Tuesday 28 June 2016, with Nick Bollinger
The Sampler for 28 June
In The Sampler this week Nick Bollinger reviews a saga without words from guitarist William Tyler; the reissue of a mid-seventies epic from Texan sculptor and songwriter Terry Allen; and an American journey comes to an end with the final album from Allen Toussaint.
Modern Country by William Tyler
Nick Bollinger reviews a saga without words from guitarist William Tyler.
It seems odd to say it, but arguably the most epic tale I’ve heard this year is on a record with no words.
William Tyler is a guitar player - an extremely good one. Just in terms of technique, he’s phenomenal, moving around the instrument in a variety of tunings and fingering styles, from a deft clawhammer picking reminiscent of John Fahey, to gritty electric plucking in the manner of Ry Cooder.
He’s in his mid-thirties, but has been a presence on the alternative scene of his Nashville home since his teens, playing in groups like Lambchop and Silver Jews, and on albums by everyone from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to Candi Staton.
But his solo records are where he sets out his own musical vision, and it’s an expansive one. Modern Country is his most expansive yet, both sonically and conceptually. The title suggests multiple meanings: on a regional level it might refer to Tyler’s Nashville base, the cradle of ‘modern country’ music. Yet while his music, like Nashville country, is connected to all kinds of early rural sounds, it is also consciously modern, in the manner of a 20th century abstractionist or stream-of-consciousness poet.
It would be easy to say it sounds like the soundtrack to a road movie, and much of it does. But this music doesn’t need cameras or a narrative. It is its own movie, and the way Tyler uses sounds and motifs creates a narrative as strong, in its own way, as any screenplay.
The album begins with a simple eight-bar melody, traced on an electric guitar. If the tune seems familiar, it is a close relative of the theme Bob Dylan recorded for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which Dave Rawlings reframed last year for his epic ballad ‘The Trip’ on his Nashville Obsolete album. Wherever this melody rears its head, it always seems to depict a journey, and always through a mythic American landscape. But Tyler’s landscape isn’t the wild west of Billy the Kid or the world on the rails described in Rawlings’ song. This is modern country. And the old theme lingers like a ghost of America’s past, while Tyler’s traveller passes through an apocalypse of dying cities and fossil-fuelled destruction. At least, that’s what I hear; and I believe that’s what Tyler meant when he named his version of this tune ‘Highway Anxiety’, though I like to think the music would have provided me with those images anyway.
While he invites you to think of this music as country, Tyler’s compositions actually have as much in common with modern classical: think of the way Steve Reich or Philip Glass use repetition, and the majestic minimalism of Tyler’s music starts to make sense. Old folk songs are the building blocks of many of his pieces: sometimes a whole tune, other times just a fragment, like the figure from ‘Wildwood Flower’ that is the jumping-off point for the tune he calls ‘Kingdom Of Jones’.
William Tyler’s Modern Country is an ambitious album – a concept album without words – and he carries it off gloriously. Did I say masterpiece? Eulogising the guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1996, no less a wordspinner than Bob Dylan said: “There's a lot of spaces and advances between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly and say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all.” Remarkably, I think those words might apply here too.
Songs featured: Gone clear, Albion Moonlight, I’m Gonna Live Forever, Highway Anxiety, Kingdom Of Jones.
Modern Country is available on Merge Records.
Juarez by Terry Allen
Nick Bollinger delves into a mid-seventies epic from Texan sculptor and songwriter Terry Allen.
There are many ways of telling a tale, and the American artist Terry Allen has used more than a few of them in his time. Now 73, this painter, sculptor, songwriter, dramatist and musician has made his living from a combination of all these things ever since he left his hometown of Lubbock, Texas in the early sixties. And he draws on all of them for the mysterious tale that has been central to his life’s work.
Allen calls it Juarez: A Simple Story. It was the basis of his first album, which was first released just over forty years ago, has been revisited a number of times in a number of ways over the subsequent years. Now it has been re-released in a model reissue, with illustrations and essays that put the whole thing in its historic and artistic context.
Allen introduces the four main characters and gives a brief outline of the plot right near the start of the record. But that barely describes the real action in this tale, which seems to span centuries and civilisations, and takes place largely in the minds of the characters – who aren’t really characters in the usual theatrical sense. Rather, they are archetypes, or, in Allen’s own words “emotional climates or atmospheres in a state of dispossession.” The song ‘Cortez Sail’ begins with the character known as Jabo driving (‘probably a Buick’) out of Los Angeles, but segues into the saga of the Conquistador Cortez and his brutal conquest of the Aztec empire.
