Concert — Dave Rawlings Machine (1/24/18, Lyric Theater, Birmingham AL)

Image result for dave rawlings machine

(Not an actual picture from this concert.)

I’m trying something a little different with this post. I don’t go to concerts as much as I would like, but when I do, it’s usually an artist that makes the expenditure and (since I live in the middle of nowhere) travel worth it for me. In other words, the kind of artist who’s worth it for me to review. So when I do go to a concert, I’ll try to write about it.

Now, I have a complicated relationship with Dave Rawlings Machine. See, going on twenty-two years ago, Dave Rawlings came on the scene as the backup singer and lead guitarist for an extremely talented singer-songwriter named Gillian Welch. Some of you might well remember her from the award-winning “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack, in which she sang on two songs with Allison Kraus and company. Image result for dave rawlings and gillian welch

Her career has been one of quiet success, with the majority of her music being difficult-to-classify acoustic music with folk and country inflection, but with an entirely fresh, clean, airy texture based on her simple rhythm guitar and Dave Rawlings’ virtuosic acoustic lead. Her voice is usually tenor and her songs are usually sad, with the air of a hard life in the country or a marginal existence in the   city. My favorite of her albums was “Time (The Revelator),” which brought this perfect texture to its most minimal. I can only think to call it “the new mountain music,” with its ringing, dulcimer-like tones and old-time influences. Driving in the Appalachians with that album on feels right.

So when Rawlings became the more dominant personality, to the point where she became a member of his band, the Machine, and they started making fun, up-tempo bluegrass and folk with a rich texture, you’d think I’d hate it, right? Initially, yes, I didn’t like it. It seemed like a shame for her to not be the main artist, and from lack of exposure, I had trouble convincing myself that Rawlings even had a personality outside of singing harmony and playing guitar. But then a friend told me how great their concerts were, and played their most recent album for me.

And let me tell you, I was sold almost immediately. The new music was nothing like Revelator, but it was great.

Birmingham was the nearest tour date this year, and despite the drive, I went. The Lyric is an upscale theater, and I was worried that there’d be the dreaded invisible wall between the performers and the sea of spectators below. But somehow, the band’s easy-going personalities and use of the downstage area made it an intimate performance in the best sense. Four of the band’s members stood in a row like an early rock band, with the bassist behind. They were not far behind the footlights, and it was more clear than at any other concert I’ve ever been to that they were there to have a good time and entertain the audience.

Welch, a tiny, bone-thin, white-haired woman in a flowing Victorian dress, opened the first song by hamboning the rhythm. I had never seen a woman do that, to be fully honest, not least one deathly thin as Welch was. I don’t even remember the opening song, to be honest, but the intro was one of the more memorable moments.

The band as it tours consists of David Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Willie Watson, all of whom play guitar and sing, Brittany Haas, who plays violin, and Paul Kowert, who plays bass and sings. Most of them can play the banjo, too.

And to my mind, these people could make music in any genre they wanted. Rawlings is a virtuoso, whose ability to solo melodically in any type of scale and mode puts many modern jazz guitarists to shame. Welch with her characteristic tenor has the range of Robert Plant and come to think of it, so does Rawlings. All five are fast, accurate, and able to improvise on their instruments. As a rock act, they’d be more than capable. But there is no question in my mind that modern bluegrass is the proper and fitting genre for them. It’s full of life, but capable of sad songs, fighting songs, religious songs and bawdy songs, and it shows off the full skills of the musicians in a very unique way.

There were almost too many highlights to go into. Nearly every song had a brilliant guitar solo from Rawlings, and many of them had breakdowns in which Haas and Rawlings traded solos. In the first set, the crowd seemed to enjoy “Yup” the most, a song about the devil taking an old nagging country wife only to find that she was too tough for him. It’s infectious, with a simple folk melody, the oddly catchy one-word refrain “yup,” and some very funny lines. The really shining moment has to be “There were two little devils with a ball and chain/she up with her foot and kicked out their brains… yup.” It’s still not the song that impressed me the most.

