Category Archives: Americana

That Ryan Adams guy has a new album coming out.

 

So, a new Ryan Adams album is on the horizon (Prisoners) and I’m kinda tempted to buy it.  Just kinda, because I haven’t really been blown away by what I’ve heard from it and there are some other releases over the next month or so that are high on my list (Duke Garwood’s Garden of Ashes and the remastered and remixed Texas Jerusalem Crossroads by Lift To Experience).  But, I do like Ryan Adams a helluva lot, so there’s a good chance I’ll pick it up.

Anyhoo, usually when there’s a new Ryan Adams album there’s the usual ‘is it the new Heartbreaker’ and, well, as much as I dig that album, I’d much prefer something like Cold Roses or Jacksonville City Nights.  Man, those albums are just about perfect (Friends would have been the perfect closer for Cold Roses) and they sit wonderfully next to Strangers Almanac.

I’m not gonna lie.  I discovered Strangers Almanac a little later than 1997.  Must have been just around the turn of the Millennium.  Folks worried about whether the Millennium bug was actually waiting to derail everything and I was fretting over how I managed to miss Whiskeytown.  After all, here was this alt. country band that could have been the genre’s Nirvana.  Potential crossover act (Adams would eventually manage that with Gold) and many have said that they should have blown the doors wide open, etc etc.  When I finally discovered it, the band had pretty much looked to be done (Pneumonia was looking like an unlikely release at the time) and, well, they eventually would be.

It was the first country sounding alt. country record I had heard and it blew me away – much like Richard Buckner had a few years before.  See, the thing about Stangers Almanac – and this is true to this day – is that it has an energy and rawness that’s juxtaposed with the brilliantly assured writing (illustrated perfectly during Everything I Do or Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight).  They still sound as ramshackle as on Faithless Street, but there’s a confidence and swagger despite the band, much like the characters in the album, coming apart at the seams.

Like much of Adams’ work, it has its critics (the predictable Replacements / Gram Parsons comments), but it’ll always be one of my favourites.  I mean, as well as featuring a few of my all-time favourite songs (16 Days, Dancing With The Women At The Bar and Avenues) and as good a setting setter (?) as you’ll find in Inn Town, it’s been a go-to album when I need to reset my musical compass.  I guess you could say that Adams’ success with Gold has, in some way, thrown Whiskeytown to the back of alt. country’s important albums.  Adam’s credibility often queried as a result of his detours into mainstream singer-songwriter / country rock / every-man stylings.

Sure, Ryan Adams has been a bit inconsistent and has maybe released a bunch of stuff that suffers from sounding throwaway or lacking in quality control and he may not be experimenting with different textures in the way Jeff Tweedy is, but that doesn’t mean his words and music are any less vital.  He’s at his best he’s wearing his heart and influences on his sleeve and relaying tales about hearts being trampled and ripped to shreds.

Just like he is on here.

And on Heartbreaker.

And on Cold Roses.

And on Jacksonville City Nights.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s about time I bought that expanded Strangers Almanac reissue on vinyl (and likely Prisoner, too).

As always, cheers for reading.

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“Hey, look a-yonder comin'”: Johnny Cash – Orange Blossom Special (1965)

obsSo, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Johnny Cash.  I dare say that I could talk about the merits of even the under-appreciated 70s and 80s work.  Y’know, the stuff that folks ignore (the declining Columbia output and the Mercury years anyone?).  In fact, two of my very favourite Johnny Cash records are from the 70s – Hello, I’m Johnny Cash and Ragged Old Flag.  Anyhoo, the subject of today’s post is Orange Blossom Special.  Perhaps my all-time favourite Johnny Cash album (who am I kidding, there’s no perhaps-ing about it!) and easily one of the most important in his catalogue.

Now, there will be many better writers than me who will detail exactly just how important a record this is, and while I could talk for hours about it (and have done!) I’ll keep it brief.  Orange Blossom Special was the first Johnny Cash album that I properly listened to.  Mostly due to the cover.  It’s also the album that I tell folks to listen to when they start that whole “yeah, but all his stuff sounds the same don’t it?” shenanigans.  This here was the point where I viewed Johnny Cash as the most important of all my influences.  There was no pigeon-holing him as a ‘country western singer’, cause he done what he wanted.  Here he took on Dylan’s folk, as well as songs about murder, prison and, of course, a train.  He made me smile and importantly he made me think.  With You Wild Colorado, he wrote a song that stopped me in my tracks.

