It Was One Helluva Year: The Best of Everything in 2016
At the end of AmericanaFest Margo Price tweeted and Instagramed, “It was one helluva week.” I will go further: it was one hell of a year. Americana got its own Billboard chart, Americana for the first time outsold country, a firmly established AmericanaFest put on an outstanding show in Nashville, and Sturgill Simpson was just nominated for the coveted Grammy Album of the Year award. Additionally, Chris Stapleton, by taking home big awards in both the AMA and CMA, served as a bridge between the organizations and their fans.
As I began reviewing the year’s releases I was quickly overwhelmed by the abundance of so much invigorating and essential music. Yes, record sales overall have fallen, but the big labels did it to themselves by serving up cookie-cutter clatter that no one wants to buy. However, Americana and the other roots genres are bucking that trend. While we are going to see live music more than ever, we also want to listen to it in our homes, our cars, etc. A greater sustenance has taken hold.
As there were albums in every genre that I found rewarding, I thought I’d throw caution to the wind and, in addition to an Americana Ten, I’d also include country, bluegrass, blues and traditional, reissues, bootlegs (older unreleased material), books, and DVDs. A kind of written CBGB and OMFUG, as it were.
I am not ignoring the deaths of so many resonant lives and voices this year. Rather, I am reminded of something that Townes’ son, J.T., said when he called Guy Clark to offer his condolences on Susanna’s passing. Clark did not – or could not – talk about it. He wanted to talk about the guitar that they had made together, about how it was working out. While his sorrow had to be the deepest of blues, Clark wanted to talk about something that was alive. He wanted to focus on the living.
This, my review of 2016, is my small part of focusing on the living, my way of being alive.
Lucinda Williams – The Ghosts of Highway 20
Released early in the year, Ghosts has sunk deep into my consciousness. In Ghosts, Williams delves deeper into some themes she has explored before, but her inward and outward reflective vignettes remind me, metaphorically, of the writings of Isabelle Eberhardt — not as a seeker of oblivion, but rather as a peerless unraveler of humanity.
Williams is joined by her longtime rhythm section of David Sutton and Butch Norton and, on nearly every track, two phenomenal guitarists — Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz — who sonically weave and lovingly caress Williams’ vocals, which are sometimes in a near whisper and other times a deep Howlin’ Wolf-like moan. Frisell and Leisz have played together for some time and their camaraderie is used here to flesh out and underscore this tone poem. A poem to life, love, death and everything in between. It is a gorgeous-sounding record.
I am not often given to hyperbole, but here it is — The Ghosts of Highway 20 is Williams’ most solid, satisfying, luxurious, and complete work since Essence. That is saying something, as all her works during those intervening years were stronger than strong. Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone Williams showed us the Queen in her many guises, on Ghosts there are no masks, no lingering illusions, no obscure desires. She stands, as if alone, emotionally naked, putting it all out there. As if her soul was at stake. She’s our Billie Holiday, embrace her.
Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Anyone who’d been hanging out in Nashville, primarily at the 5 Spot in the east side of town, knew it’d only be a matter of time till Price made it. Well, made it and then some. Lucinda took the alt-country world by storm in ’88, and Price did the same this year. The album was released in the spring; she toured, played SXSW and Newport Folk Festival, and then was crowned best emerging artist at AmericanaFest. I told a friend on awards night, “If Price does not take home that award, I’m sending my AMA credentials back.” Oh, and I also got to see her six or seven times.
Right from the get-go she lets you know where she’s coming from. In “Hands of Time,” in six minutes she writes a novel about what it’s like to be first generation off the farm, the ways our parents were treated, and the many tribulations we faced when moving to the city. As I write this, Rolling Stone just selected it as country song of the year. Again, I’ll go one better — it’s the song of the year.
For those who cannot get enough, Third Man also released (only in the UK) a live six-track EP that was recorded at Rough Trade Records in London. That’s something else she has in common with Lucinda.
Elizabeth Cook – Exodus of Venus
It had been six years since Cook released her last album of original material, and when she returned, it was with fire and a sense of urgency. She had a cover story in May’s The East Nashvillian, which I also highly recommend. NPR’s Jewly Hight called the album “swampy, nearly psychedelic blues-rock.” So, if you were expecting to get Cook of “Sometimes, It Takes Balls to Be a Woman,” you are getting that, and more. Just don’t expect her to hold your hand. She’s more likely to wrap you up in some straitjacket love. Dang, this album is good.