Nor was “Cumberland Gap,” a new take on an old bluegrass theme. It was brilliant, though, with a hard-stomping melody and an old-time ballad feel. “Cumberland gap, it’s a devil of a gap,” Rawlings sings, referring to a difficult crossing in the Appalachians near where Kentucky and Virginia run into Tennessee. My only complaint is that it sounds a lot like “Ohio,” by CSNY, but that cuts both ways, since “Ohio” sounds like a lot of old folk songs. I can’t really fault them for using such a perfect and ancient melody. Haas showed off a lot on this song, playing violin with classical precision, but in the old-time fiddle mode. She’s possibly the least extroverted member of the band, likely the youngest, but on songs like this, she holds her own.

Willie Watson showed he could also front  the band on “Keep it Clean,” from one of his solo albums. He and Rawlings discussed whether it was a dirty song. Watson, who wrote it, claimed he didn’t know. The lyrics are incomprehensible, but the puerile male imagination runs wild on the suggestion, don’t you know? It was far more of a rhythm guitar-oriented stomper than most of the set. He also played his take on “If I Had My Way,” the classic blues song that Blind Willie McTell allegedly used to make a political statement in front of the Customs House in New Orleans in the 30’s. (You know what’s in there now? Butterflies.)

The first set was mostly taken from Dave Rawlings Machine’s most recent album, “Poor David’s Almanack,” with “Good God, A Woman,” “Come on Over My House,” “Money is the Meat,” “Guitar Man,” and “Airplane” showing up in addition to the songs from the album I already mentioned. And they jammed the hell out of them all. Probably every song exceeded its recorded length by a minute or more, and not one song felt like a let-down in the energy level. And while I’d criticized Rawling’s repetitive lyrics, it didn’t sound half as lazy live. Even the oddly-worded and awkward “Come on Over My House” worked in that setting.

At some point in the first set, Willie Watson came over to the side of the stage where Brittany Haas was playing violin and began playing another violin in harmony. This is one of the things that I love about music, the thing which compelled me in younger days to learn guitar and other instruments even when I didn’t feel like I was making progress: there’s just about nothing like making music with someone you like. It draws people together, like going to war together without the fighting, or romance without the complications. I’ve played guitar with at least two beautiful women I’d never have a chance with and with some of  my closest friends; and to my mind, there’s nothing like it for enjoying each other’s company. So when I recognized what must have been this feeling between the two of them playing violin together, I was happy for them, even as I was nostalgic for old times and old friends.

Music, like any art, is supposed to portray the truth about the world–no one knows this better than Gillian Welch, I’m sure–but sometimes music can step outside the world and be an escape from it instead. I can’t find anything wrong with that, as much as some might.

The two full sets, or the main set with intermission, were already one of the great concerts of my life, but then came the encore. I don’t actually remember the first song they played after they ran back out during the ovation. The second or third, however, was “Method Acting/Cortez the Killer.” This is a medley of a Bright Eyes song that was fairly mediocre when the original artist recorded it, and a long Neil Young song off of “Zuma,” joined together by a long guitar solo. I haven’t actually heard the version from one of Rawlings’ albums, but I knew it from Rawlings and Welch’s NPR “Tiny Desk Concert,” and I had hoped they would play it.

I think both songs hit full bloom only when played in this fashion by Dave Rawlings Machine. Now, that’s a strong statement to make, considering one of those songs is a Neil Young song, and a well-loved and critically acclaimed one at that. But I believe it. The Bright Eyes song was just another pessimistic alt-rock number for singer Connor Oberst, who sung it without much emphasis and, honestly, didn’t convince me all that much. I mean, honestly, how old is Oberst, and how much does he actually have to be pessimistic about? I don’t actually know, but he sounds young and overly dramatic. But Rawlings and Welch have been projecting gritty, hard-earned life experience since they were his age, and that’s only become more true with time. Oberst’s line “But I know I feel better when I sing,” puts into words something very true of Welch and Rawlings, that they sing about their lives to make sense of them and feel better. It rings as true when they sing Oberst’s words as when they sang the last, life-affirming lines of “Acony Bell” twenty-odd years ago.