While Cash was considered by many an ‘Outlaw’, there’s no denying that he was still very much one of the leading stars and voices of country music (the genre for Conservative America).  But like Bitter Tears (his curve-ball so to speak) he continued to bridge the gap between the country and folk worlds.  Cash’s embracing of Bob Dylan and the folk revival meant that he was also speaking to the disenchanted, anti-establishment, liberal youth.  An audience that generally had no interest in country music.  Likewise, he was introducing Dylan to a country audience.  It also, arguably, strengthened both Cash and Dylan’s presence in the pop market.
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Anyhoo, to the record … Cash included 3 songs penned by Dylan – It Aint Me Babe, Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind and Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.  All of them, to these ears anyhoo, are utterly delightful.  It Ain’t Me Babe a duet with June complete with mariachi horns, while Mama, You Been on My Mind (which Dylan hadn’t released at the time) had a nice bit of sax courtesy of Boots Randolph.

The title track itself remains one of the finest train songs there is – penned in 1938 by Ervin T. Rouse following his experiences riding the Orange Blossom Special (the back of the record includes the most excellent notes about Cash finally meeting the writer, too).  It’s an incredible opening track and remains timeless.  The Long Black Veil is also a classic and this remains possibly my favourite version of it and the reading of When It’s Springtime in Alaska has a real haunting quality to it.  Other favourites are the spiritual Amen and The Wall.  The monologue at the beginning of Danny Boy is truly something, too.  Of the two Cash penned songs, You Wild Colorado is the pick – one of the best in the great Cash songbook.  That said, All of God’s Children Ain’t Free is a great song also.

So yeah, if you’ve yet to really immerse yourself in the music of Johnny Cash I would recommend this as the perfect starting point.

“Washed my face in the rivers of empire. Made my bed with a cardboard crate”: Calexico – Feast of Wire (2003)

Feast of Wire is quite something.  One of those albums I still marvel at and it’s pretty much been the only record I listened to all this week.  There’s always something that gets me enthusiastic about the album.  It might be a whole song.  It might just be a flurry of notes.  Guitar or trumpet.  The intro to Sunken Waltz.  The lap steel.  Or Convertino’s drum patterns.  Or the strings that loom over the dusty night sky of Black Heart.  Or Burns singing stuff like “With a head like a vulture and a heart full of hornets, he drives off the cliff into the blue”.  Man, it really could be anything.

But this is all really just part of the Calexico parcel.  Whether they’re just providing the soundtrack to the idea of a long lost frontier or squaring the circle that joins Dylan, Springsteen and Los Lobos they constantly deliver.  Always dusty, always swaying.  And those wry tales of characters whose hopes are raised despite abandoning everything they know make us smile.

I dare say the can be the alt. country Radiohead – dusty experimenters.  Even when the songs are so incredibly tight and the album impossibly concise.  Side A is as perfect a side as Calexico have ever thrown our way.  From that marvellous salvo of Sunken Waltz and the dusty Quattro (World Drifts In) through to the gorgeous 70s flavoured folk rock of Not Even Stevie Nicks and the hushed shuffle of Woven Birds via the detours of Stucco and Pepita.  Side B is where that old world Calexico roam.  In addition to their mariachi flavoured jazz and blues fusions (just listen to the trombone and trumpet dance around each other on Crumble!) they throw beeps and bips and nice crunchy rhythms out as the soundtrack their very own Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (Attack El Robot! Attack!).  An exploration, you could say.

So, yeah … all that awesomeness is why Feast of Wire remains my favourite Calexico album.  It’s the one that never over-reaches.  It really is flawless to these ears.  Complete with all the mood pieces of the albums that came before it and the finely honed songcraft of those that came after.  The melodies are glorious and the guitars warm.  Trust me, it’s seriously good stuff.

A byrd in the hand is worth two in the bush (??): The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers / Sweetheart of the Rodeo (two-fer, 1976)

This one here is a good ol’ two-fer.  I’ve owned a few of these types o’ packages over the years on CD, but this is the first I’ve had on the ol’ vinyl. Picked this up for £4.49, too – back in October last year during one of my regular visits to the trove of treasures called the Record Fayre.  Although I’m still on the look out for these separately, I thought this was a nice catch.  Two very different but very splendid records from two very different line-ups of the 1968 Byrds, which just so happen to sound tremendous when listened to back-to-back (in whichever order you choose).

