28
Feb 01

Americana In Pieces

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A PERSONAL HISTORY OF SO-CALLED AMERICANA

First encounter — Palace Brothers, “New Partner” from Viva Last Blues. Taped off the college radio, placed on mix tape for girlfriend. Informed that it was “funny”. Crushed. I went on to purchase Viva Last Blues. I listened and was sad. Last time I saw Oldham, he was drunk and tall and an asshole and played like a creature from the 70s with a smoke machine. Dura-Delinquent (who gave one of the best live *shows* ever) opened (and Dura-Delinquent are Americana in a sense, although they appropriate the 70s and not the 20s-40s).

But Palace found something unique to salvage — a hell and brimstone protestantism of those already chosen for hell. Palace’s sinners are as bad as they get, and the broken voice of Oldham the perfect conduit for such tragedy. A typical heartache takes on the mythic proportions of, of some sort. Alienation and so on become emblematic of a universalized “American” formative experience — and so Oldham less brings the past to the present, then utilizes the forms of the past to rewrite it in terms which justify the present (by which I mean the present of a depressed sixteen yr. old boy, or any other similar indie-kid or infantilized indie-adult).

Some time later — Scud Mountain Boys — “Reservoir” from Pine Box. Instantly struck me. The Scud Boys had not only an ear for songcraft, but a seductive smooth harmonic sound. Less a distinct individual voice (as w/ Oldham) but a social voice, all chorus and harmony. This song, similarly, bore both social and individual weight. Flood myth — left in the reservoir — the sinners are swept away, us included. Generally tended towards the disaster-narrative. Collective salvation and judgment. Not music for the lonely, but for the jaded. Millenarianism becomes no longer an individual concern (“Getting dumped is the end of my life”) but a social concern (“This whole sick world is on a highway to hell”). I am given to understand that the origin of the disaster narrative is largely depression and dustbowl era. Which is to say a response to actual social disaster. It is not the social disaster which we hark back to, but the emotive response — the existential repose and quietude with which men confronted their impending doom. In short, revival of this sort as a reworking of the hard-earned “cool” of the past for those with no disaster to face, and nothing else really which would inspire anything but a stoic and jaded response.

Tarnation – Mirador. I can have no analytic response to this — everything is justified by that shimmering, lovely voice. I don’t know what the songs mean. I don’t know what image they work America into. I don’t care. Pretty pretty voice. Voice that could not work in Rock music, could not work in folk, could not work in opera — therefore MUST sing country for maximum effect. Justification enough.

Uncle Tupelo – No Depression. The movement from hard punk into country seems a simultaneous reinfusion of both genres. In retrospect, the dueling tendencies in the band were bound to lead to a split. The major innovation of the first album was to put twang into songs, but leave the swing out, approximating it only by means of a hardcore two step. This was unstable — the structure of the songs was classic country, but the beat and flying guitars demanded a verse/chorus structure less complex. Meanwhile, the twang evolved into the melodic ache of “No Sense in Lovin” off Anodyne, and predicted by “Factory Belt”. The Son Volt direction is dull, though capable, and does not concern us. Meanwhile, Tweedy goes on to form…

Wilco – Being There through to Summerteeth. Goddamn. It took going country and coming back to yield Being There, which is the closest anyone has come to Big Star. People emphasize Big Star’s distance from the Memphis scene, but I think that there’s a consistency in Chilton’s career — the step away from Box Tops pop took with it a step away from overt R&B, but the fused sensibilities drove him forward, as though battling for domination. Similarly, it is Wilco’s embrace of American roots, and their reinfusion of classic structure into songcraft, or rather rediscovery of classic structure, which allows them to move into pop territory.

The structure itself does not demand “country” instrumentation — far from that, it encourages that drawing out of the twang into smooth tone, and eventually the transition to lush orchestration — exemplified by the eventual sound of Summerteeth. But in that transition period, where the twang remains drawn out, there’s this wide open quality to the harmonies — less than wall of sound, less than major chord, but more than single note. This is a quality of folk music as well, and, more recently a track which Wilco not coincidentally cover (astonishingly faithfully), which is …

“Color Me Impressed” by The Replacements, on Hootenanny — which shares a country/folk ethos, and not just coz the liner notes and title tell me it does. But CMI is the standout track, for clear reasons, bridging power pop structure and punk attitude via the mechanism of folk ethos. The ‘Mats, of course, went pop, just like Wilco. But their pop production hurt their songs, whose anarchic rock drive was less transformed, or stripped out by the subtraction of a member, than simply repressed. As opposed to Wilco, their songs remained structurally punk and folk (for rockers and ballads, respectively — Skyway, for example, is as folk as you can get, and I’ll Be You would be a rip-roaring thrash fest if just let loose, as the ‘Mats would do in concert).

And on the subject of covers, we have the rousing version of Baba O’ Riley as countrified by the Waco Brothers, this time leading from minimalist to power-pop, and thenceforth to bluegrass. The Wacos are of course a Mekons side project, whose roots can be traced to the Mekons’ mid-80s Fear and Whiskey LP which turns cowboys into grist for the Burroughs cut-up mill — released while the Mekons were gadding about supporting the UK miners’ strike, it seems a classic modernist tract — the disintegration of the traditions of solidarity which birthed that sort of music. There’s a certain “Punks discover working class, decide it lacks angularity” aspect to the whole thing, which the Wacos seem to have gotten over, instead becoming a vehicle for frontman Langford to self-consciously approach the roots pub-rock of The Clash.

The idea that Country music is “allowed” to be simple comes full circle with the Geraldine Fibbers who approached country music sort of like a satellite will swing around a planet to pick up momentum from the gravitational well. Carla B’s took the first albums of the Fibbers to strip away her industrial trappings and construct tunes — by the time of Butch, she’s working with Nels Cline and they’re teaming up to rip it all apart again. Ultimately, the country music gets tossed away again and Carla and Cline go off to produce the brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, bursting with a hedonistic pop/fusion/free jazz mix thing, just, astounding, s/t album from their new side-project, Scarnella.

Then there’s Lambchop, and I can’t really figure them out.

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