Nick Bollinger reviews a new collection of songs from Texan multi-media artist Terry Allen, discusses visiting American singer-songwriter Weyes Blood and a semi-instrumental set from Dunedin stalwart David Kilgour.
Just Like Moby Dick, by Terry Allen & the Panhandle Mystery Band
The word ‘artist’ tends to be applied pretty liberally when it comes to people making music. But if anyone ever earned that title it’s Terry Allen.
For Allen, music is just one part of an artistic practice, which also encompasses sculpture and painting, theatre and film.
Allen is a Texan; he grew up in Lubbock, perhaps best known as the birthplace of Buddy Holly but, in Allen’s experience, a place so flat, bleak and culturally stifling that he left there as soon as he was old enough and for many years stayed as far away as he could.
It’s as a songwriter that he first came to my attention; specially, a song called ‘New Delhi Freight Train’, recorded in the 70s by Little Feat. It took an iconic American tale - the story of the outlaw Jesse James - and gave it a disorientating twist. In this song Jesse has shed his outlaw life and escaped to India.
But it wasn’t until a few years later that I heard Terry Allen’s own version, and that was a revelation. Not only was it far more primitive and dangerous-sounding; it was just part of an epic cycle of songs that showed the true breadth of this artist’s vision. It was one of twenty tracks on a double album called Lubbock (On Everything): a singular, integrated work, which considers questions of art from inside the conventions of country music, and reconsiders country music from within the forum of conceptual art. No one I’ve heard has ever done anything like it, before or since.
His latest collection, Just Like Moby Dick, is both a reminder and a subtle refinement of Allen’s aesthetic. He steps into an existing story again - in this case the fable of ‘Pirate Jenny’, from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s ‘Threepenny Opera’. Where he once sent Jesse James to the capital of India, here he seems to transpose Pirate Jenny from 1920s Berlin to some indeterminate time and place in Texas.
Then there are apparently true stories; another source of Allen’s inspiration over the years. A little-known tale about the great illusionist Harry Houdini provides the entry point for a broader meditation on mortality, and the chances of communicating with the departed.
There’s a suite of songs that seem to be centred on his Texan childhood, with classic 1950s images of comic strip characters and nuclear attack drills. And there are the kind of poignant true-life tales, like ‘Death of the Last Stripper’, that he does better than anyone.
Accompanying Allen on these tracks is the Panhandle Mystery Band, a loose aggregation of fellow Texans who have played on all of his records since Lubbock (On Everything). A stalwart of the group is steel guitarist Lloyd Maines (father of the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines and another Lubbock native). This time the band is augmented by Charlie Sexton, another Texan guitar-slinger, who co-produced the record with Allen, and might be responsible for its slightly shinier veneer.
Just Like Moby Dick is Terry Allen’s first collection in seven years, though that alone is no measure of his output. In that time he’s continued to produce paintings, drawings and sculptures. There were some great photos online recently of Road Angel, his bronze casting of a 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air, actual size, and images from last year’s survey of his drawings at the L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice, Los Angeles. “At a time when narcissistic self-regard seems to be a lot of people’s default setting,” wrote the critic David Pagel, here was an exhibition “so jampacked with love, suffering and resilience that there’s a good chance you’ll be moved to tears. You may also laugh, gasp and marvel at the humanity of Allen’s artistry, which is flat-out inspiring.”
To which I’ll just add, if you can’t see the pictures Pagel was describing, you’ll find all of that in the songs.
Titanic Rising, by Weyes Blood
American singer-songwriter Natalie Mering, who records as Weyes Blood, is about to play in New Zealand for the first time, in Wellington on March 13 with Aldous Harding. Though her latest album was released early last year it seems timely to revisit it.
She may be a millennial but her music harks back to a much earlier era. Centred on her voice and piano, and enhanced with big stirring orchestrations, songs like these are like sophisticated 60s or 70s pop songs; the kind Dusty Springfield might have sung. When Pitchfork asked her to pick the song she wishes she had written, she named ‘Stardust’, the Hoagy Carmichael standard, written way back in 1927. And there is something of ‘Stardust’s elegant wistfulness in the best of her own songs.
But there’s also something about them - notably her lyrics - that locates them firmly in the early 21st century. It’s a modern anxiety; a worrying about who we are, where we’re going, what’s real and what’s illusory in a hyper-connected world.
It’s this balance of classic songcraft and contemporary angst that makes the album more than just a musical retread. If there’s romance, it takes place against a dystopian backdrop that’s scarily recognisable. And while the title tune ‘Titanic Rising’ doesn’t actually have any lyrics, just the name evokes the feeling I get from a lot of these songs: of a human race teetering on the edge of disaster yet still with the possibility of lifting themselves above it.
Bobbie’s A Girl, by David Kilgour
Ever since the earliest days of the Clean, David Kilgour has known how to make a lot out of a little. Two or three chords, a laconic lyric and before you knew it you’d have a 'Tally Ho’, a ‘Billy Two’ or a ‘Getting Older’. Four decades down the track and he’s still working with much the same tools, but on his latest album he’s taken minimalism to next level.
While his sense of what makes a song hasn’t really changed in that time, his use of sound has certainly deepened, and listening to the best of his solo work is like talking a dive through layers of harmony and tone. You’ll find some of those layers on this new album too; stacked guitars, both electric and acoustic, chiming and resonating through simple repetitive patterns of chords.
There are a few of those laconic lyrics, too, never more so than a song like ‘If You Were Here and I Was There’, which has a couple of verses, and wordless chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ before it seems to decide that it’s really an instrumental.
Even when there are voices, like the dramatic harmonies on ‘Crawler’, Kilgour is inclined to approach them more like an organ or some other kind of chordal instrument. That’s not the only track here where I’m reminded a little of the American musician William Tyler, who makes his widescreen instrumental recordings for Merge Records, the same American label Kilgour is signed to. And, like Tyler’s records, I sometimes feel like I’m listening to the soundtrack of a road movie; one I start to see when I close my eyes.
Though some of the tracks are almost solo pieces, Kilgour is accompanied, to different degrees, by his longstanding band The Heavy Eights. Sadly the group’s lifelong drummer, Tane Tokona, passed away in January, just after the album’s release. But his understated, expressive playing was never more effective.
The closest thing here to classic Kilgour - and, not surprisingly, the track that was released ahead of the album as a single last year - is ‘Smoke You Right Out Of Here’. It’s a dreamy, slightly narcotised pop song, with shimmering guitars and a rueful lyric, which conspire together to create a mood of unspecified melancholy.
Towards the latter part of the album, the minimalism starts to sound a bit more like incompletion. On a tune called ‘Looks Like I’m Running Out’, Kilgour winds up the electric guitar and starts to prod Neil Young-is noises out of it, but it’s like listening to a lead break that’s lost its song.
Then again, maybe that sense of incompletion is deliberate. David Kilgour’s records have always felt more like they were on their way somewhere, rather than having reached a particular destination. The message here might be that the ride is more important than the arrival.