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Refuge in Another Form
The Burns Sisters: In This World
My weeks, of late, have been discouragingly uneventful, but this last was a good one. I may be revealing more than I should about how low my threshold for "good week" has been lowered, but it took just five bright spots to carry this one. The first was that over the weekend I decided this column's web site needed a search engine. I actually added a search button a few weeks ago, but all it did was pass off whatever you typed to Hotbot. The appeal of this solution, very much like looking for your keys wherever the light is best, was that Hotbot's query syntax made it straightforward to add a domain-restriction parameter without relying on JavaScript or CGI or anything else that complicated. The drawback, however, was that Hotbot's web crawler only comes around to check on my site when it's in a certain mood, so its index to my reviews is always at least out of date, and frequently even patchier than that. And while one could question the wisdom of searching my body of writing in the first place, a search button that didn't really was clearly of no use to anybody. So last weekend I finally got around to getting my ISP to install Architext for me, and after a few brow-furrowing hours peering at labyrinthine perl scripts, trying to find the right pressure points for disabling all the "advanced" query features I didn't want (Excite's "concept grouping" feature informed me, with a grim New York Times-ish solemnity, that several of my articles fell under the general heading of "Loaf"), my web site now has a box where you can type some words in, a button you can hit afterwards, and a page that comes up and says which issues mention whatever it is. If nothing else, this helps me avoid repeating jokes.
The second bright spot was the Pro Bowl. My interest in football is fading noticeably, but I have a special affection for the Pro Bowl that dates back to the period of my childhood when IHOP, for some reason, was giving away miniature plastic football helmets. Obsessive even then, I amassed the entire collection, and then devised an endless series of games played using the helmets and some much-abused marbles, up and down the grid lines that the carpet in my bedroom had at the time. The Pro Bowl, both in the fact that players wear matching uniforms but their own teams' helmets, and also in the generally haphazard quality of play, seems like the living-chess equivalent of those carpet games. It also, in a league where unchecked mercenary team-hopping has become common practice, is a rare example of players managing to contribute to some new cause without totally abandoning their last one. And of course there's always the cheap sentimental thrill of seeing bitter rivals cooperate, though this part was more impressive in the days when players didn't routinely defect to their bitter rivals just to get paid a little more.
The third bright spot was a letter I got today, at work, from the coordinator of a Boston middle-school's science fair, saying that she'd found the brief human-interest piece a local news program did about the software company I work for in my other life so intriguing that she wanted to invite me to come be a judge for the fair. Exactly what about the profile prompted this idea I don't know, since nowhere in the piece does anybody reveal precisely what the company does, nor what my role in it is, but the note said that the school was trying for "diversity" in their judges, and I don't anticipate any trouble providing that.
The fourth bright spot, very much in keeping with my reactionary lobotomizing of the search engine, the cartoon communalism of the Pro Bowl, and the spirit of cheerfully random optimism in the fair-coordinator's invitation, is In This World, the fourth or fifth album by upstate-NY family trio The Burns Sisters. Say whatever else you wish about mainstream country music, whether pure or the half-folk variant the sisters play, it is not plagued by moral relativism, aesthetic indecision, emotional instability or socio-political angst. I've read several articles, in recent weeks, either lamenting or heralding (and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference) the death of "modern rock", but one no more laments or heralds a development in country music than one decries or eulogizes a friend's golden retriever. Where rock music, especially at the edges, is almost always a form of disturbing the peace, country music is the opposite, a genre that not only tries to keep the peace, but that often attempts to construct a moral system in which only peace is thinkable. It is the most explicitly and paradoxically reactionary of musical genres, rural imagery and stoic sentiment peddled by the exact same technocratic merchandising chimeras that paw through their piles of brightly colored trinkets for something to rattle engagingly in our collective gurgling faces in every other genre.
Not, to be clear, that there's necessarily anything wrong with this. This week, in fact, essentialist doctrine was exactly what I was in the mood for. I didn't feel stupid and contagious this week, I felt wistful. I didn't want to hear about heroin overdoses, claustrophobic desperation, pigheaded defiance, sexual aberrations or rank injustice, I wanted to hear about joy, friendship, courage, faith, simplicity, tranquillity and strength. Hear harmony, not dissonance; feel sway, not jolt. In This World could scarcely be better fit. "Dance Upon This Earth", with its whirling fiddle trills and pattering hi-hats, is like a curtsey from a farmhouse porch to a warm morning sun. The anthemic "I Won't Turn My Back" is an uncluttered promise of support. "Old Friend" could be the unaware answer to "Fire Maple Song", the song of Art Alexakis' boyhood friend moved happily back home, raised a family and wondering fondly what became of him. "My Father's Blue Eyes" is a simple, heartfelt memorial. "Far From My Home" is a song of carrying a piece of your source inside of you. The steady, atmospheric music of "Can I Walk Away Tonight?" is the strength the song's own words ask for. "In This World" itself is slow and graceful. "The Owl" is oblique, and yet spiritual. And the rousing gospel-choir finale, "No More Silence", is like a secular "Amazing Grace" for all the era's pain.
