America is already defined by the loosest of ideals, things you immediately find detestable and disappointing, a mill through which culture is ground up, reconstituted and formed into culture-shaped patties for mass redistribution. It is a place that since the Dutch West Indian company was bankrolling it up until now when the Chinese are, has its heart set on the slim margins that can be excised and it is with those margins that it became the greatest country in the world, the place all aspire to be. Disneyland, except a Disneyland big enough to encompass Disneyland.
So then take Americana, the fashionable phrase for music that reflects the soul of thinking and drinking mid-to-upper working-class, tradition-loving but progress-minded white America. It is not the music of the (white) people; that is young country music, a style that is quite at home with the lowest common denominator. Americana is an intellectualization of that common denominator multiplied by a factor of mild privilege and aspiration to something higher, that height being desirable mostly because it makes our tether to the root a taut line, forming a tidy right triangle when we look at it from the side. If we were drunk together right now, I'd draw it out for you on a bar napkin.
It is similar stuff to religion; underneath it all, I suspect all faith is pretty shaky, but we know it's all we have and we try to bind the irrational longing for the infinite that rests in our hearts and the cold anti-mythological pragmatism of reality. Americana fans are true believers, and a trinity of records has recently emerged to provide a renewed foundation for the grinning zeal of the faithful.
The Avett Brothers
I & Love & You
The Avett Brothers are the Jesus band of Americana, and this is their Jesus record. What better saviors can you have than three lanky handsome boys that play unabashed howls of joyous love on upright bass and banjos until their hearts erupt from their chests. They remind me of the last Jesus band of Americana, the Old 97's, in that their early rustic roadhouse charm is continually polished to a gleam, the edges smoothed down like a new table from Ethan Allen. That table, however, is the one around which we are compelled to gather and even though this is more a record of piano ballads than banjo hellfire, we still come to Sunday dinner. It opens, just like formal prodigal son Ryan Adams' Gold did, with a love song to New York (in the case of "I & Love & You", it is Brooklyn). It sets a slow elegant cadence which most of the record follows; to the point that I think they are all movements of the same larger song. There is the atmospheric ramble of "Ten Thousand Words," the sock-hop charm of "Kick Drum Heart" and the uptempo swing of "Slight Figure of Speech" to break up the slow building melody that mainly serves to tell up a simple, self-evident message: that it is in the middle of the triangle of I and Love and You where our salvation lies.
The Black Crowes
Before the Frost...Until the Freeze
The biggest struggle that faces and Americana artist is how close they are willing to get to Southern Rock without crashing the plane. Drive-By Truckers do the best job buzzing the landing strip, pulling into the sky at the last second, but one band is willing to push past the boundaries of cool and actually become a Hindenburg with a rebel flag on the side, impossibly huge and diffident with the chops to pull it off. That is the Black Crowes. I'd never quite bought into them until I saw them live a couple years ago, and got to watch them from the photographer's pit. It was well noted that Chris and Rich Robinson didn't care for each other, and that they occupied their own circles of the same massive stage. Chris was becoming a reluctant celebrity slowly being dumped for Owen Wilson, and their music reputation was irrationally in the toilet when a reporter for a semi-porn magazine reviewed the album without listening to it. The Black Crowes were in my mind then, a cartoon of rock 'n' roll, and yet, standing as close as one if going to get to the band in their element, I became transfixed. Chris was in a purple hippie shirt, channeling every rock cliché and somehow filtering it through his aviator shades and making it work. The rest of the band kept their distance spacing out the supports for the monstrous colossus of Southern rock that towered all.
Their latest album is a hail Mary pass that might save the game for the home team. It is an unabashed sprawl of new songs recorded live in Levon Helms' barn by a seasoned band (adding Luther Dickinson was a smart move) doing what I want every Americana band to do: rock that shit. Before the Frost...Until the Freeze is Skynyrd as hell, Allman-esque without the 20 minute jams (which one can see as a good or bad thing.) The styles vacillate between unbleached rockers like "Been a Long Time (Waiting on Love)," effervescent acoustic and harmony workouts like "What is Home" even the disco-era-Stones-style single "I Ain't Hiding" which, if one is willing to face facts, out-discos the wares any Brooklyn twerp with funny glasses and a keytar.
The success of this record hinges on their lack of focus; instead of a tight conceptual document, this album feels like finding a great classic rock station on that long leg of a road trip, one that miraculously intersperses "Radar Love" and "Fly Like an eagle" with something you've never heard before. I'm as shocked as anyone, but as things stand here in October, this might be my favorite record this year.
Keep an Eye on the Sky
If there is a quintessential Americana band, it is Big Star. They were nobody when they actually existed; a second band after Alex Chilton left the Box Tops. Their three little records recorded in drug-fueled obscurity in Memphis, and guitarist Chris Bell's devastating collection of stray songs I Am the Cosmos (which has also seen a recent deluxe reissue) are the like the pyramids of Americana; impossibly beautiful things that we cannot replicate today. The albums #1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sisters Lovers are all compiled on this lovingly compiled box set as is most of I Am the Cosmos, so if you are a pre-acolyte that has wanted to get around to listening to Big Star, as daunting a desire as wanting finally read Faulkner or hike the Appalachian trail, this box set is your arc of the covenant.
Big Star accolades are easy to find; every one of your favorite bands likely pledges some form of allegiance and Bruce Eaton has just written an excellent book detailing the recording of Radio City. You owe it to yourself to check them out if you haven't.
For those of you that have, here is the reason to buy this boxed set: the demos for Third. By the time they got around to recording Third in 1974, the star was fading. Bell had already departed to Europe and shortly after its release, died after plowing his car into a light pole. Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens repaired to Ardent Studios and under the aegis of madman Jim Dickinson who, in my mind, kinda ruined a batch of really good songs with indulgent production work.
The demos of these songs, performed by Chilton alone on
guitar, could have been one of the greatest records ever. They are Pink Moon,
Astral Weeks good. It feels like voyeurism to hear Alex Chilton sing "You
Get What You Deserve" in his frailest falsetto, and how he tries to
convince us and himself in "Thank You Friends" that
Without my friends I've got chaos
I'd be off in a beam of light
Without my friends I'd be swept up high by the wind
That beam of light is a rotating cone of illumination from a lighthouse that moves a little too quickly, making everything it catches blindingly bright for an instant and then plunging it in darkness. It is uncertain whether Chilton is the lighthouse or adrift in a flimsy little boat, but it doesn't really matter because you can't see shit in those conditions anyway. Or maybe he knew the threads between him and his friends were getting frayed and, as it sounds in these spare recordings, he was thanking the walls. Devastating stuff. It's like I've never heard these songs before.
It is that fragile place when I believe the heart of Americana beats the strongest; things too real and frail to stand up in the harsh winds of America. In America's pop music history, teenage heartbreak has to be blown up to Wagnerian proportions to be able to interface with the larger culture in a meaningful way. When it's too sweet to be destroyed, even if leaving it alone dooms it to obscurity, that is Americana.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
March sees a greatly expanded reissue of Elliott Smith's most critically acclaimed album Either/Or