And then there’s “Cortez the Killer.” I’ve heard many people sing this song, and I think out of all of them, only Neil Young, Welch and Rawlings really get it. Young doesn’t get points for that because he wrote it, of course.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about Young is that he can write stories that take place in fantastic settings, but with emotional reality. When he spent his ambiguous night in a teepee with Marlon Brando and a Powhatan princess in the song called “Pocahontas,” it wasn’t just a tall tale. He really felt an emotion that made him long to know those people. When he time-travels, whether it’s back to see Pocahontas or forward to see the spaceships evacuating the chosen few from the dying Earth, and even if his time machine is a psychotropic drug, he’s nevertheless on an emotional journey, one that he doesn’t share with the world lightly. And this is another one of his time travel songs, I think.

In “Cortez the Killer,” Neil Young writes about an idealized and largely fictional Aztec Empire with a genuine yearning for a better place than here and now. But in the last verse, he blind-sides us with the line “And I know she’s living there, and she loves me to this day/I just can’t remember when and how I lost my way.” In the narrative, it seems his love is stuck in another time and another place. While this is probably a metaphor for love lost in a more conventional way, it’s still a hell of a metaphor. He’s stuck centuries from her, on another continent, and can’t find his way back. Haven’t we all felt that about someone or some situation? Too many poets and writers have tried to express this feeling for it to be uncommon.

And when this song is juxtaposed with the first one, both take on new meaning somehow. I don’t pretend to understand why this works, but it seems like “Method Acting” fits into the emotional narrative of “Cortez,” and that “Cortez” makes “Method Acting” more believable by giving the singer something else to sing about besides his pain. How does Connor Oberst feel better by singing, when the song is a meditation on the struggles of life? But by adding “Cortez,” Dave Rawlings is palpably moving on and singing about something else, and it makes the first song more believable. Meanwhile, by fitting neatly into the narrative of “Cortez,” “Method Acting” adds to the second song too. I think it’s like synergy.

“A language learned and forgotten turned is studied once again…” makes me imagine the time traveler from “Cortez” trying to relearn a language he spoke twenty years ago from his perspective, but hundreds of years ago in real time, so that when he goes back and finds that girl living in ancient Tenochtitlan, the language barrier won’t keep them separate a second longer than they have to be. Am I overthinking this? Of course I am.

And to see them perform it live, with the heightened emotions of a long concert and the memory of a very recent, very enthusiastic standing ovation: well, it was intense.

And then they followed it up by giving an a capella rendition of “Go to Sleep, Little Baby” which Welch sang on on the “O Brother,” soundtrack, before running back off-stage. Few people still have such a grasp on old-time vocal harmonies. It was a short song, but very sweetly done.

It was about eleven at night when I got out and two-thirty in the morning when I got home. I didn’t regret losing that sleep at all. For musicianship and emotional effect, I must say it was a fantastic concert, one I won’t soon forget.

King Crimson — Discipline (1981)

Before I begin this review properly, I’m going to have to apologize to hardcore King Crimson fans. I only know one album and a couple of earlier songs by the band. While I know that they existed in earlier and very different incarnations that are perhaps better-acclaimed or at least more popular, I don’t know a thing about them.

See, despite liking the genre, I’ve never really been a hardcore prog fan. Pink Floyd and Discipline - Original Vinyl Cover.jpgYes are the only prog bands I’d consider myself generally knowledgeable about, with ELP a distant third. But I have albums or at least songs from Alan Parsons Project, Genesis, Prog-era solo Peter Gabriel and others I’m probably forgetting either on vinyl or on my computer. But overall, it’d seem that I’m generally a casual fan. So when a friend gave me a CD of Discipline about five years ago, it was with the warning that I might not like the band or the album.