John Prine – For Better, or Worse
I do not need to tell you that Prine is a titan, a monster songwriter and musician whose work is admired and performed by too many A-list artists to mention. I remember when, in 1999, Prine was interviewed on NPR about his other duet album, In Spite of Ourselves. He said that he chose certain songs with certain women artists in mind to record with him, and was surprised when most said yes. I also recall him saying that album was about “meetin’, cheatin’, and retreatin.”
This one’s more about the highs and woes after you get what you wanted, or think you wanted. I also doubt that anyone he asked this time around said no. Included this time are Amanda Shires, Lee Ann Womack, Kacey Musgraves, Holly Williams, Susan Tedeschi, Iris DeMent, and Kathy Mattea.
Particularly lovely are “Dreaming My Dreams” with Mattea (first recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1975) and “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” (first recorded by Flatt & Scruggs in 1952). The latter is done Western swing-style with a playful Shires. But with Prine you can always expect the unexpected, and his duet with Alison Krauss on Marlene Dietrich’s signature song “Falling in Love Again” is no exception. Their take on the 1930 song from The Blue Angel is heart-wrenching. I cannot believe it’s been 45 years since his self-titled debut, when the PR folks called him the new Dylan. It was only a few years later when everyone wanted to be the next John Prine.
Amanda Shires – My Piece of Land
Shires’ fifth album further explores her exquisite insights into the human psyche. Dark, lovely, and at times touching on the existential, some reviews called it dreamy and romantic. I think that is an overly simplistic assessment, as it fails to fully grasp the depth of Shires’ intellect and musical abilities.
Even more so than on her previous efforts, her songwriting has gotten tighter, presenting a solid foundation upon which to anchor the music, instead of the other way around. That’s not to say these songs are without a driving force. An example is “When You’re Gone,” which has the same sure-handed fire I heard when she did “Hurricane” at DylanFest in May. I don’t know how autobiographical these songs are, but one cannot hear “Harmless” and not think it is about a certain chance meeting that became an inevitability. Throughout, she paints Rothko-like images, both physical and emotional, the ephemeral becoming a haunting novel of desire. Lines such as these evoke a passage from Rilke’s lone novel about the sake of a single verse:
It might have been cheating, where exactly is the lie
I kissed Maria in the alley, you laughed and spilled your whiskey
There was a sword in my drink
Everything’s a sign if you want it to be
Apparently Jason Isbell co-wrote that one. So much the better, it’s resonance is dynamic. Produced with considerable tenderness and admirable restraint by Dave Cobb, the album is more than arresting: it’s essential listening.
My Bubba – Big Bad Good
Produced with Shahzad Ismaily (Will Oldham, Jolie Holland) at his Brooklyn recording studio, the songs on My Bubba’s Big Bad Good were not only recorded as they were originally written, but, like nearly all of Frank Sinatra’s recordings, most were recorded only once. It’s that first take that allows the songs to be fresh and intimate. These also happen to be words I have used to describe this European folk duo, My Larsdotter and Bubba Tomasdottir. They have a quiet, captivating presence — just two lilting voices, beguilingly simple lyrics, and a guitar. They are avant-garde and folky, sparse and sometimes near primitive, but always emotionally full.
Last spring, when they opened for Damien Rice before an unsuspecting full house at the Ryman, they cast a spell on the audience, kept us on the edge of our seats to see if that spell could be broken, to see if what we were witnessing was real. It was.
The single from the album of the same name is out now and features their signature slap-singing. But perhaps as it was recorded in the US, the album’s remaining ten songs take on a bit more of an Americana feel, while retaining their European art-song origins. It’s as if this pair is dancing in their bare feet on 19th-century floorboards, in yellow summer dresses, with a soft breeze coming through open windows as they breathe life into these exquisite songs.
Applewood Road – self-titled
I knew nothing about this trio when I caught their set at AmericanaFest, did not even know they had this album out. But when I saw that the trio were Amy Speace, Emily Barker and Amber Rubarth (all of whom I had seen individually) I kind of knew that it could be something special. Well, that was not the half of it. I was mesmerized.
With only the sparest of accompaniment, their voices blend together as if they are the CS&N of their generation. They also brought their A material. Sometimes, when individual artists combine forces, they bring their leftover songs. Not here. Their respective songs here as sharp as they pensive. Recorded live in the studio with just a spattering of Nashville’s elite sidemen to add a bit of a backdrop, the record is a pure delight.
