The Pros and Cons of the New Soulsavers Record

I’m not gonna lie: I downright loved the last album by Soulsavers, It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land. I loved its unwieldy as fuck title, I loved its post-apocalyptic gospel feel, and I loved it for giving me a duet between Mark Lanegan and Will Oldham (on a cover of a Neil Young song! Grizzled dude trifecta!). So I was quite excited to discover that Soulsavers – Brits Rich Machin and Ian Glover – had teamed up with Lanegan once again for Broken, which doesn’t feature Mr. Oldham but it does have a Palace Brothers cover (Palace Brothers = Will Oldham = Bonnie “Prince” Billy. I know, it’s hard to keep track). But it has not been, for me, as immediately rewarding as its predecessor. So I decided I wanted to discuss the pros and cons of Broken with another person, mostly to try to work out my real feelings for the album. Because I’m slightly biased in favor of Soulsavers, I’ll handle the “pros”, but I wanted to find a real con with which to discuss the “cons.” So I called up my good friend Zombie Ken Lay (I know what you’re thinking: Lay’s conviction was vacated when he conveniently died, but dying don’t mean you broke the law any less, n’est pas?) and he sauntered on over to my imaginary office for a chat about Soulsavers and Broken.

Me: Well, the first thing this album has going for it is Mark Lanegan. The dude’s voice is perfectly suited to the sort of pseudo-gospel atmospherics of Soulsavers, and it especially soars on the Palace Brothers cover, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn.” By the way, I wasn’t familiar with this Will Oldham tune before I got Broken, but if I had to guess which song on here was written by the Bonnie Prince, I’d guess that one. It’s just so him.

Zombie Ken Lay: Yes, but doesn’t Broken feel a bit melodramatic at times? It’s Not How Far You Fall had dramatic tension, but Broken often sails over the top, especially on “Some Misunderstanding”, which is nearly eight minutes long. The stakes feel artificially high on this album.

Me: That’s a valid point (from a guy who knows a thing or two about making things artificially high). But they’ve also added some badass guitar work on these songs. I didn’t like “Some Misunderstanding” the first time I heard it either, but it’s really grown on me. It’s another stellar track for Lanegan, too. I kinda forgive the song its melodrama because Mark Lanegan sings it so well.

ZKL: Okay, but what about the two long instrumental tracks on the album? They’re both dirges. Completely unnecessary.

Me: Yeah, I’ve got to agree with you there. The thing with these guys is, they’re always striving to be epic, almost cinematic, really —

ZKL: I’m gonna stop you right there. You realize that the Pitchfork review said basically the same thing, right? And any time you lend credibility to a Pitchfork review, that’s a “con.”

Me: I guess you’d know something about cons, wouldn’t you, Ken? Am I right?

ZKL: Fuck you.

Me: Just saying. Anyway, getting back to the album. I know it sucks to validate a Pitchfork review, but they’re right about Soulsavers trying to make Big Music. Just like Sigur Ros (but in English!), they can stumble on the road to epic awesomeness. But when they don’t stumble, they make some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard in a long time. “All the Way Down” is glorious.

ZKL: Yeah, but “Can’t Catch the Train” is basically a blatant Tom Waits ripoff.

Me: True. It’s not an entirely unlistenable one, but you’re right – Soulsavers should leave broken-ass songs about trains to Tom Waits. It’s sort of his niche. On the positive side, on the enormously positive side, Broken features guest vocals from Red Ghost, a.k.a. Rosa Agostino. Her voice is perfect for this kind of music and she has more cool stuff on her MySpace page. It’s worth at least two “pros” for Broken when you consider the Red Ghost tracks. Album closer “By My Side” is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in a long time. In fact, I’m going to suggest that, while taking a break from making awesome albums with Isobel Campbell, Mark Lanegan makes an awesome album with Rosa Agostino.

ZKL: The album would be better if they lost the instrumentals and put Agostino on every track. As it is, Broken is overlong – there’s not a song under four minutes on here and there are three songs that are around seven minutes long.

Me: You’re wrong, Zombie Ken Lay. There are two songs that are shorter than four minutes, but one is a gratuitous instrumental.

ZKL: Sorry. I’m not good with numbers.

