Friday, 19 December 2014

Hissyfit: 'Albums of 2014': Numbers Ten to Six

It's been a ho-hum kind of a year all round.
A little unrest goes a long way in our house.
We like things calm and settled.
The smallest troubles can cause unease so... when the wheels do come off big time we struggle.
Central to our unrest was the decline in Di's Dad's health.
Harry finally passed away in October.
If there's such a thing as 'a good death' his was one.
He was laughing with Dot, the love of his adult life (hip to hip for 64 years) and when she left the room (to answer the phone) Harry let go and left too.
No fussing.
Typical Harry Holmes.

Music is a balm and was never more so than in 2014.
Di likes to dance; I love a dirge.
Accordingly, I moved towards the sombre rather than the samba...
And those who know me know that I like a sad song.
Don't say you weren't warned.
Here's 10 - 6 of my favorite albums of 2014.
I'm not saying that they're the best.
Or even the best I heard.
They were just the one's that were there when I needed them...

10: The Delines: Colfax

Heaven? In the parlance of country music, if hell is other folk, then heaven is surely other folk's hell. In that land of endless opportunity, schadenfreude is a divine diversion from the minutiae of disappointment; relief from the mundanities of ordinary lives lived regretfully. Let's wallow in the misery of others and let's call it 'Americana'. This genre hosts a very American brand of unrelenting misery. There's no whistling kettle to call you home, no warm bath where the hot water tap is balmy hope incarnate. Here the dilapidated Diner's coffee is cold and bitter, the motel's plastic shower curtain remains ripped and stained, the trickling water, hard and lukewarm.

The Delines is a side project from Willy Vlautin. His prime persona will always be that of the lead singer with Richmond Fontaine, rampant reviewers of all things Americana, but Willy's so full of creative juice that there's little fear of him spreading his grits too thin. He's fast establishing himself as one of America's finest authors; his literary eye resting on the underbelly (or arse end) of blue collar America, with a particularly harsh focus on masculinity and what makes men cry. He's mentioned in the same breath as Raymond Carver and Sam Shepherd and it's no faint praise. Vlautin casts a similarly relentless gaze on the folks of 'Colfax'.

Apparently there's a Colfax Avenue in Denver, frequented by delinquents and broken spirits. This inspired the sense of place, if not the location for these sorry tales. Except here Willy brilliantly twists his viewpoint from tawdry testosterone to the one of a doleful female protagonist, as voiced by the beautifully mournful tones of Amy Boone from The Damnations. Where Springsteen offered 'magic in the night' as relief and 'wheels for wings' as speedy escape and redemption, there are some tramps too tired to run; or who simply can't afford the gas. Enter Amy Boone.

There's much weeping in these plangent laments. Although occasionally buoyed by the inevitable flashes of false hope, it's a sad illumination; the lights of home are nowt but futile fog, the lights on the horizon are the toxic glow of the local oil rigs. It's a dirty world of small towns, populated (or polluted) by hard drinkers and harsh truths. Sad souls bend or break; nothing is savored; food is fast, bottles are opened and emptied, cards are dealt and the game is seldom won; the only hope on offer comes from the jukebox in the corner of the smoky barroom. Although Boone plays many parts in this song cycle, she details the slow fade of her 'everywoman' with such candor and grace that you can't help but weep for her; she's probably too tired for tears. Witness her fading beauty in the the early morning half light as she prepares for another soul sapping shift. At the day's pay off you can sense her embarrassment at revealing her stretch marks and tired thighs to yet another one night stand. Hers is the flip side to the the sepia wide screened romances of Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell. Way back then, fresh dawns and soft sunsets backlit the wholesome heartache of 'Galveston' and 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix'.  But there's no 'Witchita Lineman' to connect Amy to distant love here. Where are the sweet whisperings? 'And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time'. There's no such nobility here, no beatific oaths and commitments in these sad tales. Each day is simply a struggle towards sunset. The abiding mood is one of regret and ennui in a world where the day's sole purpose is to foreshadow the next day's duties; as prophetic as the dots that join each pathetic dawning to the next. There are moments of spirited resistance to her circumstance and the company she keeps, “I ain’t riding through the night in broken down cars with skinny friends with dying eyes, in the violence of a losing streak,” and sure, there's dignity and grace in that struggle, but you kind of know that if our heroine succeeds in escaping the bad company she is destined to end up lonesome.
There are moments of defiance but ultimately the tone is one of resignation, acceptance and, inexorably, defeat.
The band plays loose and Boone summons up the ghost of Bobby Gentry.
All's not well, the heart aches, swells and breaks.
And it's a beautiful sound.
And in Colfax heaven is other folk's hell.
Go figure...

9: Robert Ellis: The Lights From the Chemical Plant

"The lights from the chemical plant burn bright 
in the night like an old kerosene lamp"

Robert Ellis also offers sanguine observations on injury and recovery but although he inhabits a similar kind of environment as Colfax, Ellis's glass seems more half full than empty. And he's more likely to raise that glass rather than throw it at you.
There's a healthy dose of optimism to temper the troubles, perhaps benefit of Robert's ability to escape into his imagination.