And I didn’t, not at first. I listened to the first few tracks, decided almost automatically that it wasn’t my kind of prog, and forgot about it for several days. Then, that week, I caught myself humming “Frame by Frame,” thought “hey, that’s actually a pretty good song,” and I gave the album another chance. As a matter of fact, that’s the exact same way I came to love “Court and Spark,” by Joni Mitchell, which I’ve already mentioned among my favorite albums. In fact, it was the same friend who gave me both albums, come to think of it.

Worlds apart in tone, genre and feel from “Court and Spark,” but perhaps reflective of some of the same 70’s-&-early 80’s trends, Discipline is also a textured, likable album that rewards close listening, even if it features too much spoken word for my taste. Like many of my favorite albums, it’s from that era in the late 20th century when, in music at least, the world was all before us, an era when world music flourished on the international scene and wide-eyed optimism could have a place in popular music. God, what happy years they seem like, looking back solely through the lens of music. I don’t have to tell you that that’s not what they were really like.

The album opens strong with a Hendrix-esque hammer-on/pull-off trill from the celebrated avant-garde guitarist Robert Fripp, late of collaborations with Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. If you know any of their music from the era, this alone should tell you what kind of guitarist he is, but it’s probably also telling that he’s the guy who tried to popularize a “new standard tuning,” and entirely new types of harmony into rock guitar. Then we hear the fascinating “Chapman stick,” a kind of tapping guitar-and-bass combo, played by another recent Peter Gabriel collaborator, Tony Levin. The texture soars almost immediately into totally uncharted space, at least for Western audiences. My understanding is that Robert Fripp, who was in the original, disbanded King Crimson, wanted to reform the band as a “rock gamelan.” A gamelan is a sort of Indonesian orchestra that creates a thick, multi-layered musical texture, and that’s exactly what Fripp and Levin do in the first few seconds.

So how is the song (“Elephant Talk”) after the first few seconds? Interesting. But also stupid.

Stupid may be an overstatement. The new front-man, Adrian Belew, who had been in the Talking Heads and who went on to play the famous synth riff in Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al,” lists words related to “talking” in alphabetical order, while making elephant noises with his guitar. So that’s the kind of band we’re dealing with. Not avant-garde, they’d probably tell us, capital-A Avant-Garde. And you know, I don’t hate it, despite this. It’s catchier than it sounds in this description, and it could almost be a Talking Heads song. Adrian Belew clearly patterned his vocal delivery after David Byrne’s.

So is the next one better? Hell yes. “Frame by Frame” holds up to my initial liking for it.It begins with another “stick”-heavy, “gamelan” intro, before breaking down into a more minimalistic texture for the verse. The melody of the verse is catchy as hell, but the lyrics are slight, almost just wordplay. “Death by drowning/in your arms, in your arms” is a great pop hook, lyrically and melodically, though. I also like the melody when he sings “Analysis!” right after the hook.

(I just looked it up, and apparently, it’s “death by drowning/in your own, in your own/analysis.” I almost like the mondegreen better, as bad as that is to say.)

The song starts strong and finishes strong with an “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”-style sudden ending in the outro, but is probably too busy for some people’s tastes. One can definitely hear 90125 era Yes here, and in fact, Tony Levin eventually played in a shortlived Yes lineup. But that’s another long story.

Next is the first, originally-published version of the only ballad on the album, “Matte Kudasai” (the title is apparently Japanese for “please, wait”). It has a more conventional, jazzy texture, with soaring slide-guitar lines and watery, processed arpeggios. The lyrics are a bit sentimental and are delivered a bit sentimentally, but the texture is so nice and the vocals fit so well into it that I can’t really take issue with it.

There’s an alternate version with an additional lead part at the end of most versions of the album, but not the original pressing. I can’t decide which I like better, the alternate, or the original. The latter is too busy, the first not busy enough, maybe.