Johnny Dowd – Execute American Folklore
It’s hard to believe that Dowd has 20 albums under his belt, not including his contributions to many others, including my personal favorite: a one-of-a kind revisionist/reimagination
Dowd’s half-spoken, half-sung lyrics are like poetry set against more of an electronic backdrop that some of his other work, with a groove, a definite groove. You can also dance to it. A nice example is the segue from “Sexual Revolution” (“You’re either part of the problem or part of the pollution” with an under layer of a tortured “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” Wynette-style)
Dori Freeman – self-titled
As Rob Dickens wrote in his ND review of this album early this year, “Twenty-four-year-old Dori Freeman’s debut album is a spell-binder. You see, it’s her voice, as pure and defining as you could possibly imagine – it commands the air around you.” On first listen it may seem a bit overly simplistic, but by the record’s end you cannot get the songs out of your head. Hailing from southwest Virginia, its rich musical history permeates her songs and yet takes you to places beyond. Inwardly focused and personal, yes, and also searching, to paraphrase a Cohen song, for that card so high and wild she’ll never have to find another. This quietly disaffecting album is definitely the debut of the year.
The Honeycutters – On the Ropes
My favorite band released this album just a year after their excellent Me Oh My. Music City Roots’ Craig Havighurst says principal songwriter and vocalist Amanda Anne Platt “has a voice that’s complex, sweet, and aching. Even more potently, she writes songs that folks are cited as up there with the best of the field, such as Mary Gauthier and Lucinda Williams.” Her road-tested bandmates are Rick Cooper, Josh Milligan, Matt Smith, and Tal Taylor. I mention them by name because they supply a tight, yet loose-feeling, backing for Platt’s gorgeous, unforced vocals.
“Fitting in at country honky-tonks and hard-scrabble bars alike, the Honeycutters have built a reputation for high-energy shows coupled with tight harmonies and wistfully delicate lyrics of longing, heartbreak, and the American experience,” writes UK critic Alan Cackett (of Maverick). There’s no rope-a-dope going on here. As I have said before. They play the kind of music you’d hear on a bar’s jukebox, if there were still jukeboxes out there.
IN A CLASS BY HIMSELF
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Like many folks of my generation and inclinations, I first heard of Leonard Cohen in November 1966 when Judy Collins’ In My Life was released. That album included “Suzanne.” It may have just one track from a marvelous and significant album, but what a song. The thrift store muse was born. Women wanted to be her, men wanted to find her. It was covered by many singers and became a staple of coffee house performers. Recently, a 1967 rock version by a 17-year-old Bruce Springsteen was unearthed.
As if some kind of tragic irony, Cohen passed away the evening before the US elections. As if we were not depressed enough.
We now know that when Cohen was dying while recording the album, and like Tarkovsky when he filmed The Sacrifice, he knew it. It has been said that religion and sex are denials of death whereas art is where we embrace it. So, the question might arise about whether he was making his peace by making the record. Or, whether the Zen of creativity takes death off the table. So much can be read into these final lyrics and Cohen’s indispensable delivery.
I think it’s a mixture of all three. One of Cohen’s themes has been the relationship between the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the carnal, God and man, God’s love and human love, God’s grace and human brutality. Their conflict and an unfathomable mixture, as if necessarily intertwined, where each is oftentimes a metaphor for the other. For example, while most folks I know are hearing the song “Treaty” as a love song, I hear it as a lament for the human race: wishing there was a way to rectify God and humankind. Then, there’s these lines from “Steer Your Way,” “Steer your way past the ruins of the altar and the mall/As he died to make men holy/Let us die to make things cheap.”
Chely Wright – I Am the Rain
For her first album in six years, Wright brought in some heavy hitters: Joe Henry, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, and the Milk Carton Kids – not just to sing back-up, but also to produce and co-write some of the songs. Those influences nicely underscore these songs that climb the crevices and outcroppings of the mountain of love. While it is certainly country-based in the best of several traditions, I Am the Rain is also a reflection of where Wright has been these past few, if sometimes turbulent, years. It’s as though these songs are her way of coming to terms with all that’s gone down, mostly on her heart.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Pain,” where Wright adroitly juxtaposes a children’s lullaby with the inevitable experiences of adulthood. Then, gently segueing into the album’s only cover, “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” she sings the line, “I can’t speak the sounds that show no pain” — continuing the theme, as if there’s no escape.
That said, I do not take these songs to be autobiographical per se, but rather representative of an artist looking inward, using personal experiences to express some universal themes. Or, perhaps, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, only a phase before she gets her gorgeous wings and fly away.