Notorious Byrd Brothers is a pretty spectacular album.  No kidding.  Despite the fact that the sessions were tense and resulted in the eventual departure of the notorious David Crosby, it’s an incredibly inspired record.  Filled with pop and country tunes coloured with the familiar Byrd harmonies, jingle jangley awesomeness and they go and throw in some spacey-oddness (moog!!!) for good measure.  That spacey-oddness is never overbearing though, so don’t let that put you off if you’ve never sat down with this one.

Artificial Energy is a wonderful opener and it’s lit up with some of that oddness. Draft Morning is a splendid slice of story telling, and Get To You had all the hallmarks of classic Byrds (Gene Clark written all over it and it’s since been confirmed that he’d co-written it).  The album ends with the space folk oddness of Space Odyssey – the alternative theme tune for Lost in Space (the Irwin Allen TV show from the 60s, not the re-imagined movie with Joey from Friends).

It didn’t sell, though.  Say what?  Yeah, the fans of 67 had turned their back on the Byrds!  What were they thinking!?  I mean, they had the delights of Natural Harmony, Old John Robertson and Tribal Gathering!byrdsInterestingly, the next step was to delve a little deeper into Americana – Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  For this ride McGuinn and Hillman hooked up with a young and hip country chap named Gram Parsons.

It’s common knowledge that Parsons became a major influence on the writing, arranging and recording of the album – essentially resulting in him steering the band to Nashville to record what is, essentially, a country album.  He also encouraged the involvement of some incredible session musicians who could deliver a specific feel and sound.

It starts and ends with two Bob Dylan tracks.  You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (a track Dylan hadn’t even released at the time), I Am a Pilgrim and the Louvin Brothers’ The Christian Life really set the tone.  A really remarkable introduction to the record.  Despite the majority of his vocals having been replaced (there’s a whole book worth of chatter about why … and they’ve since been restored on the Legacy Edition of the album), Sweetheart of the Rodeo will always be defined by Parsons’ involvement and his wonderful Hickory Wind and 100 Years From Now (which really would have fitted nicely on the previous record).

Unsurprisingly, the album bombed.  The Byrds were no longer flying.  Parsons left soon after the recording was done, forming the Flying Burrito Brothers with Hillman following.

So, any one out there have any two-fers in the collection?  If so, are the albums a good combo …

“would-be-great, ungrateful, too-long, run-on songs”: Josh T. Pearson – The Last of the Country Gentlemen (2011)

josh“An all-timer, though?”.  That was a question I found myself pondering when I spotted this one at the weekend.  That’s a question I ask when I see something that I had bought previously on CD (the pre-record player days).  “If it’s not an all-timer then stick with the CD”.  That’s what I tell myself.  Sometimes that mantra doesn’t quite work.  Sometimes it works a treat.  Anyhoo, I digress.  This one I had on CD (the Rough Trade edition with the alternative cover and electric bonus disc).  While I don’t listen to it regularly (can anyone!), I still find myself bowled over by it’s power and solitude.  Heck, as I held the record I thought about the very first time I heard this.  I was completely speechless.  Staring at the speakers and just completely in the grasp of Josh T. Pearson‘s playing and his words. Ten years earlier, of course, Pearson and his band, Lift to Experience, were responsible for a most excellent and sprawling post-apocalyptic soundtrack.  Their album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, is one of the great albums.  The Last of the Country Gentlemen, however, is as clear an illustration as any that much can change.  The fuzzed-up guitar and rumbling rhythms gone and replaced with nothing but a sole acoustic guitar and some sparse and occasional violin accompaniment (Warren Ellis really lights up Woman When I’ve Raised Hell).  The Biblical imagery replaced by self-reflection and heartache. In terms of break-up albums, there’s nothing like it.  It’s blunt.  Really blunt.  It doesn’t have the melodies of Beck’s Sea Change (or the recent Morning Phase) or the swagger of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.  There’s nothing moving the songs on but Pearson.  In his own time. So as I held this in my hands I thought “yup, all-timer”.  I might not listen to this an awfy lot, but I’ll still sit absolutely still when it plays.  Listening to every murmur.  Every sigh and every heartbreaking note from that guitar. … plus, there’s the magnificent ‘vinyl only’ title track.  Hurrah!