Next is another song with rather dopey spoken word from Belew, “Indiscipline.” The narrative here is that the speaker is a mentally unbalanced man who is obsessing over something that he stole: we never find out what. The music in the intro is a similar layered texture to the first two songs, but with a harder edge that I quite like, but it’s not quite enough to salvage the song. The looped “I repeat myself when under stress” is an annoying gimmick, and the whole thing grates on me.

(Apparently, the monologue is adapted from a letter Belew sent to his wife of the time, concerning a sculpture she had made. I don’t really know how to fit that in with the actual song, but whatever.)

A similar situation to “Indiscipline” exists with “Theela Hun Ginjeet.” That’s not Sanskrit for anything, much as they might want us to think so. It’s an anagram for “heat in the jungle.” So yeah, we have here a song about gang violence. The annoying part comes after the (quite good) intro, which has one of the nastiest, funkiest bass-lines I’ve ever heard, courtesy of Levin. The annoying part is Adrian Belew talking into a pocket tape recorder about… walking around talking into a pocket tape recorder in the big city, which seemingly gets him harassed by both gang members and the police. I think his crazy-person persona had something to do with it, too.  That trashy mono recording eats up more of the song than it has any right to. I like the song somewhat, entirely on the strength of that bass-line and the whole intro.

The next song is nice. It’s a more gamelan-styled, eight-minute instrumental titled “The Sheltering Sky” after an old novel. It’s one of my favorites from the album, but I don’t have much to say about it or about “Discipline,” another, harder instrumental. Their sonic experimentation is uniformly good and listenable. The album closes, in my copy, with the alternate version of “Matte Kudasai.”

So, while I think that the spoken word is too much and too pretentious, the album is a very nice piece of later prog, and a relic of an era that is very near to my heart. 5.5/10

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Blitzen Trapper — Wild Mountain Nation (2007)

It’s a bit of a departure from my previous posts, which have all stayed firmly in the twentieth century, but it’s always been my intention to review a broad range of eras and genres on this blog. So without further ado, here’s my review of ’07’s “Wild Mountain Nation.”

Blitzen Trapper are one of those bands that seemed poised to get really big for the longest time, but never really did. You may remember that even Rolling Stone liked them circa ’09? But somehow, they keep narrowly missing mass appeal. I like them, and not for the obscurity value. For the span of about four albums, several singles and one EP, starting with this album, the Portland, Oregon group had a sound unlike any other band I know of.

This sound was just developing when they recorded “Wild Mountain Nation,” and as a result there’s a lot more noise rock on this album than on any of their later ones. The album opens noisy, in fact, with the blisteringly fast, heavily distorted and compressed opening chords of “Devil’s A-Go-Go.” But unlike many lo-fi alt-rock songs that have nothing but noise, it’s got a funky rhythm and a clean bridge section that make it quite listenable, even if the lyrics are hard to make out. One might think of Sonic Youth jamming with the Allman Brothers, as improbable as that sounds.

Then comes the title track, “Wild Mountain Nation.” This is the first moment in perhaps their entire discography where they really shine. Country-inflected, vaguely Dicky Betts-sounding lead guitar, heart-felt lyrics about building a life with your lover in the wilderness, warm vocal harmonies; it’s a well-tuned roots-rock formula. The way they put it all together, with a veneer of noise rock, it doesn’t sound like anything else I know of. The lines “when the red moon wanes/we’ll be moving on the plain/through the tall grass out to the sea” are perhaps the prototypical example of frontman Eric Earley’s songwriting talent, showing his concern with wildlife, nature and freedom. He seems to speak somehow of an older, pantheistic world, where people living out at the fringes of society could have the freedom otherwise only given to animals. Perhaps more than any other single song, the title track makes an ideal introduction for the new listener. My only complaint? It’s too short.