The relationship between that bloody historical tale and Allen’s more low-rent 20th century one is never entirely clear, though the former might foreshadow in some symbolic way the bloodshed that follows. Yet in spite of the violent denouement, there is romance along the way.
Allen is a magnificent, poetic lyricist, and wraps his unreconstructed Texan drawl around songs full of detail and wordplay.
But he has many skills. And as the long accompanying essay by Brendan Greaves reveals, the starting point for this project was a set of drawings Allen produced in the 1960s when he was fresh out of art college. Some of these are reproduced here, along with Greaves’ essay, and they are beautiful and surreal. Allen would travel with the visual works, and sometimes perform the songs in the galleries where they were exhibited.
Eventually he made the recordings contained in this album. They are plain: mostly just Allen at his piano, which he plays in a thumping honky-tonk style, joined occasionally by one or other guitarist.
Terry Allen has made a lot of records since Juarez, some more musically sophisticated. ‘Cantina Carlotta’, first heard as part of Juarez, reappeared in the 80s on the record Bloodlines, where Allen was accompanied by the Panhandle Mystery Band, led by the great Lloyd Maines (father of the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines.) On another disc he was joined by Indian musicians, especially appropriate for his song ‘New Delhi Freight Train’, a surreal tale of Jesse James on the run that I first heard covered by Little Feat. He has also continued to work as a visual artist, and his works are held in many museum collections.
But Juarez remains the piece he keeps circling back to, as though haunted by it. The story, he says in the liner notes, didn’t present itself all at once but grew as the piece grew. He’s not even sure where it came from. ‘The characters’ he says, ‘came out of the drawings and the songs, but really just came out of nowhere.’ And listening to this, I’m thinking that might be where the best stuff comes from.
Songs featured: The Juarez Device, Cortez Sail, Honeymoon In Cortez, Border Palace, Cantina Carlotta, La Despedida.
Juarez has been reissued on Paradise Of Bachelors.
American Tunes by Allen Toussaint
An American journey comes to an end with the final album from Allen Toussaint.
One great American journey came to an end last year with the death of Allen Toussaint, the great New Orleans musician, composer and producer. This month saw the release of his final recordings, and they are a reminder of what we’ve lost and what he’s left behind.
No one played New Orleans blues with more dignity and formality than Toussaint. Listening to the opening track – an original he calls ‘Delores’ Boyfriend’ I can see him in his suit and tie, his eternally elegant self. But there’s also a touch of his gentle humour; those teasing pauses at the start, where you know what he’s going to play next but he makes you wait for it; that uplifting key change; and his acknowledgement of the greats who went before him, especially Professor Longhair, who created many of the signature New Orleans licks and who Toussaint himself dubbed ‘the Bach of rock.’
Though Toussaint surely didn’t know this would be his last album, he was clearly in a reflective, almost career-summing mode. And one purpose of the record seems to be to pay respects to his mentors. If Toussaint’s approach to Professor Longhair’s barrelhouse compositions was to formalise them, turn them into almost-classical pieces, the other New Orleans hero he pays homage to here was a classical composer: Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Active in the mid-19th century, Gottschalk had studied music in Paris, but his compositions were inspired not only by the Chopin he heard in Europe but by the drums of Congo Square and folk melodies of the Caribbean. And Toussaint’s approach to Gottschalk’s ‘Danza’ is to give it just a bit less of the Paris salon and a touch more of the New Orleans barrelhouse.
Though Toussaint was a lovely understated vocalist, and of course wrote many lyrical songs, this last album is largely instrumental, and looks beyond the New Orleans he grew up in to jazz heroes like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
He also revisits one of his own better-known tunes, ‘Southern Nights’, in a gentle instrumental arrangement. But he saves his voice for the album’s title track, ‘American Tune’. a Paul Simon song, of course, and the lyric seems particularly poignant as Toussaint sings it, as if in conversation with himself, answering his own phrases with thoughtful little runs on the piano. Of course there is an irony here, in that Simon’s so-titled ‘American Tune’ isn’t so American; it has its origins in a chorale from Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion. Yet that’s clearly the kind of synthesis Toussaint appreciated. The meeting of musics - and making it funky - was what he was all about. And this album is ultimately a memorial to that.
Songs featured: Delores’ Boyfriend, Southern Nights, Hey Little Girl, Danza op. 33, American Tune.
American Tunes is available on Nonesuch Records.