Musically, the Burns Sisters nod respectfully toward a variety of antecedents. At times they remind me of Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter or even Dolly Parton, at others of acoustic Heart or the Indigo Girls. Their harmonies can swell towards a wail, or swoop like a girl group. Their backing band and Gary Tallent's Nashville production are poised and supportive, but never attempt to distract from the sisters' voices. The back cover has a gushing affidavit from new-folk patroness Christine Lavin. I wouldn't call any of this innovative, but it isn't supposed to be. An album of cherished friends and memories should be framed in familiar timbers.
Country idiom usually eventually alienates me where it trades denim for rhinestones and tries to get frisky, but here I contrive to be unfailingly charmed through even the silly songs. "Working Girl Blues" is like "9 to 5" with a slightly more sophisticated economic gripe, but the goofy trucker-movie slide-guitar doodling and the way the sisters let the last beat of "givin' somebody else all of my pay" escape in a giddy flutter make me think that the narrator's day job is really no more than a nuisance in her life. "Heavenly Blue" is about falling in love with a stranger at a square dance, but it avoids patronizing either participant. The bluesy, ominous "Johnny Got a Gun" could easily have been disturbing in other hands, but in the end the sisters' version's total inability to think of any reason for violence other than unfathomable madness is such a hearteningly optimistic view of human nature that I'm forced to smile. And the bouncy country-pop kiss-off "Stay Away From Me", a paean to, of all forgotten pre-post-modern constructs, fidelity, simplifies the moral calculus even further, reducing all problems in life to romance, and all solutions to the simple precaution of shaking three synchronized fingers of dismissal at wandering eyes.
Todd Thibaud: Favorite Waste of Time
The fifth bright spot of the week is Todd Thibaud's solo debut, Favorite Waste of Time, which I purchased with no particular expectations at all, solely on the grounds that it was on sale for $8.99, and the back of it says "Produced by Kevin Salem" at the bottom. Thibaud, I have since discovered, is the singer and chief songwriter for folk-rock-ish Boston-area (non-sibling) band Courage Brothers. Their keyboardist and bassist join him here, as well, and the conspicuous absence of Courage Brothers' lead guitarist and co-writer Jim Wooster from both the playing credits and the thank-yous suggests a potential explanation for the solo digression, but I have no idea if there's anything to this speculation. The album feels surer of itself and less diffuse to me than the Courage Brothers' 1994 album Wood, but my guess is that this is more a result of the solo project than the cause of it.
Favorite Waste of Time is another record, I think, that finds a comfortable niche, and tries less to change your life than to strengthen it. Thibaud's warm voice reminds me in passing of Luka Bloom, Richard Shindell, Lou Barlow and Justin Currie, with even touches of Joe Jackson and Peter Holsapple around the edges, depending on whether he steadies himself on the edge of his range with clipping or twang. The music is more like Salem's and Del Amitri's than Bloom's or Sebadoh's, mandolins and piano keeping it out of low-fi, and omnipresent electric guitars disqualifying it from folk, but Thibaud avoids Del Amitri's oppressive melancholy by rarely letting emotion quiet his guitars, and stays clear of Salem's rough edges by not straining against the contours of the songwriting. The lithe, sturdily mid-tempo "Sweet Destiny" is animated by guitar flares (a couple of which sound almost like quotes from the My So-Called Life theme) and some Ellis Paul-like observations in the lyrics ("Where there's a couple out walking, they're speaking in sign / It's a good conversation, I think she's changing her mind"). The simmering "What They Say" storms into a chorus that sounds a little like Gin Blossoms to me, and I date myself by, even after about a dozen sing-alongs, insisting on howling "It's been too many years since 'Purple Rain'" where Thibaud means a much older song of the same color. "That Wasn't Me" swings from a Del-Amitri-like acoustic-guitar intro to piano-driven verses that could be Warren Zevon, to a harmony-drenched chorus reminiscent of the dB's. The slow "Just What You Please" slides through hints of Crowded House, Big Star and, if Thibaud's voice would only fray more, Soul Asylum. "Your Little Pals", with some wailing Alarm-esque harmonica against an otherwise heartily mid-American stomp, could be one of Wilco's deadpan rock moments, with a vocal hook borrowed perhaps in part from Richard Shindell's "Are You Happy Now?". "Give Back My Heart" has Thibaud's most Barlow-like hush on the quiet, organ-hum verses, but Kowalczyk/Duritz drama on the crashing choruses.
