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Lyle Lovett, Jay Farrar, Benjamin Gibbard, Electric Six and Mike Doughty

By Brian Baker · October 23rd, 2009 · I Shall Be Released

My odometer rolled over this week. It seems strangely surreal that I’ve already accumulated a year’s worth of calendar pages, but there’s no arguing with October. It’s here, and I’ve turned.

My head certainly doesn’t acknowledge the passed time. Deep in the recesses of my juvenile lizard brain there is a clump of cells trying to reconcile the fact that there are 53 years worth of memories cluttering the joint, a confusing scenario for the clump since it’s just now processing those whirlwind post-high school years.

This reverie doesn’t come with a dread of aging attached. I was raised by grandparents, and I’m well aware of the consequences of the advancing years. As my old friend John James is fond of saying, getting old ain’t for sissies, but at the same time it’s a natural and wonderful stage of life.

The body, like any machine, requires more care as it ages, but the mind is perhaps the most critical muscle in the whole system. It must be challenged and stimulated on a daily basis or it atrophies and wastes away, and it cannot be revived once it sinks past a certain level. It’s not about chasing youth, it’s about bringing your youth with you through all the phases of your life and remembering that passion and excitement and beauty are not exclusive to the young. They are merely experienced differently.

A case in point: My birthday always brings a phone call from Peter, my best friend in college. He’s lived in D.C. now almost as long as I’ve lived in Cincinnati, and he’s been through a succession of bands and jobs during his time there.

Maybe 20 years ago he found a nice gig at The Washington Post that allowed him the freedom to pursue his musical vision, which he has done in various permutations. Last year, The Post was reeling from the effects of the economy and offered longtime employees a buyout. Peter accepted. Since then, he’s been working on a new band project, which will be unveiled at an opening gig in the near future.

At 51, Peter is excited at the prospect of writing new songs and naming the band (he has some doozies in mind) and getting back in the Rock & Roll game. He’s old enough to know the pitfalls and the work involved and all of the negative aspects of running that particular flag up that particular hill, and he’s relishing the thought of doing it. He’s also gearing up for some insane bicycle marathon that will entail riding for 600 miles or some such shit, further proof of his uberdrive.

That’s where I break ranks. I get exhausted watching yoga on public television.

Anyway, Peter’s enthusiasm for his new band matches the enthusiasm I have for the music I listen to each and every week. When my daughter was small, I used to read Winnie the Pooh stories to her at bedtime most every night, and one of my favorite passages was when Piglet asked Pooh what he said to himself upon awaking every morning. “What’s for breakfast?” Pooh responded, then asked Piglet what he said. Piglet answered, “I say, 'I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?' ” After a thoughtful nod, Pooh said, “It’s the same thing.”

And indeed it is. If you have a passion for all things, everything is exciting in some small way. Like my grandmother always said, there are no boring things, just boring people. And none of those boring people had anything to do with the music below.

Generally, a new Lyle Lovett album is like a welcome visit from an old friend, or a new pair of jeans as comfortable as if they’d been worn for a decade. Specifically, Lovett occupies a place in Country music similar to the one Randy Newman inhabits in Pop; a wry observer of the foibles of the common man who uses humor and sentimentality both subtle and broad to make his points.

On Natural Forces, Lovett follows that well-traveled path while making a slight return to 1998’s Step Inside This House, once again populating his new album with covers of his favorite Texas songwriters.

Lovett’s originals run the gamut, from the gently powerful title track to the lowbrow nudge-wink of “Farmer Brown” (“Gonna choke my chicken ’til the sun goes down...”) to the obvious dinner-as-sex metaphor of “Pantry.” then, as is typical of Lovett’s best work, he turns on a dime, describing heartbreak in the most eloquent musical and lyrical fashion on “Empty Blue Shoes.”

Lovett is equally commanding when interpreting other songwriters, particularly his Texas bretheren, as evidenced by his aching take on Eric Taylor’s “Whooping Crane,” his jazzy, rootsy spin on Tommy Elskes’ “Bohemia” and his perfect stroll through “Loretta,” a barroom ode to love from the late Townes Van Zandt, the patron saint of Lone Star troubadours. Lovett goes out with a bang (the acoustic version of “Pantry” notwithstanding) on “It’s Rock and Roll,” a swinging, sinewy roots rocker co-penned with his former Texas A&M roommate Robert Earl Keen, capping off Natural Forces with the engagingly offhand brilliance that has defined Lovett’s catalog for the past two decades.

With the 1957 success of On the Road, Jack Kerouac went from obscure writer to lionized celebrity almost overnight. But in three short years, the voice of the Beat Generation found himself emotionally crippled by fame and he retreated to the Big Sur, Calif., cabin of fellow Beat Lawrence Ferlinghetti in order to recharge his batteries and to step back from the alcohol consumption that would eventually contribute to his 1969 death.