Me: I know. Everyone knows. It’s okay. Any final “cons” for Broken?

ZKL: It just feels a little uneven to me, too much like the soundtrack to a movie version of Fallout or something. But other than that, I don’t have anything else negative to say about it.

Me: And that’s discounted for agreeing with the Pitchfork review, at least in spirit. To close the case for the “pros”, I will say that Soulsavers are remarkably consistent. People who dug It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Length of Your Album Title will probably enjoy Broken, though perhaps just a tiny bit less. I considered It’s Not How Far one of the best albums of 2007, and, while I doubt Broken will be one of my very favorites of 2010, I have been listening to it at least once a week since I got it with no major regrets.

So I’ll go ahead and say the “pros” beat the “cons” by a field goal (in overtime) on Broken and hopefully that will encourage people to check the album out and decide for themselves. Soulsavers are a group whose good music is amazing enough to compel me to forgive their mediocre music (I have yet to hear anything from them that is outright bad music). I’d like to thank my guest, Zombie Ken Lay, for debating the Soulsavers album with me and for not eating my brains. He might have been a lying, stealing bastard in life, but he seems to be a pretty stand-up guy in death. Just don’t let him do your taxes.

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Best Albums of My Life #2: Mule Variations

There are a couple of things that even Pitchfork and I can agree on. #1: the Hold Steady is awesome. #2: you won’t “write a song as good as Tom Waits’ very worst song. Sorry, you just won’t.” They wrote that about the first Tom Waits album I ever heard, 1999’s Mule Variations. And, to this day, it’s the one sentence in all of Pitchfork’s history with which I agree word for word.

I first encountered Mr. Waits on an episode of VH1’s Storytellers and I was immediately struck by how awesome his stories were and how little they had to do with the songs he was performing. And the songs! Sweet Jesus, the first time I heard “House Where Nobody Lives”, I think I had an experience like the Mormon missionaries try to sell you about divine revelation. Here was a dude who was speaking the truth in a way I’d never heard anyone speak it before. I ran out and purchased Mule Variations immediately. That was ten years ago and my copy has seen better days, but it spins just fine and still resonates just as deeply.This album, like many Tom Waits albums, is the real shit – the deep down, bloody, muddy, messy, broken, gospel of sinners, whores, bums, ruffians, ne’er-do-wells, and basically everyone else.

What is it about Waits that’s so goddamn impressive? His songs are journeys, for starters. And, though they are full of specificity (including street names and weather, things Waits views as essential to good songs), they strike a universal chord. Take “Tom Traubert’s Blues”, for example: you don’t have to have actually been somewhere where no one speaks English and everything’s broken to understand exactly how he feels. Right? Waits intuitively understands broken-hearted, busted-ass loneliness and the anguish he howls from the rooftops is our anguish – a friend of mine in college said that Waits is crying so that you don’t have to. You couldn’t do it that well anyway. And that’s due in large part to his voice. I know, I know, a lot of people are all “Tom Waits can’t sing” or “his voice sounds funny” or “he sounds like Cookie Monster” but what they don’t understand is that for what Tom Waits is trying to tell you (about you, about us, about nasty, brutish, and short fucking life), ordinary voices are useless. I’d go so far as to say that they are insultingly inadequate. For the heartache and, yes, the joy that Waits is bringing on his tunes, you need a voice that’s a still-beating heart being tossed into a wood chipper in the middle of a nuclear war. You need a voice that took a stiff shot of whiskey and chewed up the glass. You need exactly the voice that only Tom Waits has. Do you really wanna hear Josh Groban inviting you to come on up to the house when “the only thing that you can see/ is all that you lack”? No. No, you don’t.

Mule Variations is full of some of Waits’s best busted-ass moments, too. On “Get Behind the Mule” (this is how Waits encourages perseverance – he’s not gonna tell you you’re beautiful no matter what they say and that words can’t bring you down; there’s no time for that in the Tom Waits universe. You’ve gotta get up and get to work, just like the rest of us), he gave me a line that resonated through pretty much every failed romance of my life since I first heard it: “Big Jack Earl was 8 foot one/ and he stood in the road and he cried/ he couldn’t make her love him/ couldn’t make her stay/ but tell the good lord he tried.” Again, a lot of people have probably stood in poor Jack Earl’s giant shoes. On “Cold Water”, Waits feels the pain of “pregnant women and Vietnam vets/ out there beggin’ on the freeway/ ’bout as hard as it gets”. That’s a line Bruce Springsteen would’ve sold (and/or had sex with) his mother to write.

