Cosmic ' American music
Black hearts, broken hearts, turdy hearts? Country music’s troubled old ticker is still beating, and beating hard, as American Music Club, The Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo pump fresh blood through it. Craig McLean enjoys the palpitations.
There’s a riot going on. Quietly. The post-grunge/glam/gloss comedown starts here. Or over there. Coming our way, straight out of the American broken heartland, comes a triple- whammy of cracked, wracked musos. They are called American Music Club, The Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo. Purely by chance they are all touring and touting their gut-true version of ‘cosmic American music’ at the same time. This is almost too good to be true. Catch all three and catch three anagrams of the legend ‘country music is alive and well and no, it’s not feeling sorry for itself.’
‘Cosmic American music‘ is what Gram Parsons called his rock ’n’ roll re-vamp of country’s traditional mores. He died twenty years ago aged just 27; he had time. though, by way of his work with The Flying Burrito Brothers and his two solo albums, to summon up ‘a collection of songs that truly do meld. mend and incite.‘ As the sleeve notes on the I990 CD-reissue of those solo albums (GP and Grievous Angel) further note, ‘Gram was aware that he was blazing a trail that might someday result in the redeﬁnition of contemporary country music.’
And lookee here, whaddaya know: of late. covers of Gram have come from
the disparate likes of Dinosaur Jr, Belly and Lemonheads. But more to the
point, and quickly to the purpose of our being here, Parsons’ emotional/ lyrical/musical sparcity and perspicacity is writ large over our three touring bands. The song’s the thing.
‘The reason we play the music we play is that we try to be true to the song.’ So states American Music Club’s singer, songwriter and emotional victim Mark Eitzel. ‘lt’s the tyranny of the song as opposed to the tyranny of style or the tyranny of drugs or the tyranny of something else. ‘
‘l’ve always been partial to song- orientated music,’ ponders Vudi. Eitzel’s long-time guitarist and full- time endearineg subdued person, ‘which is what country music is and vocal jazz is. rather than a splashy effect.’
AMC’s latest album, Mercury, is their sixth and threatened to nix our cohesive cool country concept when it shied away from the soft-pedalling pedal steel-based bent of the band’s California ( I988) and Everclear ( 1991) albums. But this time round the arrangements are as unadorned as ever, albeit veering more towards a folk- blues ghostliness. Still this is formed from delicately applied brush-strokes and haunting narratives — no splashy effects here, no ﬂashy modernity.
‘We decided that we would just have arrangements that were totally stripped down,’ says Vudi, ‘and just find a place for the vocals to sit. And not play so fucking much.’ In this respect Mitchell Froom. past producer of Suzanne Vega, Los Lobos and Richard Thompson. was a necessary restraining leash, keeping things minimal, playing to the vitality of Eitzel’s three-dimensional songs.
‘And he’s kinda like us,’ Vudi adds, ‘he has a reputation for being a very dark character. But compared to us he’s very upbeat!’
‘Pretty much what we do comes from the heart first. And then we start saying to each other, “Well you’ve got a black heart there”, or “Your heart looks like a turd, get rid of it!”’
This is American Music Club ‘fighting out’ the arrangements and, rather deftly, sums up the melancholic passion that is country music’s touchstone (and for cynics, its tombstone). The Jayhawks’ latest album, Hollywood Town Hall, seduces with its wirey take on this maudlin mood. This edge, more in tune with Neil Young’s streaky version of country rock, scuffs up The Jayhawks’ live performances. and is probably just the hook that snared George Drakoularis. The Def American A&R man who stumbled across and then produced The Black Crowes did likewise for the Minneapolis-based Jayhawks, signing them up after two ultra-low-key independent album releases.
‘Our basis is old-school songwriting.’ The Jayhawks’ Mark Olson has said. ‘I think music got away from that, and I think hard rock got more into the look and the speed. I like writing romantic stuff. And I’m not talking in the boy/girl sense of romance at all. I’m talking about looking out at the world and finding beauty in it.’
