Courtney Lee Adams Jr. – Western to East Village
Onstage at the Lakeside Lounge, at the last in a series of shows marking the release of her long-awaited debut album, Courtney Lee Adams Jr. is pissed.
“I’ve got my bitch on tonight!” she promises the audience. She tosses in rants about a bad cab ride and the crew filming Spiderman 2 outside her apartment, amidst a set full of “no cruise control” punk headbangers — only one of them (“Don’t Say A Word Tonight”) showing her country side. She’s backed by adventurous guitarist Rick Feridun and bassist Fred Smith, of Tom Verlaine’s Television fame. Sometimes she just leans into the mike and mumbles, coughs, even fidgets aggressively.
“I’m an angry person! Pascal [co-leader of her defunct cowpunk band Courtney & Western] suggested that I use ‘Born Pissed’ as my motto.”
So Adams may or may not like for it to be mentioned that there are tuneful power pop-numbers on Know What I Mean? — songs which are well-written and sung quite cleanly and seductively. The opener “Higher Than That”, for instance, and especially “It’s Crazy. It’s Crazy”, suggest Sandy Denny live at the Twin Peaks roadhouse — or even a bit like latter-day Rosanne Cash, who Adams says she barely listens to.
More often, the disc works in a very downtown New York punk and soul mode, sometimes almost in a Lou Reed talk style — culminating in two screamers that perfectly summarize her general response to urban life and relationships. “(Come On) Revolution” demands, mainly but not entirely jokingly, that if some sort of revolution “cut my fuckin’ head off,” it would probably be justified and overdue. And “Sleazebag” is the last of several songs about the damage love does to two sorts of people: singles and couples.
“I guess what I’m really interested in is emotional life,” she says. “The subject is all the same. In one way or another, they’re almost all love songs.”
Her lyrics are built on bits of imagery that float up into view, like an indie film reflecting the styles and situations of the East Village neighborhood she’s lived in since leaving the less-posh parts of Connecticut to become not the actress she’d imagined, but instead a sort of country singer.
In the early 1990s, a handful of Courtney & Western steel-guitar-powered numbers appeared as singles and on compilation albums from Diesel Only and other labels; some of those cuts are now available for free on her website. Begun at Bard College in upstate New York as an odd country cover band in an avant garde scene, Courtney & Western once opened for Pere Ubu before relocating to New York City and becoming part of the same twang underground that produced Tim Carroll’s Blue Chieftains and Jeremy Tepper’s World Famous Blue Jays.
But for all its lively shows, Courtney & Western never really took off. Band members quit, and Adams was sidelined at times by “seriously depressed and drunk periods” before she re-emerged in recent years.
“I just work very intuitively; I don’t write that much stuff that doesn’t just happen to me,” she says. “All of the songs are basically just documenting my miserable life. My favorite country music is also the really direct discussion of actual things in life; that’s what I love about Loretta Lynn.
“Country music for me is not about some nostalgic, bucolic pastoral vision,” she continues. “Why are people from other places altogether singing about miners? Shut up about the miners; you don’t know any! The results of that kind of ‘going back’ thing have no emotional kick for me. To be just fully committed to that straight, traditional thing and not let anything else in is just reactionary and nostalgic.”
Yet Adams does not believe she has left her twang side behind. “I’m interested in ‘modernity’ because that’s where we are, man — that’s where we are! And there were a lot more country punk songs that Courtney & Western never recorded. I’m thinking about bringing those out on the next record I do.”