After eight years of creative frustration and an excellent side project in The Dave Rawlings Machine, Gil & Dave are back under the Gillian Welch banner. I joked on twitter that June 28th should be declared Gillian Welch Day given the explosion of Welch related tweets, facebook posts, blog reviews and pant-wetting anticipation from the roots music community prior to the release date. I'm still digging into the album and find it undeniably good. However, I need to spend more time with it to fine tune my analysis. The cherished sweet spot for these musical partners seems to be slower tempo, melancholy tunes that often weave the lyrical ethos of American folk traditions within more personal narratives. These are the songs that dominate the Harrow and the Harvest. What they do, they do exceptionally well. I can't help but feel, however, that there is a Welch template that, no matter how worthy of repetition, could use a little more shaking up as found in the Rawlings Machine. Perhaps I should respect a distinctive artistic voice and its constant honing above experimental risks. The album is great and will likely satisfy malnourished Welch fans, but I'm not sure it isn't yet another variation on the same theme, albeit one executed beautifully.
Hayes Carll - KMAG YOYO
I can't decide whether or not Hayes Carll or Todd Snider is my favorite songwriter working today. Lucky for me, the two team up on one of KMAG YOYO's tracks, "Bottle In My Hand," along with Canadian troubadour Corb Lund. It's an embarrassment of riches like much of Carll's fourth album. From my full review earlier this year:
In the opening track of KMAG YOYO (& other American stories), Hayes Carll croons, “I’m like James Brown, only white and taller.” While Carll may not be the Godfather of country soul, his fourth album certainly solidifies that he’s a made man in the honky-tonk cabal. For someone whose songs infer the persona of an erratic slacker, the Austin-based singer-songwriter’s output has been awfully damn consistent. He has not released a throwaway tune yet, and, at his best, has penned some outright sublime songs. Carll is not blessed with a golden voice, but he knows how to make the most of his scratchy drawl as he swerves between Texas-sized swagger, self-mocking one-liners, and heartfelt vulnerability. More than anything, KMAG YOYO is a reminder that country music is not dead yet, despite Nashville’s best efforts to smother it in hair gel and software plug-ins.
Carll is a sort of Charles Bukowski in the age of anti-depressants. He’s a poet for thoughtful roughnecks and ne’er-do-wells, but the seething rage and contempt of earlier generations is replaced by a world-weary shrug of the shoulders at life’s absurdities. That’s not to say that Carll is wholly apathetic, because his songs have often flirted with politics, albeit through some hazy, last-call beer goggles. That drunken haze is sharpened with a bump of speed in the album’s rollicking title track. “KMAG YOYO” (a military acronym for “Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re On Your Own”) tells the story of a young soldier in Afghanistan who finds himself manipulated by Pentagon suits and disillusioned with the war. Carll’s civic sensibilities tread more familiar ground later in the album as his Dude-like Zen recognizes a drunken fling can be as politically enlightening as a C-Span symposium. In the duet, “Another Like You,” Carll’s barfly liberalism leaves the raspy spitfire Cary Ann Hearst unimpressed as she calls him “Taliban” before admitting “I gotta hand it to you, there’s a chance I’m gonna screw you.” Hearst’s sassy, gravelly delivery is a song-stealing performance, and Carll seems to be comfortable sharing the spotlight as KMAG YOYO invites some songwriting friends to the party.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band & Del McCoury Band - American Legacies
I am still disappointed that I missed the Del & Pres. Hall set at Bonnaroo this year due to a work conflict. I did take some small consolation in tagging along with the Pres. Hall second line parade late in the wee hours of the Sunday morning. I can't say enough good things about this collaboration both as damn fine music and a fascinating cultural dialogue. From my full review earlier this year:
The album is book-ended by tunes which allow some rollicking playing amidst self-referential celebrations. The album's first track, "The Band's in Town," is a recurring set of down-home, earthy riffs allowing most of the collaborators an opportunity to solo a few bars while being name-dropped by their co-conspirators. The closing track "One More 'Fore I Die" has a similar ethos as it, too, cleverly name-drops each soloist. In both of these tracks, it is an absolute treat to hear competing breaks traded between unlikely partners such as trumpet, banjo, clarinet, mandolin, and piano. This is not just the essence of American music but the essence of what the larger American experiment has become, a collision of disparate cultures rubbing shoulders and mixing ingredients to develop a character that is somehow uniquely recognizable even though its most fundamental element is its wild variety.
This is a paradox of sorts - the unifying characteristic of American art is the diversity of its influences, especially with respect to cultural and ethnic traditions. It is no surprise that the pairing of these forms, jazz and bluegrass, would lead to such a successful project. Each are uniquely American art forms imbued with the character of their national identity. Both art forms share the spirit of American individualism as found in the emphasis of solo breaks and the pioneering spirit as found in the reliance on improvisation. Each art form is heavily influenced by worship music and they both include old church spirituals in large chunks of their respective canons (as illustrated by the aforementioned "I'll Fly Away.") Each form also has at its core the ideas, concerns, and philosophies of impoverished and disenfranchised populations, struggling to carve out a cultural legacy on their own terms with what they happen to have at hand. Lastly, each is a hybrid of European and African musical forms, both providing a living anthropology of this country's history. Regardless of all this socio-cultural navel-gazing, the bottom line is that both of these bands are smoking-hot, and when the two join forces, the result is one hell of a barnburning good time. When all is said is done, that will probably be the most important legacy of American Legacies, as it should be.