But Mule Variations isn’t all gritty, bone-tired heartache, either. It also features a fair amount of that magical Tom Waits weirdness. “What’s He Building?” reads like a list of rumors Waits’s neighbors might cook up about him. “Eyeball Kid” is a circus-freak anthem complete with a telling autobiographical element: the Eyeball Kid was born on December 7, 1949, the same day as Thomas Alan Waits. Like the Eyeball Kid, Waits came here to show us how to really see. And “Filipino Box-Spring Hog” is a recipe for awesome disaster and possibly also a terrible dinner.

The thing (if there is indeed only one thing, which I kinda doubt) that makes Mule Variations a masterpiece (in a career full of them) is how easily the oddball tunes sit along side some of Waits’s finest ballads: “Picture in a Frame” features a line that I find so honest and so simply romantic that it has caused me, upon reflection, to give up writing love songs myself: “I’m gonna love you till the wheels come off.” Maybe that doesn’t grab y’all the same way it grabs me, but when the radio is crowded with people singing about how someone is their whole life or their everything or whatever, Waits’s lyric cuts me to the quick. I want to love someone till the wheels come off and, luckily, I get to. Sorry, Portugal. The Man fans, someone out there really loves terrible ol’ me. No one said life is fair.

And then there’s “Georgia Lee”, a piano ballad about a girl who was murdered. I love that Waits doesn’t just make a tug for your heart strings here. He does nothing less than call God out for dropping the ball: “Why wasn’t God watching?/ Why wasn’t God listening?/ Why wasn’t God there/ for Georgia Lee?”  It’s clear, then, that Tom Waits doesn’t just understand romantic loss. He understands the feeling of being massively, cosmically fucked over, and he can howl that pain for you too. Is it overstating it to suggest that Waits is out there, strolling the universe, absorbing some of the hits for all of us? Maybe; but when I listen to his stuff, I’m not so sure. This is my gospel music, kids – and Mule Variations closes with a kick-drum stomping spoonful of raw spirituality called “Come On Up to the House,” where Pastor Tom tells us to “come down off the cross/ we can use the wood” and reminds us “the world is not my home/ I’m just passing through.” Is that corny? So be it; after my sister died last year, this was one of the songs that picked me back up, that let me laugh and cry at the same time. So for me, Tom Waits’s music has real healing power, the kinda stuff some people find in church and other people find in a bottle.

If a major criterion for being the voice of your generation (or any generation) is being able to tap into the hopes, joys, loves, and fears of that generation with a profound understanding (is that a major criterion? I should hope so), then it might be time to consider that Tom Waits is the true voice of at least one generation and probably of many generations. Sure, he’s not as glamorous as Kanye West and he doesn’t want the job nearly as bad as Kanye does, but his music is 9000 times more honest. In my lifetime, Tom Waits has made some of the most heart-wrenchingly meaningful music I have heard and Mule Variations is my favorite of his albums not just because it’s amazing, but also because it was my gateway into the man’s entire body of work. It has shown me the way to songs that have seen me through pretty much every high and low point of my life for the last ten years.

Post-Apocalyptic Country-Gospel Music?

bonnie-prince-billy-lp

Alas, poor Yorick. I… oh, wait. That’s just Will Oldham on the cover there. Sheesh. Kinda dark, eh, Mr. “Prince” Billy? From Oldham’s skeletal photo on the cover of Beware, you might think his latest offering was dark indeed. Like I See A Darkness dark. And there are dark moments (Oldham sings of fearing “destiny” and, as usual, sings plenty about death) on Beware, but it’s not anywhere near the darkness of…um… Darkness. Instead, Oldham has taken is increasingly country/gospel sound, thrown some horns into the mix, and coughed up one of his most satisfying albums to date.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham, if you haven’t figured that out yet) has released an album a year for the last three years now, going back to 2007’s The Letting Go and increasing in country-friend awesomeness on through this year’s Beware. Along the way, the Bonnie Prince has perfected a scintillating stew of country/folk/gospel/blues that is arguably  the most “alt” thing I could think of to call alt.country since Uncle Tupelo disbanded. (P.S. if you don’t know who Uncle Tupelo is/was, find yourself a copy of No Depression right fucking now.)