While sequestered at Ferlinghetti’s cabin, Kerouac conceived his 1962 Roman a clef, Big Sur, a fictionalized account of his own inner struggle and eventual breakdown. In its way, Big Sur became almost as influential and revered as Kerouac’s Beat classics.

Fast forward 45 years: Producer Jim Sampas is crafting a documentary on Kerouac’s experiences at Big Sur and discovers that Kerouac’s writings have long inspired Son Volt’s Jay Farrar and further uncovers that Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard had actually stayed at Ferlinghetti’s cabin when he was writing the band’s 2008 album Narrow Stairs. Sampas invited them both to work on music for the film, One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur.

Although Gibbard and Farrar seem unlikely collaborators, it didn’t take long for their commonalities to shine through. Farrar had already demoed nearly a dozen songs, using Kerouac’s prose as a template for his lyrics and with the demos as a rough guide. Farrar and Gibbard hammered out the finished songs over a couple of sessions in the summer of ’07 and winter of ’08, resulting in a work that is both a film soundtrack and a stand alone album of songs.

Given that the songs began from Farrar’s seeds, it’s not surprising that One Fast Move or I’m Gone has the unmistakable shimmer of a Son Volt work, although there are times that Gibbard’s Death Cab roots peek through (“The Void,” “One Fast Move or I’m Gone”). Even with Gibbard at the mic, Farrar’s dusty chord patterns and mournful melodies are as identifiable as fingerprints (“Low Life Kingdom,” “Breathe Our Iodine,” “Big Sur”). Farrar and Gibbard have definitely tapped into the melancholy and quiet emotional turbulence of the source material but the end result is sure to appeal primarily to Son Volt/Farrar fans.

When Electric Six debuted seven years ago, they followed the example of countless Detroit bands before them by ignoring prevailing trends and doing whatever the hell they felt like doing. And what Electric Six and their frenetic frontman Dick Valentine wanted to do is pack a nitro burning funny car with theatrical guitar Rock that out-Tubed the Tubes and R&B that gene spliced Disco with St. Vitus Dance and then hit the finish line or the wall at top speed. Either one was considered a smashing success.

E6 has fiddled with the levels on their first five albums, alternately amping up the guitar histrionics or the synth pulse to suit their immediate needs. On their sixth album, Kill, they make more of an attempt to blend styles rather than swing wildly between them. The sextet’s highly charged Tubes-jumps-the-Dictators Rock is appointed with their manic brand of synth-drenched Dance Pop, all of it ratcheted up to adrenaline-spiking and ear-shredding levels. All of this is shepherded along by Valentine, this generation’s Fee Waybill and a lyricist of rare power and heart-stoppingly hilarious humor who is serious only about his band’s good time.

From the Disco cannonball explosions of “Bodyshot” and “The Newark Airport Boogie” to the detective theme swagger of “My Idea of Fun” to the full bore amps-to-11 assault of “One Sick Puppy,” “Escape From Ohio” and the punky samba of “You’re Bored,” Electric Six has impossibly moved toward the center of their broadly-spectrumed sound while amplifying the most extreme aspects at both ends.

No one can accuse Mike Doughty of being unresponsive to his fanbase. When he fielded a lot of negative reaction to the Pop simplicity of last year’s Golden Delicious, he took the criticism to heart and fashioned the songs on his new album, Sad Man Happy Man, with the incisively biting and jerkily syncopated lyrical quality as his Soul Coughing and early solo work.

At the same time, he streamlined his musical direction, returning to the acoustic approach of his solo debut, 2000’s Skittish, while borrowing bits and shards of the textural sonic appointments that have graced much of his studio output.

As a result, Sad Man Happy Man plays like a hybrid of Doughty’s creative spectrum to date, from the campfire singalong (provided you brought a cello to the campfire) of “Nectarine (part two),” the Pop acoustic ache of “(I Want to) Burn You (Down)” to the Soul Coughing acrobatics of “(You Should Be) Doubly (Gratified).” Another dichotomy on Sad Man Happy Man, exemplified in the album’s title, is Doughty’s dual lyrical focus, which shifts from intimate self-examination — inspired by an emotional break-up — to an outer-directed worldview perspective, inspired by the national and global economic meltdown. “Pleasure on Credit” swings and swaggers like vintage Soul Coughing mashed up with Beck as Doughty spins a raspy rap detailing the politics of greed. “How to Fuck a Republican” is a gritty Folk ode about sex on the right, while “(I Keep On) Rising Up” and “Lorna Zauberberg” are Folk/Pop jaunts through Doughty’s relationship pain. And for drug culture cred, you can’t do better than “Lord Lord Help Me Just to Rock Rock On,” which is destined to wind up in the soundtrack of an upcoming episode of CSI.

However he chooses to express it, Mike Doughty is zeroing in on a fascinating and unique musical synthesis that will suit him until it doesn’t, after which he’ll fold in something else to pique his own creative interest. Until then, Sad Man Happy Man and pretty much the whole of Doughty’s catalog is just fine with us.


 
 
 
 

 

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