"I'm a gunfighter, I'm a bull rider
I'm the captain of some pirate ship at sea
For a couple of hours I've got super powers...
God bless you Walt Disney, you were a father to me
You kept me company when no-one else had the time"

The music is still unmistakably 'Americana' but it's lighter, almost with a pop sheen. And yet the musicality can take a sudden sharp turn up a darker street, where there's always the shiver of strings to temper the twang.
'Steady As the Rising Sun' puts me in mind of a Gram Parsons of young Glen Campbell.

Ellis is not above finding refuge in a bottle of wine and a bag of cocaine and is worldly enough in his recognition of life's other comforts:

“Only lies can comfort you
Only lies will see you through”

It's the inability to catagorise this gently unsettling album that makes it such a joy. The tenderness and tension make for a heady mix. The easy pleasure is in it's lightness, but there's a real frisson of excitement in knowing that those moments are often a prelude to some gorgeous moments of darkness and despair. Misery loves company and Robert Ellis is great company.

In the final song on the set, the breathtaking narrative of 'Tour Song' reminds us of the raw heartache and bitter insecurity that underpins much of country music's sweetest moments. 

“Soon she’ll start to wonder what it is that I provide
And why the hell a husband can’t be by his woman’s side.”

These troubedours... they really do suffer for their art (tis so) and then they have the temerity to expose those wounds for us to pore over; sweet schadenfreude indeed. 
And love's sweet sorrow n'er tasted so bitter, yet the flesh wounds never seemed so recoverable as they do when illuminated by The Lights From the Chemical Plant. 

8: Adam Cohen: We Go Home

On a lighter note...
Who'd have thought that I'd be looking towards the Cohen family for light relief?
He has his father's dark looks and quivering bass timbre, and he too has a way with words and easy melody.
Leonard always was a lady's man and you get the impression that Adam's a chip off the old bloke; using his poetry and prose to impress the chicks as much as the critics.
There's certainly a Lothario's strut evident here:

And yet this album (his 5th) is full of big hearted melodies embellished with tasteful restraint. It's literally a 'home made' album; recorded at his family homes in Montreal and on the Greek island of Hydra. Despite his undeniable lineage there's no sense of entitlement on show. No histrionics, no musical parade and posturing. He seems at ease with what he's been bequeathed. He creates his ditties easily on Dad's nylon string guitar. It's that relaxed modesty that makes these songs so likable. He does reference Pater a lot (“You’ll be hearing his voice, like you’re hearing it now”) but there's enough about Adam and his easy charm to make him the first man here. Although this is an intimate offering there's a life enhancing positivity that just jumps out of the grooves and chirps 'like me!' Adam is your affable best looking friend. The one that always gets served first at the bar. The one that gets all of the beautiful girls, firstly as lovers and then as best friends too. And yet he'd be that one friend who, if push came to shove, would lend you his last condom.

7: Simone Felice: Strangers

I always liked The Felice Brothers although there was a tendency towards raucous 'Waitsism' that I often found unconvincing.
Simone left the band in 2009 to record as The Duke and the King which was more up my alley. The combination of unflinchingly observed storytelling and church chords was a sucker punch to my glass jaw.
And I love a tremulous voice.
All boxes ticked here on his sophomore solo album. It seems more focussed than his 2012 solo debut. With his literary bent to the fore, Felice's songs alternate between the sorrowful and the uplifting, although the apparent morbidity of closer 'The Gallows' somehow manages both at the same time.
I cannot source that wonder.
This isn't a bad second choice...

6: Adam Holmes: 'Heirs and Graces'

John Wood is celebrated for producing some of Folk music's finest marvels, including the classic early 70s albums of Nick Drake and John Martyn. Wood has been in semi retirement of late, running a B&B in Edinburgh apparently. One listen to Adam Holmes was enough to drag him back into the studio. And his alchemy is everywhere on this wholesome delight.

At 23 Adam Holmes is an old soul; I've met him and his is a well furrowed brow:

'Awkward silence fills a crowded room
You would understand if you were me
And I can't even hold a conversation
With a shadow where a man’s supposed to be'

And yet he unburdens his world weary troubles with a delicacy and compassion that's hard to resist. There's a pre-bile sweetness to the curmudgeon-lite wisdom that sings of the joys of the uninitiated. Perhaps this comes from being steeped in a Celtic musical tradition that celebrates everyday drama with laments of love and loss but won't tolerate self pity. This lightness is enhanced by Adam's admitted love of 70s songwriting troubadours such as James Taylor and Jackson Browne.
So, easy listening?
Indeed, but there's no saccharine here on Adam's excellent debut.
This is sweet soul music for folk who like their folk with just a little twist of bitterness.

1 comment:

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