Next is “Futures and Folly,” a song that shows how uncertain the band were of their ideal formula at this time. It’s a song about growing up, not an uncommon thing for Blitzen Trapper, but it has what I think is a very different style of song-writing and arrangement. It’s not bad. Instrumentally, it’s a little slight, but it has some nice lines, like “the words are arranged like birds in a cage…” and “my love I compare to a cloudless rain.” Perhaps only proximity to the vastly different title-track makes me feel the song is out of place here.

Then comes another one of their low-fi songs, “Miss Spiritual Tramp” in which Earley seems to be singing about gang violence and a femme fatale that comes to him in a dream, though the lyrics are hard to hear, as they’re mixed very closely in with the guitar in a way that would make Steve Albini proud. The real shining moment comes at about 1:40 or so, when the when the brutal, fuzz-covered noise-rock riffs lighten up and give way to distorted harmonica and jaw harp for a brief break. That’s as good an indicator as anything what essential kind of band we’re dealing with. More than the fact that they attempt some kind of alt-bluegrass break, the fact that they pull it off in juxtaposition with such a heavy song is impressive. Blitzen Trapper’s key strength is that they can transport you to a world where hard rock has always been this way, jagged guitar lines trading off with harmonica, jaw harp, melodica, and other things that have usually been relegated to folk, country and bluegrass. It helps that Eric Earley has a massive command of the harmonica, with John Popper-esque ability to play lead on the instrument. I’d compare him to Little Walter, but there isn’t a harpist born that I can compare to that saintly figure in good conscience. Listen to Walter’s “Juke,” and you’ll see what I mean.

“Woof and Warp of the Quiet Giant’s Hem” is slight. Whether or not it’s an instrumental would be an academic question, since the only lyrics are “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” The band very skillfully sells it with a screeching, melodic guitar line, enthusiastic vocals, punkish drumming and a lead break towards the middle that flies into “Thunderstruck” airspace. Still, filler is not my main thing. I can almost say that “Woof and Warp” is not filler, but the lack of lyrics makes that a little dishonest. I like it despite it being filler, and that’s an uphill battle.

(The woof and warp, by the way, are the two sets of thread in woven fabric that run perpendicular to each other.)

Next is a very weird piece, even for a notoriously weird band. “Sci-Fi Kid” seems to be about growing up with your nose in a sci-fi book (and we’ve all been there, right? Right….? Guys?), but this theme is subsumed in the layer of imagination that the narrator casts on his situation. It has a sound like literally no other Blitzen Trapper song, lighter and more atmospheric, but at the the same time more dance-oriented than most of the previous songs, with a retro-electronic breakdown toward the end. I can only compare it in tone and style to “Futures and Folly,” but even that is a distant cousin. The lyrics are all right, even interesting, if you were also a sci-fi kid. I like the line “In a fainting world, spinning out of time,” and “breaking in, pecking holes in this lonesome heart/it’s just an extra part, in a kid like me.” It’s an odd kind of self-deprecating, though, and I’m almost inclined to wonder if one of the other band members besides Eric Earley wrote it. I don’t have any credits on hand for the album, though. Modern vinyl is well outside my price range, even for Blitzen Trapper.

Next, the band throw in a one-minute-and-change snippet of what I take to be a larger jam session, in this case a banjo-textured bluegrass tune that borrows its only lyrics from the chorus of the title track. “Wild Mountain Jam” suffers more from my dislike of filler than “Woof and Warp” does. But like that song, I can admit that it adds texture to the album. On another note, it’s also titled very similarly to the monumental two-part jam session on Eat a Peach by the Allman Brothers, “Mountain Jam,” which could swallow this track whole about 19 times if I remember right. There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I can’t be asked to find it. It shows the changing times, if nothing else.

And here’s the point at which my usual strategies for reviewing a song cease to work, since we run into two tracks that are harder to think of in terms of song structure, arrangement and style. I keep referring to Sonic Youth in writing this review, mainly as a sort of poster-child for a certain style of noise-rock. That may not be fair to the band or the genre; I don’t have an extensive background with either, since in either event I own three of their albums and that’s about my experience with classic noise-rock so far. But the comparison is very useful in looking at Blitzen Trapper in their early days.