The album's closest approach to pure folk comes on the elegant, mournful "Johanna's Dreams". A muted guitar provides the rhythm and the chord changes, which mandolin and harmonica elaborate on sparingly, and Thibaud drifts along in their tow, lost in thought. The interlude is short-lived, though, with the barbed descending line of "Live Without It" returning to overdriven guitar, another Gin Blossoms likeness salvaged by a few moments of endearing unsteadiness. "Somebody New" is only a sliver of an accent away from a Del Amitri song I just can't quite place (not "Surface of the Moon", but that's close). "Old Times" brings the acoustic guitars out again for an atmospheric end-of-the-night kind of song that reminds me of a slower Dog's Eye View. And "Wintercoat", the fadeout, lets the atmosphere of "Old Times" swallow a desultory hi-hat and brushed snare, a minimalist guitar part halfway from Dire Straits to Low, and a subdued vocal that seems content to dissolve, not explode, sending me off towards the rest of my life feeling like the flywheel of stored anxieties and neuroses has, for at least the moment, been mercifully bled of the frenetic energy that causes gyroscopic orthogonal spasms every time I reach for something.
Bill Janovitz: Lonesome Billy
Another band leader temporarily on loan to a solo project, Bill Janovitz is the singer and guitarist for the definitively Bostonian trio Buffalo Tom. The idea of a Janovitz solo album first worried me, because I violently dislike any thought that Buffalo Tom, one of the most seemingly cohesive bands in my awareness, might ever break up. On the other hand, though, Buffalo Tom albums have been producing diminishing returns for me since Let Me Come Over, so perhaps the shock of a solo album would reinvigorate the band. And to complete my cycle of anticipatory uneasiness, I hated the title "Lonesome Billy" on sight, and feared, for no good reason, that it augured an unadvisedly experimental album I'd have to shelve after the first listen like I did Pacer.
But I should have known better. Janovitz is constitutionally incapable of affect, and so making him sound like anything other than himself would require more outside interference, not less. Most of Lonesome Billy sounds much like Buffalo Tom, for the simple reason that much of Buffalo Tom sounds like Bill Janovitz. His vocal inflections are unmistakable (especially on "Think of All"), many of the acoustic-guitar mannerisms are familiar (especially on "Shoulder"), and there's little here overall that would take a Buffalo Tom fan much aback. The differences, predictably, arise around the edges, where a different cast (or, on the one-man-band efforts "Shoulder" and "Talking to the Queen", the lack of one) bring out different of Janovitz's inclinations and contribute other urges of their own. Joey Burns' harmony vocals give "Girl's Club" some dB's color. "Gaslight" roils with Thin Lizzy guitar stabs. Accordion, vibes, upright bass and flamenco mandolin drive the slight instrumental (with bellowing) "Ghost in My Piano". Goofy accents, sloppy timing and slurred lyrics about alcohol turn "Strangers" into a drunken country beer-hall pastiche. Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine" is oddly sincere, Janovitz more plausible as a histrionic lounge crooner than I would have guessed. Neil Harry's pedal steel guitar on "Peninsula" is a distant relative of early American Music Club, and Fuzzy vocalist Chris Toppin lends the closing track "Red Balloon" an unexpected female voice. If this were a Buffalo Tom album, I'd be upset with it, I think, for its sketchiness and lack of ambition, and we'll have to wait a while longer to see if it has any evident effect on the band's next record, but as an interlude its sketchiness is appropriate, and the whole thing seems, if ultimately probably tangential, then also admirably modest, genuine and distinct.
Peter Holsapple: Out of My Way
The week's last wayward band leader is ex-dB's (who claim really to be dead this time, but have said that before) and current Continental Drifters singer/songwriter/guitarist Peter Holsapple. Although this seems patently absurd in the face of Holsapple's long and productive career on behalf of his own bands and numerous others, Out of My Way is actually his first solo album, the closest previous approach being the 1991 collaboration with fellow ex-dB Chris Stamey, Mavericks. As Holsapple was the dB's songwriter and voice for three albums (Stamey left after 1981's Repercussion), this solo records sounds as inevitably like them as Janovitz's does like Buffalo Tom. Even the chronology is confusing, as all but one of the songs on this 1996 disc (which didn't reach my stores until 1997) bear 1992 copyrights, while the posthumous final dB's album, Paris Avenue, is dated 1994. Indeed Holsapple could probably have switched the contents of Out of My Way with those of Paris Avenue without me, at least, being the wiser. The dB's, in the post-Stamey years, were fond of sturdy, straightforwardly appealing guitar-pop, tinged with country twang, and this slightly more acoustic album makes at least as much sense as the successor to Like This and The Sound of Music as the rougher Paris Avenue did. Holsapple's songwriting is square and unforced, and the edgy "I Been There", the eerie "No Sound", the undulating "Away With Love", the impish "Pretty, Damned, Smart", the lurching "Couldn't Stop Lying to You", the surging "Meet Me in the Middle", the reeling "Don't Worry About John" and the gentle, rolling "Here and Now" all have his songs' classic virtues. The only problem, for me, is that having heard "Amplifier", "Love Is for Lovers" and "Never Say When", I know Holsapple is capable of writing songs much funnier, more moving and more startling than any of these, and I can't help wondering why he doesn't.
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