Town Mountain – Southern Crescent
Produced by the legendary Dirk Powell and recorded in Louisiana, Town Mountain’s fifth album, Southe
The hearty base for their music is the bluegrass triumvirate of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs, but this album stretches those boundaries without breaking them. Southern Crescent is a raw, soulful album. I have seen this band many times, and while there are a couple of bigger names out there, this Asheville group is the most exciting bluegrass band to come along in a long time.
Jim Kweskin & Geoff Muldaur-Penny’s Farm
Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band’s rough-and-tumble roots music in the 1960s directly inspired countless bands like the Lovin’ Spoonful, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Grateful Dead. In the early 1960s, Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, along with Maria Muldaur and others, bounced between the Boston and New York folk scenes, hanging out with Bob Dylan and Mississippi John Hurt at the Newport Folk Festival. They have a long and noted history in the folk music world, and they have also recorded a remarkable album.
Drawing upon their combined musical knowled
While Kweskin has never stopped playing, Muldaur has been more prolific, recording a nice selection of albums, including one of my favorites of the recent past, The Texas Sheiks. Muldaur does not overtly display his masterful playing, which moved Garrison Keillor to say, “There are three great blues guitarists; two of them are Geoff Muldaur.” But here, he does not need to do that, in part because it may not be that called for, in other part because it might be a bit distracting. That said, it is clearly evident on a couple of tunes, including a gorgeous “Frankie.” I cannot stop playing this record.
Red Tail Ring – Fall Away Blues
I had the good fortune to catch this duo last year and was quite taken with them. I was not, however, expecting such a rich album as this to follow. Wow. I thought Kweskin & Muldaur, the old pros that they are, had this category to themselves, but this one demands to be heard. Every time I listen to it, I hear something new, something little at first and then it hits you – Michael Beauchamp and Laurel Premo seem to be so deep into the tradition that they are redefining it.
With just guitar, fiddle, and banjo and switching off on vocals, in these eight originals and three interpretations they demonstrate both a youthful zest and a musical maturity that takes your breath away. They also had the temerity to take on an unassailable blues classic, “I’d Rather Be the Devil” and reimagine it in a way outside the realm of the impossible. In so doing, they’re clearly exposing the roots common to both genres.
Catherine Russell – Harlem on My Mind
While this album has just been nominated for the jazz Grammy, it covers, as its title suggests, music that has been popular in Harlem, from jazz to R&B to Tin Pan Alley. While I had seen Russell before, she concentrated a bit more on classic R&B even though her band often ventured in jazz when soloing. That is not unusual as people seem to forget that jazz divas such as Sarah Vaughn, Ruth Brown, and Dinah Washington all began as R&B singers. I particularly like the juxtaposition of a lovely song Doris Day is known for, “The Very Thought of You,” with what was common in the early days (late 40s) of R&B: the double-entendre of “You’ve Got the Right Key, But the Wrong Keyhole.”
It is a gorgeous record that also covers the way music has been presented over the years, ballads to the up-tempo, with simpatico accompaniment. It has the unmistakable feel of one of the classic ’50s jazz vocals. If you think Diana Krall is the be all end all, wander on over and get closer to the source, as Russell’s roots go further back: her father was Louis Armstrong’s musical director. It has been some time since I’ve heard a vocal album as essential as Harlem on My Mind.
Janiva Magness – Love Wins Again
Only the second woman (after KoKo Taylor) to win the prestigious B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award from the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards, Magness’ 12th album has, like Russell and Simpson, been nominated for a Grammy. As with her last album, Original, this album primarily consists of originals and marks her fifth collaboration with four-time Grammy-nominated producer Dave Darling, whose instincts compel Magness to lead her songs to unpredictable places. He has become her key songwriting foil and is the primary architect of the album’s gorgeous textural sound, which blends acoustic and electric instruments, flourishes of Latin percussion, horns, and an enlightened approach to the studio to create perfect settings for her vocal prowess.
More than just expert range and craft, Magness’ voice rings with sincerity. With songs like “Love Wins Again,” “Doorway,” and “Say You Will,” Magness has proven that she is an accomplished storyteller. The title track begins the album with a zesty, groove-propelled message that’s part manifesto and part testimonial. Magness’ joyful melody soars above the song’s bed of percolating percussion and ringing R&B guitar.