Now, after two albums, a band often comes of age in a big way, leaving their earlier sound behind in a radical way. But while they did come of age on this album, Blitzen Trapper are interesting because they needed to find the right balance between an initial noise-rock/lo-fi sound and a sort of roots-rock strain that came to dominate their music to the exclusion of all else. Here, on their third album and on the beginning of their winning streak, they had only just begun to leave their original sound behind. So while their burgeoning country, bluegrass and folk influences allow me to compare them to the Allmans, their noise-rock demands that I compare them to something more typical of that genre as well. And for me, and for many, that’s Sonic Youth.

The next song, “Hot Tip/Tough Cub,” I don’t pretend to have a grasp on. I can’t make out most of the lyrics through the distortion and layered, oceanic soundscape. If it weren’t for the very distinct vocals of Eric Earley, it wouldn’t sound out of place on “Bad Moon Rising,” that early cult hit by Sonic Youth that I don’t pretend to understand either. It’s nice to listen to, it’s very nice to listen to, but for someone who came to listen to Blitzen Trapper for the lyrics as well as for the music, it’s a little inaccessible.

Next is a slightly more acoustically-oriented, but still layered and washed-out soundscape called “The Green King Sings.” I can’t make out most of the lyrics, but the first line of the bridge goes “the Green King sings, his voice moves like the air, like the air,” and that is enough to haunt me. In another world glimpsed only in this song, where there’s such a thing as “the Green King,” it must be a good and noble thing that he sings, and that his voice is beautiful.

In the B-section of “Green King”, Eric Earley makes his first invocation to a sort of “magical lover”-archetype that he seems to sing a lot about. To his lover, he says “Girl, I love your amazing ways/keep me honest, keep me dazed.” This verse establishes a pattern that runs through most of his better love songs. He pleads his girl not to make love to him or something like that, but to make him a better person. It’s reminiscent, perhaps, of old ideas about the Eternal Feminine, but without the uncomfortably chauvinist implications that that carries. This archetype gets picked up both on this album and on the next three, and it always makes for some of his most compelling lyrics.

The next song, Murder Babe, returns nearer to a standard rock formula, with hard-driving riffs and blues-scale lead. It flirts with becoming a noise-rock soundscape, but aside from a few lead breaks, generally sticks to being a vocally-driven verse-chorus song. This isn’t to say the lyrics are audible; they’re still very lo-fi.

And that brings me to my two actual favorites on this album: the first is “Country Caravan,” easily the most country song on the album, appropriately enough, with a texture of strummed acoustic and classic steel guitar lead. It’s hard to tell what Earley’s singing about. The lyrics are cryptic, but mostly it seems the song is about a spiritual woman, much in the same pattern as the lover in “Green King,” who travels in the “slow-rolling country caravan of many sons.” It has some of Earley’s best lines ever, like “Baby’s got to praise like a river on the cusp/crashing through the levee, moving with a mighty rush” and one of my favorite similes in any song, “moving over like a storm.” It’s interesting to see the archetypical lover again so soon; normally songs about her happen once an album.

And then there’s a little one verse country number about the apocalypse called “Badger’s Black Brigade,” so short that they apparently added an instrumental reprise after the fact. This is another song with great lyrics, if extremely brief. I can’t pick a favorite line from it, but the last two are very evocative of the tone of the song: “Corn-swept fields are full of fighting men without a king/Last-born man, and this world won’t save you.

So, while the balance between noise-rock and roots-rock still needed to be tweaked very slightly (one way or the other), it’s certainly one of the band’s best, in my opinion. To come of age so suddenly after a frankly uninspiring second album is very impressive. I give it a 8.5/10. Their next, which I’m planning to review soon, is one of my top ten albums of all time.

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And yes, I recognize now that I skipped a song; unfortunately I’m not near my copy of WMN to review it. It was probably filler if I forgot about, I think.