Richard Buckner

Devotion and Doubt(Fontana/MCA 1997)

Yeah, anyone can sing a sad song, but some folks are so bruised that theirs wrap their arms around you and suck every ounce of empathy and rapport one can have with lyrics and a chorus. Ultimately, this is a subjective crapshoot since I once found the Ink Spots to be the saddest outfit in the known universe while others may sink to the bottom of their well whenever muzak plays in the elevator. Therefore, the following sentiments will most likely be tacked onto any number of albums in my future, but something keeps me coming back to Richard Buckner’s Devotion and Doubt these days. It’s like watching a disaster occurring in slow-motion on a static-ridden television.

Sadly, it was released during a time when the world hatched a genre called alt-country and a flock of earnest souls channeled their favorite country singers through the prism of indie-rock, punk and folk. To be honest, I still love Neko Case, Robbie Fulks and the first Ryan Adams album, but those are momentary passions that fall fainter by the year. However, the voice of Richard Buckner never fails me. Sometimes the instrumentation plays it safe, but he always suckers me in when spins a yarn about lost chances and grievous errors. Devotion and Doubt is full of these, and his romanticism about slowly spinning down the drain is kind of spell-binding.

The opening lines of “Roll” speak volumes about his mindset as he sings “We can rent a car tomorrow/and roll through all the thoughts we keep/but we’ll just end up disheveled/and and acting like we both don’t know/but as I go down please take care.” It is a celebration of bad decisions, yet he captures the tragedy to be found in one who embraces and woos the error of his or her ways. “4 am” adds to the hubris as it opens with Buckner singing “It’s a bruised and fallen sky/pressed all up against us/and its just as true far away/but I can be there by breakfast/if I just drive through to you/so as the past goes breaking by/where are you tonight?” There is an element of optimism and good intention, but it is balanced then toppled by a sense of abandon and a revelation that this ain’t going to be good for anyone when all is said and done. Then again, Devotion and Doubt chronicles his divorce from his wife, so these things are to be expected.

In short, he continues the legacy of his Lubbox, Texas idols: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen and their spiritual neighbor Townes Van Zandt, but does so with bit more brooding, spit and polish. It is a meditation on accepting the last gasps of love and the awkward things we do to maintain a flame that has died a premature death.

Michael Nesmith

Magnetic South (Pacific Arts 1970)

I’ve already covered the history of Michael Nesmith on a previous post, so we’ll skip the biographical information. Magnetic South is his followup to his debut album, The Wichita Train Whistle Sings, and it is the first where he begins to really shine as a mellow, somewhat stoned country rocker. I really cannot explain why I rank a former Monkee as an equal to your Nick Drakes, Jackson c. Franks and Gram Parsons, but his music is so unforced and relaxed. There is a cozy vibe to his albums that make them seem like home. His appropriations of West Coast psych and traditional country balladry don’t aim for innovation, but a simple good time. Although “Hollywood” sort of veers into some honkytonk Doors fantasia, the rest is just a bunch of straightforward country tunes bedecked in bellbottoms.

Although he lacks the charisma and tragedy of a Gram Parsons, Nesmith’s string of solo albums should have cemented with a much stronger reputation than the former Monkee with a Liquid paper fortune. “Keys to the Car” could pass for a George Jones number, but the awkwardly yodeling vocals and chorus about getting stoned would make ol’ George drive his lawnmower off the road. So I don’t become too obscure, Jones was once caught driving his lawnmower to the bar when his car keys were out of his reach. Nesmith is also comfortable with twangy cosmic ballads that document the weary life of a traveling musician where cities, roads and people just melt one rorshach inkblot. Magnetic South isn’t his best effort, but it does pave the way for the progressions made on Loose Salute and Nevada Fighter.


Gentle Creatures (4AD)

Around the time 4AD Records picked up Paula Frazer’s momentarily brilliant Tarnation for their roster the label was in the midst of a California awakening. There was that branch office in L.A., while that San Franciscan diary-rock band, Red House Painters, picked up the slack for the grinding bore that was the mid-90’s Pixies, and Heidi Berry unceremoniously made Joni Mitchell records. It was as if the blueprint Ivo Watts-Russell had laid with his canonical vanity project, This Mortal Coil, rose up in a moment of awkward transition and obscurity. Watts-Russell, with not so much time left for the label he started in 1979 (he officially split in 1999) seemed to enjoy a moment as the charioteer of that Laurel Canyonland which had been so integral to This Mortal Coil.