Terry Allen-Lubbock (on everything) and Juarez
I first became acquainted with Allen some 25 years ago when I visited his art installation at the Wexner Museum in Columbus. I think it was called A Simple Story (Juarez). I was quite taken with its explorations into the mythos of the West that went deeper than, say, The Last Picture Show. On my way out, I picked up a vinyl copy of Lubbock (On Everything). I thought I knew a lot about Texas music, but Allen was revelatory. How this 1979 masterpiece had escaped me was stupefying. But I quickly became a fan, like David Byrne, who contributed an in this reissue.
The album contains songs such as “New Delhi Freight Train” and “Amarillo Highway” that you no doubt have heard but perhaps never knew who wrote them. The album was helmed by master musician Lloyd Maines, who also played quite a few instruments on it. It also has a sly touch of Van Dyke Parks here and there. This reissue is long overdue and corrects the technical issues on the original release. It also includes a 28-page book that features artwork, photos, and an oral history by Allen. Allen describes the album, and the town its named after, as having “a hard bark, with little or no self-pity; its music has an edge that can be smelled, like Lewter’s feed lot. No one from Lubbock ever apologized for what they were or where they lived.”
Do yourself a favor, complete your Americana music collection with this album, and then seek out his other recordings and work. Juarez was also reissued this past May; you can feel the dust, the sun of Texas, so you may want to double up. Allen is the not-so-missing link between Townes and later masters like Isbell, Simpson, and Williams.
Buck Owens & the Buckaroos – The Complete Capitol Singles, 1957-1966 and Don Rich & the Buckaroos – Guitar Pickin’ Man
A lot of folks only remember Owens from his Hee-Haw days on TV. That’s a shame because in the 1960s no one was bigger than Buck Owens. Not even Johnny Cash. These 56 tracks (A and B sides), including 13 number-one hits, were taken from the original mono tapes and lovingly remastered as only Omnivore can. It’s as if I am listening to my AM radio again and hearing a sound brighter than bright. Liner notes are taken from Owens’ autobiography with an introduction by his number one disciple, Dwight Yoakam.
As Yoakam says, “To say that Buck Owens was a singularly unique figure in country music would be light years beyond cliché. There have been four, maybe five, other artists in the history of the entire genre who have left as indelible a sonic imprint on so many millions of listeners’ ears. This collection of music should introduce new listeners and reacquaint old fans with just how cool country music can be.”
A case can even be made that Owens invented alt-country when, in 1960, he added Don Rich on Fender guitar. Rich made the Buckaroos the hottest band in the land until his death in 1974. Guitar Pickin’ Man, with the backing of the other Buckaroos, demonstrates why.
Tim Buckley – Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974
Unlike Owens, Buckley was not known as a singles artist, but that doesn’t keep his Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974 from being an outstanding collection. Oddly enough, it begins when the Owens collection ends and contains all 20 A- and B-sides of his singles, plus one that was never issued (“Lady, Give Me Your Key”) from his first album until his last. This compilation shows Buckley’s development from folk, to acid-folk, folk-jazz, folk-soul, to psychedelic folk-rock, taken to an emotional 11.
Buckley was ever restless, always aware of his time, but sometimes it seemed to me during those years he was not comfortable in his own skin. He sought to complete his “poet’s wail” by not limiting himself to any one isolated genre. Instead he drew from all the seemingly disparate sounds around him. But in his music he was able to make all those sounds into one whole. His music was complete and obvious, as if it had been there all along.
Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music
This fascinating compilation features 19 artists and was recorded from 1968 to 1980. The title comes, of course, from Gram Parsons, and while his influence is keenly felt, these forgotten and largely unknown recordings reflect a period when the barriers between genres were beginning to crack. The cross-fertilization that was happening throughout the country, if somewhat under the radar, was creating not just the groundwork we take for granted now, but was vibrant on its own terms.
There are many reasons why these artists did not break out at the time, most due to mismanagement or outright scams. A particularly nice track is Mistress Mary’s “And I Didn’t Want You,” which sounds a lot like the Cowboy Junkies – and predates them by some 15 years.
Another compelling tune comes from the Black Canyon Gang, who was mixing it up in Colorado in the ’70s with the New Grass Revival and Tim O’Brien and played the first Telluride Bluegrass fest over 40 years ago. Those were heady times, and this album does it justice. Kudos to the folks at Numero Group. This is their fourth archival reissue. But it is more than a time capsule, more than mere nostalgia. They sound fresh and alive. In this compilation you hear and feel the origins of alt-country and Americana when it was an organic, grassroots movement.