Gut-true but full of guts too — where American Music Club are introspective and searing, The Jayhawks are introspective and rocking. Uncle Tupelo, meanwhile, are bar-room roots renegadcs from Belleville. Illinois, once produced by Peter Buck, possessed of a record that features The Jayhawks and hard rock twangery (Still Feel Gone), blessed with only sporadic releases for their three albums over here, and unavailable for interview. But as with American Music Club and The Jayhhawks, if the cosmic cowboys themselves are quiet and subdued. then this cosmic American music speaks volumes. Listen up.
Uncle Tupelo play The Venue. Edinburgh on Fri 26. American Music Club play King Tut’s. Glasgow on Sat 27 and The Venue, Edinburgh on Sun 28. The Jayhawks' play The Venue. Edinburgh on Sun 4 and King Tut’s, Glasgow on Mon 5.
Dialogue with Phaedrus
As the turmoil surrounding the future of the sec Scottish Symphony Orchestra continues without any clear indication of an rly settlement, it perhaps does no harm lust to pause for a moment and look back. Over the past ten years, the BBB 880 has commissioned no less than 24 new orchestral works, a staggering statistic. Of that total figure, fifteen of the composers are either Scottish by birth, or resident and working in Scotland. For now, the trend continues and this season it has been developed
further to become the BBB SSil Premiere Series, four concerts featuring Scottish and world premieres. The latest in the line is ‘Phaedrus’, a concerto for piano solo, concertante group and orchestra, by Glasgow-born composer Ian Mcilueen, which will be heard for the first time on 27 March at Broadcasting iiouse (not the Queen’s iiall, Edinburgh as originally advertised). ‘list’ readers will, of course, instantly recognise Phaedrus as originating from Plato’s philosophical ‘lilalogues’, where he appears in search of ‘the truth about love’.
There is, however, another Phaedrus. ‘l actually came across the name in Robert Plrsig’s cult novel “Zen And The Art Of Motorcer Maintenance”: explains McQueen, ‘where Phaedrus is the name the protagonist gives to his alter ego - his former self - a
personality completely submerged by psychiatric shock treatment, but whose experiences and dedication to an inner life demand acknowledgement and, ultimately, reconciliation.’
The concerto is in three interconnecting movements, each using different ways to exploit the unconventional layout of the orchestra. Readers should note that there are no tickets left for the concert, which also features the first public performance of Ten Bun‘s ‘lieath and Fire’, and there is a waiting list for returns. llext concert in Premiere Series is on Saturday 17 April at the BSAMB when Geoffrey King’s ‘iAan Banclng’, another BBC commission, will be premiered. (Carol Main).
The sec 880 play Broadcasting ﬂotrse, Glasgow on Sat 27 March.
Dave O'Higgins is no stranger to Scottish audiences, but they might be excused for wondering which version of the powerful saxophonist we are getting next. We have heard him, for example, in the deftly structured, fusion-derived music of
Roadside Picnic, in the more free-blowing
context of Bill Kyle’s
Atlantic Bridge outﬁts,
and in the gentler,
mainstream mode of
John Dankworth's band.
The direction followed in his new album, All Good Things. might be the best indicator of what to expect when he gets together with local musicians for two club gigs this time around. The disc is out on a new independent label, EFZ Records, and is the most straight-ahead session he has recorded to date.
‘I always see my strengths as lying very much in my playing. and the music in this album gives myself and the band a chance to stretch out and really do some blowing, which is a nice change from the more structured fusion stuff I had been doing. I paid for the session myself, largely as a way of keeping control of what we did with the music, and when BMG ﬁnally decided they didn’t want to release it, I was free to take it elsewhere.’
The obvious empathy between O’Higgins and the band (Robin Aspland on piano, Alex Dankwonh on bass, and Jeremy Stacey on drums) reﬂects the amount of work they have done together, but Dave remains busy in other quarters, too.
He had a stint with Icelandic fusion band Mezzoforte, and a stormy one with Salif Keita’s band. and has been doing ‘more commercial things’ with the likes of Matt Bianco and Sarah Jane Morris. as well as a fair amount of session work which helps ‘pay for my jazz habit’. (Joe Alexander) Dave 0 ’Higgins plays The Dunn): Glasgow on Fri 26 and The Tron Jazz Cellar. Edinburgh on Sun 28.
The List 26 March—8 April l993 27