patches (“Big Red Sun Blues,” “Am I Too Blue”) there are echoes of what Emmylou Harris was doing in the 1980s, though with considerably more bite (Emmylou was dreadfully boring then). The biggest feature is that Lucinda embodies the Texas strain of country music, not (underlined) the Nashville establishment. This was the sort path leading from Austin, TX that Willie Nelson beat out years earlier (albeit to New York City rather than L.A.). She was doing something similar, but with a host of new influences.
Lyrically, Lucinda is really great at bringing out a female perspective. These aren’t the usual songs about some guy chasing after girls who frankly would prefer the protagonist wouldn’t, Lucinda sings about turning away and shedding the burdens brought on by male companions. So we have “Changed the Locks” (“I changed the lock on my front door / So you can’t see me anymore”), “Side of the Road” (“I wanna know you’re there, but I wanna be alone / If only for a minute or two”) and so on. But even if some of these share some of characteristics of the “guy breaking away from social bonds” theme of so much music in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that perspective is totally re-contextualized coming from a woman. Of course, that isn’t all we get. She’s also singing about longing (“I Just Wanted to See You so Bad”), ambition (“The Night’s Too Long”), growth (“Crescent City”), and all the other flotsam and jetsam or everyday life. People like to say her songs seem lived in. That’s about right.
For all its highlights (“Passionate Kisses,” “Side of the Road,” “Changed the Locks”), Lucinda Williams still has its misfires. There is plenty of filler and quite a few songs that seem to speak to an audience that isn’t around anymore. Some of these performances plod along, and on the receiving end it feels like being stuck listening to somebody speaking at a microphone who is slowing down the tempo of the room to the point that everyone has to come to a halt and listen, rather than continue on with their lives and absorb the words into ones now richer for the experience. Nothing is bad, exactly, but some of this seems to overstay its welcome.
This was still a jolt to the notion that country music wouldn’t or couldn’t appeal to the generation of disaffected urban youths listening to rock music who came up after the punk explosion. The influence? It echoed long after this album. Leading insurgent Country magazine No Depression‘s “artist of the decade” in the 1990s, Alejandro Escovedo, was cribbing bits of this more than a decade later (he borrowed guitar licks from “Like a Rose” for “Follow You Down” on A Man Under the Influence and her “Crescent City” seems to be imbued in his “I Was Drunk” from Bourbonitis Blues). Just like with the aforementioned Mr. Willie Nelson, Lucinda made it seem like a lot of different strains of music could coalesce into something that seemed unlike the specifics of any of the sources. Part of that appeal was to the vanity of the audience, distinguishing themselves as being above the fray of parochial musical genre boundaries. But, again, Lucinda was doing much more than offering that kind of flattery. Her music was reflective, even pensive, taking the time to inhabit its worlds and actually embody its contours in subtle detail rather than just describe its themes from without, in a period when a lot of music was done in high contrast, without any shades of gray. If this was a little shaky at times, aside from its rather magnificent highlights, Lucinda still had much more to come.
Lucinda still has it here. She juggles a few different styles on Blessed. There is some stuff in Steve Earle/Bruce Springsteen mode (“Buttercup”), some in the “atmospheric” style of producer Daniel Lanois‘ efforts on Teatro, Time Out of Mind, etc. (“Kiss Like Your Kiss”), and plenty of acoustic guitar-driven singer-songwriter stuff (most of the middle of the album). But, per usual, you get a woman’s perspective that allows the songs to transcend whatever similarities they may have in structure to music from the boys.