Gillian Welch – Boots No. 1: The Official Revival Bootleg
I am not dissing Dylan’s massive 36 CD collection of his 1966 live dates, but Welch and Rawlings’ pre-Revival bootleg is such a rich and rewarding listening experience that I have to give it the nod here. These are not mere outtakes or stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor. Especially intriguing is the alternate take of “Paper Wings.” With the assistance of a gorgeous pedal steel, you feel you are in a barroom circa 1953. There is a great sense of identity and security in these performances.
As I had hoped, there is also detailed information on each track, handwritten notes, notices, lyrics, and photos. Their reproduced April 1996 calendar is full of interviews, gigs, Dave’s haircut, and on the ninth there is a black vinyl circle on a red background signaling the album’s release. To top it off, No Depression co-founder Grant Alden did the liner notes
All in all, a beautiful package. Dylan has his 1966, but Gillian Welch and David Rawlings own 1996. Think of it this way – we get to hear what Emmylou Harris heard when she chose to include “Orphan Girl” on Wrecking Ball. This is exciting stuff, and essential in the mapping of Americana and roots music.
Tamara Saviano – Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark
I know that ND’s Henry Carrigan has already selected this as his book of the year, but I want everyone to also know how highly I think of it. In part, because I was there for some of what went down, beginning (for me) in 1969 when I first saw/met Townes Van Zandt and later took some time off from college to put together a couple of short tours for him.
This book does not let me relive that time, exactly, but it demonstrates how much I was not privy to. I just scratched the surface. Saviano digs deep and has written an essential history of those times that is both reverential and alive. Saviano is no stranger to Clark, as she was responsible for the tribute album several years ago that took home the AMA Album of the Year award. As a one-time publicist for Clark and a longtime confidant, she began the book in 2007 and had access to many of his friends, contemporaries, and his first wife. As she said in her 2015 article for ND, the book “Traces the life of music pioneer Guy Clark, who, with his wife, Susanna, shaped the contemporary folk and American roots music scene much like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald fashioned the jazz age in Paris.”
It also reads like an Americana version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, as there is a lot of travel, with the Clarks’ various homes serving as a cafe society for many who are household names today. It stretches back to his formative years, early marriage, various jobs (including guitar repair and building), and, of course, the crucial meetings with Susanna and Van Zandt. In short, it is a fascinating chronicle of not just a man and master songwriter, but of the times and the creative processes that spawned what we take for granted today.
In addition to Clark’s insurmountable talent, he and Susanna served as the Gertrude Stein of Americana music. Their various homes served as the salon that enabled it grow. All roads to what we take for granted today, it seems, passed through the two of them. Without Getting Killed or Caught, complete with early photos, drafts of songs, writings, musings, and drawings, draws water deep from the well, and we are all the richer and wiser for it. If this were a record, it’d be my record not of just the year, but of the decade.
Morphine: Journey of Dreams
I remember the day I heard about Mark Sandman’s passing in 1999 – via his obituary in The New York Times. With that, not only had a significant life in music died, but my last vestige of a somewhat tenuous relationship with rock music also slipped away. While Sandman formed other bands, Morphine was the band that was most able to replicate the sound that he likely heard in his head and heart.
As with the Velvet Underground, no band before Morphine could compare, and no band has since. Sandman played the two-string bass, and along with drums and baritone sax Morphine blazed a trail, both in the US and Europe, that was startling and refreshing, direct yet all-encompassing. Like Tim Buckley, in the years since Morphine has been out of the public eye, their recordings remain in print and vinyl pressings of some albums have finally been released. Cure for Pain was the first reissue on vinyl a couple years ago, and when it arrived I played side one all evening. It was as if an old friend I hadn’t seen in years had unexpectedly shown up on my doorstep, and his arrival reminded me how significant he still is.
Morphine: Journey of Dreams, a documentary by Mark Shuman, is ostensibly about the band, but it is more about Sandman and his journey towards the band’s fulfillment. Told primarily by its surviving members – Dana Colley, Billy Conway, and Jerome Deupree – and Sandman’s girlfriend Sabine Hrechdakian, the documentary centers on the creative process itself, including the group’s necessary earlier musical efforts. The narrators, along with Henry Rollins, Joe Strummer, and Steve Berlin, are not mere talking heads; they provide an oral history of the band with insightful commentary. Significantly, there are also plenty of performance clips, photographs, notebooks, and diary entries to feast upon.
Now feast upon their photos which our ND photographers had the good fortune to catch this year. The Sandman and Buckley pictures were provided by their respective estates.