Gentle Creatures, when it works, does so for two reasons: sloppy grace and luck. Paula Frazer’s pristine Appalachian-style yodel has all the rusticated clarity of Patsy Cline, if not Ms. Cline’s jazz-like sensitivity with phrasing. Far from problematic, the sense of slackness grants the music a kind of unguarded warmth.

No doubt, Frazer carries this record over patches a lesser singer could not. Behind her plays a competent, if drowsy, alt country ensemble cooked up of the usual genetic stuff: Lone Justice, Cowboy Junkies, the Eagles, and Gram Parsons. It’s a modern honky-tonk approximation, and it tires along the way—that Frazer herself is such a natural makes some of the results all the more frustrating.

“The Game of Broken Hearts” opens the affair grandly. Reverberating hollow-body guitar and voice share the nickel-size spotlight. The production effects suggest it was recorded in a coffee can in 1945 rather than a studio in 1995—a rare instance of such contrivance working in the song’s favor. Nevertheless it does. Like the music David Lynch, Angelo Badalamenti, and Julee Cruise created for the tv show, Twin Peaks, it isn’t so much an imitation of early 60’s rock aesthetics (or early 40’s production values as the case may be) as it is a kind of time-warped invocation. The difference is, in both cases, there is a sensibility being channeled, as opposed to a sound being lifted.

And was it that a vintage aura, and the light in moving brine-rusted chrome were all it took this would readily be called a classic.

However, songs grow thin as Gentle Creatures proceeds, and certainly the high watermark of that first, rather astonishing, number is not met again. One notable exception is the Warren Defever-recorded “Big O Motel”, a California country weeper in the vein of Linda Ronstadt. It’s a pretty song, gilded by Frazer’s spiraling chorus. Her lover is but a peripheral shape, and the image of her lying beside him “in the Big O Motel/On the vibrating bed” has a terrific Loserville poignancy.

After finishing another record in 1997, the logical progression played out, Tarnation disbanded, or more accurately, Paula Frazer started professionally calling herself Paula Frazer. She scored some memorable cameos over the years (a smart duet on Cornershop’s When I Was Born For The 7th Time, and again on the Prince Paul/Dan the Automator project, Handsome Boy Modeling School). A solo career has yet to earn her the recognition a voice so intelligent and gifted deserves. And even if Gentle Creatures’ flawed magnificence becomes her legacy—which by all appearances it has, it is still a legacy worthy of a visit involving genuflection.

Lucinda Williams

Happy Woman Blues

removed by request of Smithsonian-Folkways

During my time in college, I knew a wonderful fellow named Chris Williams. Time has passed and senility has prematurely set, so my three prominent memories of the man are his endlessly cheerful demeanor, his shocking revelation that there was a sexual act called feltching and his the fact that he would always greet me with the chorus of Lucinda Williams’ “Hard Road”

Oh, Bill, I know how you’re feelin’
Your heart’s on fire and your head is reelin’
But with the spirit to guide you
And a friend beside you
You know you’ll win
If you’re only willin’

I must admit that each salutation raised my spirit even though I had never heard of this mystery woman, but fell in love with her country/folk tales of hard roads and tough love once I scrounged up a copy of this album. Admittedly, her later albums are better statements of purpose, especially Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, but Happy Woman Blues opened my punk and wussy pop eyes to the possibilities country. Many whiskeys and George Jones albums later, I feel like I need some eagle scout medals on this fashionable lapel. However, she was one of my first exposures to the genre even if it wasn’t necessarily the most pure entryway.

Happy Woman Blues was released in 1980 on Smithsonian Folkways and it captures Williams at her most simple and homespun. Somehow, I like her better this way instead of the overproduced and overthought efforts of recent efforts. Her voice lacks the pathos of a Dolly Parton or Tammy Wynette, but her lyrics and lazy drawl deliver the emotional breakdowns we secretly desire. Tales of one stands and drunken cries at unresponsive moons populate her songs and her quirky approach to country place her firmly inside the country canon while her legs drunkenly dangle off the sides of the wagon.