Oldham has, over his last two albums in particular carved out a niche for himself in the “future music of the past” category; I mean, maybe I’ve been playing too much Fallout and watching too much Cowboy Bebop (note: it is impossible to do too much of either of those things), but the more my entertainments tread the post-apocalyptic wasteland, the more fitting Oldham’s music seems. His music sounds to me exactly how I imagine the post-nuclear-holocaust folk/gospel will sound, only with more songs about fucking. Which is a good thing. Some folks will tell you that Beware is one of Oldham’s most overtly country records in a long time, but that simplistic label doesn’t do justice to what the dude has created. There’s straight up jazz in the muted trumpet that outroduces “You Don’t Love Me,” and it’s the kind of move no one – no one – in country music today has the stones to put out there (Incidentally, my favorite modern country album title is Shooter Jennings’ Put the “O” Back in Country – I might listen to that album on those merits alone).

On first listen, I was a little put off by the giant, seemingly out-of-place chorus singers on opener “Beware Your Only Friend,” but the more I listened to the whole album, the more the thing seems to fit together. Oldham’s gospel is one of sensual delights, with an awareness of God and His laws but also a firm desire to duck the Dude in the Sky and his capricious-ass wrath. Oldham affirms life, love, and sex, but never denies death (making one of the better “death-as-a-season” analogies on “Death Final,” a song that also illustrates Oldham’s gift for excellent and quirky word choice – how many songs do you hear with the word “hamhock” in them?). I can picture him wandering the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3, singing “You Don’t Love Me” and sending me on a quest for some irradiated rat meat. Or maybe he’s passed out in a chair at Moriarty’s saloon, waking up to be ridiculed by the mutant working the bar. Oldham uses multiple back-up singers all over Beware and with them creates more beautiful (and more hard-won) harmonies than an entire fleet of Fleet Foxes could ever come up with. For instance, the utterly lovely chorus of “I Won’t Ask Again,” where the chorus sings the titular line in awesome major-to-minor progression that gives me chills. Chills. So take that, all you people who read my review of The Boy Least Likely To and decided I just hate pretty music. I like pretty music fine. I just don’t like The Boy Least Likely To make it.

With Beware, Oldham has wandered far and wide as a minstrel in a universe of his own creation and, this time around, he has struck a particularly deep vein of musical gold. The melodies in Beware’s songs reach up from the depths of the chiming electric guitars and plucked bass notes, cresting like a wave and crashing down on a shore where, as Bukowski once wrote, “Radiated men eat the flesh of radiated men” (yeah, I know that’s from the same poem Doom sampled for “Cellz,” but it’s appropriate). I realize that some people feel Oldham is a much more traditional country-folkie than I give him credit for, but I cannot listen to his music in its proper historical context – this shit doesn’t come from Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie, not directly. It comes from the guy who, after the bombs rain down, will remember, through a sun-blasted haze, fragments of the old music and he’ll patch it together as best he can with his own strange words, making something that is at once old and new. He’ll shout the new gospel from mountaintops of rubble and bones, and it will be not in exact praise of the god who let it all happen, but in praise of the abilities of humans to still love and fuck and carouse, even after we do the Dr. Strangelove ending and crawl out of the vaults a hundred years later. Appropriately, Bonnie Prince Billy Oldham ends Beware with “Afraid Ain’t Me,” a song that is grammatically nightmarish but still drives home the point I’m making – the Bonnie Prince has trod the wasteland, seen God’s plan and where it got us, and is utterly unafraid to be alone in the face of it all. So once “all that Mad Max bullshit” (thank you, Modest Mouse) goes down, look for Will Oldham out in the wasteland and toss him some mole meat, a Nuka Cola, and sit down for a spell to hear the New Ol’ Stuff.