Parlor James – Heartbeats per minute
The magic of which Hedgecock speaks at times eludes the duo. “Turning Point” — a song Tom Petty wrote for Hedgecock’s ’80s band, Lone Justice — and “Face In The Leaves” plod along like so much ’70s prog-rock. The same would be true of “Captain, Captain” if not for the grooveful drumming of Gloria McElrath, who regularly plays with Tricky.
Old Dreams is most convincing when Parlor James tempers its experimentalism, when the beats and effects serve the songs and not vice versa. Besides the aforementioned “Clementine” and “Don’t Go Downtown”, the best examples of this are the Dusty Springfield-inspired “Everything And Nothing Too” and the pensive “Why Must it Be?” (both songs are Allison originals). Exhibiting the economy and pop smarts of her recordings with her other band, the Maudlins, these songs convey palpable emotion. It may be hard to hear it with fresh ears, but even Parlor James’ drum-machine makeover of “This Misery”, a Maudlins staple, works well in this context. (For those wondering about the status of the Maudlins, Allison reports that she and the band have lately been in the studio with ex-Blood Oranges guitarist Mark Spencer.)
All of which is to say that while Parlor James recorded the entirety of Old Dreams with Burn, the project at times feels like two different records. Much of this has to do with the different musical sensibilities of the two principals, who began playing together as Parlor James in 1994. Hedgecock comes to country from a ’70s FM-rock perspective; besides Led Zeppelin, he names the Grateful Dead as a major influence. “I was a big Deadhead when I was young,” he explains. “I loved ‘Space Jam.’ I always loved the weirder aspects of the Dead. That’s how I got into country music. Songs like ‘Mama Tried’, I loved that. And listening to them do the bluegrass stuff. Old And In The Way [a supergroup of sorts featuring Jerry Garcia, Peter Rowan, David Grisman and Vassar Clements] was one of my first introductions to quote-unquote real, hard-core bluegrass.”
By contrast, Allison, the daughter of jazz great Mose Allison, heard Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn while she was growing up in Mississippi, while also devouring the pop sounds of ’60s AM radio. “When I was little,” Allison says, “I loved all the girl group stuff, especially the Shangri-Las. So besides country, I was always pretty pop-oriented. I would listen to soul music and Motown way before I would listen to Led Zeppelin. It’s funny; Ryan and I are really different. But the one thing we share in common is that we both really like country music” — especially, she adds, hillbilly music of the darker variety.
“I was kind of morbid when I was a kid,” Allison continues. “It wasn’t like I was morose or anything; I mean, I had a sense of humor. But I was drawn to scary, macabre stuff. And also sentimental stuff. When you look at really old country music, those are two big elements. I remember hearing ‘Banks Of The Ohio’, by the Blue Sky Boys, I think it was. I loved that, and I loved the harmonies. I loved how haunting it sounded.”
“Those songs are so part of our culture,” Hedgecock enthuses. “But we’ve had this tendency not to pay that much attention to them — you know, to what they’re really saying. What Amy and I tried to do with ‘Clementine’ was to take a song that we’ve all listened to, that we’ve all heard a thousand times, and shed light on it so that people can hear it again. We had actually worked up a version of ‘All The Pretty Horses’ before we did ‘Clementine’. And we also do a cool version of ‘Listen To The Mockingbird’.”
When judiciously applied, the dots and loops on Old Dreams enable Parlor James to breathe new life into the mountain ballad tradition. And yet, as Hedgecock observes, the duo’s close harmony singing, the thing that brought them together in the first place, is ultimately what makes their collaboration work.
“When I first sang with Amy,” he says. “I knew that it was something special and that I needed to pay attention to it. You’re rarely blessed with finding two voices that blend in this weird way, and that cover each other in such a weird way. There are certain times when we both know that we’re gonna hit a ‘buzz’ note. We both hit this one note at the same time and it just like buzzes in our foreheads.”
Even more than the album’s beat-wise production, it’s this buzz, sometimes enchanting, sometimes jarring, that infuses the best songs on Old Dreams with the shock of the new.
ND contributing editor Bill Friskics-Warren is a Nashville-based freelancer who thinks that Garth Brooks should record Allidon’s Cheaters World” and include it on his forthcoming box set.