“Was that message there before you were so wise?”: Michael Nesmith & The First National Band – Magnetic South (1970)

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Michael Nesmith.  Despite a few solo records, most folks I chat to are more aware of him being that chap in The Monkees.  He also happens to be that chap from The Monkees that called his own album (More of The Monkees) “the worst record in the history of the World”.  Given that the band was very much a product of a TV show, I personally didn’t care too much for the musical output and dare say I know only the Nesmith compositions (a result of my discovery of his solo work).  I guess it’s fair to say that they do have a few gems in their catalogue – obviously being written by Michael Nesmith.

So with that said, I’d be first to admit that I might just be a little harsh on The Monkees.  I mean, I’ve never really tried to listen to them.  They’re one of those incredibly interesting groups, though.  The type that are remembered fondly (“they used to be great, didn’t they?”).  It seems now that folks are all about cheering about the fantabulous pop awesomeness of The Monkees given that they are on the road (or maybe they aint and it’s just the odd bit of fawning over nostalgia), but they struggled to be recognised as a credible ‘group’ for a very very long time.  Partly, I understand, due to Mr. Nesmith himself being pretty vocal about them being manufactured, and the discovery that they actually didn’t play on their records and only done so on Headquarters.  As a result, Nesmith spent a great deal of cash getting himself out of the contract (ouch!) with a bag o’ songs that he wrote while with the ‘band’ (hurrah!).

Those songs became the foundations of The First National Band.  Some really incredible songs, too.  Magnetic South is the first of their records.  I happened to pick up all three on vinyl in the space of a week last March and, bar a few scuffs, they’re all in fairly grand condition.  I’m still pretty chuffed.  In fact, for about 12 months that was pretty much all my wife heard me talk about – “Please, not again with The First National Band …” or “I know, he was in The Monkees”.  Occasionally I’ll remind her that I love this album.  After all, it’s incredible.  It’s hard to imagine that this is a band who are largely overlooked.  Still.  Especially given their ‘cosmic Americana’ vibe.

magnetic southStrangely, I can’t really remember how I stumbled upon these albums.  Given my lack of interest it wasn’t Monkees related, but I’m fairly certain it was off the back of falling into that Gram Parsons thing about 10 years or so ago – y’know, discovering his catalogue and Cosmic American music.  I’m fairly certain that’s the case (about 98%).

Anyhoo, the songs are a perfect blend of self-penned and classic, or obscure, country songs.  The self penned stuff is particularly strong – self reflective, a bit off the wall and witty.  Heck, The Crippled Lion and Joanne are perfect examples of him throwing everything he loves together.  Brilliantly sad at times and utterly infectious.  It’s country with psychedelic flourishes and, well, it’s also a little tad pop.

Calico Girlfriend is a most excellent opener.  Red Rhodes lights it up (his pedal steel is faultless on the whole album) and Nesmith is in fine voice.  Mixing up Hank Williams and The Beatles.  Or The Monkees, I guess.  Little Red Rider has a groove that throws you off a bit, John Ware and John London just rolling along and, of course, Rhodes comes in with some of his pedal steel magic.  Seriously, that dude doesn’t let up for the whole record.  Listen to Mama Nantucket, too.  The whole band kicking up dust all over the place.  That’s how they roll.

I honestly never tire of this record.  I just sit transfixed on it.  Like I am now.  Occasionally pulling my attention from it.  The record spinning and the pedal steel becoming one.

Ah!  I remember how I stumbled on this stuff!  It was a blog telling folks exactly what I’m gonna say now – for my money the three First National Band records are just as important to Americana / Alt. Country as Gilded Palace of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers (a band they gigged with and who laughed at them cause of The Monkees baggage).

In fact, I’d maybe go as far as saying this one is just as brilliant as Gilded Palace of Sin.  So I will.  This is just as brilliant as Gilded Palace of Sin.  So there.

Much like the song The Crippled Lion, you could even say that the notes on the back of the sleeve are a way of exorcising his old day job.

New addition: Steve Earle – Guitar Town (1986)

guitar townSteve Earle’s debut … a very fine debut, too.  Picked this up today for £3 in that ol’ record haunt of mine, Record Fayre.  A good shop … and today, like Saturday, I could have picked up a few more.  Me, though, I was happy with this.  Cause it’s just everything I love about Steve Earle.  Wonderful songs with loads of heart and he’s kicking dust all over the place.

Plus, Springsteen could only wish he could write songs as good as the title track or Someday.

An absolute wee treat on a Tuesday.  Seriously.