For a genre whose uptight fan base can’t get enough twangier-than-thou authenticity, alt-country has gotten remarkably inauthentic. In interviews, for instance, Jeff Tweedy, Mr. Uncle Tupelo himself, likes to cite early Public Image Ltd. records as influences on Wilco, his overpraised, Replacements-lite pop group. Rock- ’em-sock-’em cowboy Ryan Adams is also a traitor to the cause, cozying up to the likes of Elton John and Marianne Faithfull en route (or so he hopes) to Top 40 megasuccess. And in a related development, someone who sounds suspiciously like ex-Old 97’s leader Rhett Miller can currently be heard singing Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound” on a MasterCard commercial.
But don’t be too quick to judge: At least the song has an actual hook and doesn’t sound even remotely like Gram Parsons, the patron saint of No Depression types everywhere. If Miller is singing for the Man, I say good for him. Sure beats one more lame-o Hank Williams-by-way-of-the-Sex Pistols knock-off, a book Jason and the Scorchers wrote and closed some 20-odd years ago.
One of the great things about alt-country siren Janet Bean is that she’s never given a rat’s ass about authenticity. Her promiscuous past includes stints with Chicago indie-rockers Eleventh Dream Day and the amazing Freakwater, a group of committed postmodernists whose deconstructive take on country forms usually signifies as drag. Bean has made a half-dozen discs with Freakwater, but the best of the bunch is 1993’s Feels Like the Third Time, an album whose title alone pretty much seals its immortality and whose casually expert songs set the stage for the next phase of the singer-songwriter’s career.
Or at least that’s how it looks 10 years later, with Freakwater apparently on recording hiatus and Bean turning in a new LP under her own name. Recorded with a backing band of free-range improvisers dubbed the Concertina Wire, the disc opens with a clutch of songs so strong it seems as if Bean had spent her entire career preparing for them. And though the album is loaded up with plenty of absolute torch and twang, Bean proves she has musical ambition to burn: Her “solo” debut is an avant-country disc decked out with wide-open spaces and the kind of attention to atmospheric detail that one usually associates with the music made by jazz combos in smoky, candlelit bars. This, in other words, is one certifiably gorgeous record, warts and all.
It opens with a feint, a halting piano dirge called “Suddenly” that sounds like a Baptist hymn as sung by a church-choir soloist under the influence of Jesus and tequila. Bean’s pristine warble is front and center, but the meandering melody is laced so haphazardly through the track you keep expecting it to get away from the band entirely. Before that happens, though, the song stops short, ending after 90 woozy seconds and segueing abruptly into “All Fools Day,” the tune that kick-starts the album’s top-shelf song cycle.
Elegantly hot and bothered, “All Fools Day” is a Southern-rock-revivalist’s wet dream: an Allman Brothers-esque slow burner sung by a direct stylistic descendant of Emmylou Harris. While Bean strews images of overflowing creeks and scattered trinkets through the track’s loosely formed chord changes, guitarist Douglas McCombs taps into the soulful riffage that Dickey Betts perfected back during the Nixon administration. Driven by Jim Baker’s thundering piano and backup singer Kelly Hogan’s enormous voice, the track’s larger-than-life gospel chorus is a nice touch, too, one that connects the tune to the fragmented little weeper that precedes it.
And for a while, anyway, the hits just keep coming. “The Bluebird’s Spindle” is a swirling concoction of cascading piano, Jon Spiegel’s twangy pedal steel, and Bean’s rapturous melody-making. “One Shot” introduces a noirish vibe, with Bean’s half-spoken, half-sung vocal attack goosed by a mournful cello and the rhythm section’s simmering cadence. “Cutters, Dealers, Cheaters” is the album’s most straightforward country tune. Built around a loping guitar riff, the track is similar in spirit to the letter-perfect Patsy Cline reproductions that alt-country-scene queen Neko Case can churn out at will. But Bean’s execution is superior, with a warm analog ambience replacing the claustrophobic production that occasionally mucks up Case’s work.
Best of all, though, is the disc’s extra-creepy reading of Randy Newman’s “The God Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind).” What with its lines about God laughing at our prayers and making fun of humanity for wandering around in the desert looking for Him, the tune is frightening enough even when pop music’s foremost ironist sings it. Under Bean’s weird influence, the song becomes downright harrowingcountry, all right, but way more Nick Cave than Nick Lowe.
Unfortunately, the second half of the album is a lot less satisfying than the first. Bean misfires with her
tranquilized take on Neil Young’s “Soldier” and, seduced perhaps by the crack band she’s assembled for the outing, she allows her own compositions to get swallowed up by the players’ chops. As a result, interchangeable numbers such as “Spout of Spite,” “Glass of a Stranger,” and the title track sound like half-worked-out filler that made the cut just because the band sounds so damn hot.
Set-closer “My Little Brigadoon” is something else entirely, though. The track is a lush, Beach Boys-style pop tune that’ll send California-dreamin’ Euro outfits such as Fugu and the High Llamas back to their respective stereolabs to recalibrate their instruments. As the band percolates behind her, Bean sings wistful words about the summer sun and fish-mouth smiles with all the sweet, double-tracked bliss she can muster.
Coming at the end of this moody little disc of twangy gems, the song is an unexpected treata playful slap, maybe, at anyone who expects Bean to play the alt-country game straight. On the contrary: If Dragging Wonder Lake is any indication, Bean & Co. seem fully committed to keeping it unreal.
Would that you could say the same about Chris Whitley. On his seventh studio long-player, Hotel Vast Horizon, the Houston-born singer-songwriter positively drips with sincerity. Even worse, as the disc’s title suggests, the guy’s got a fairly ponderous sense of himself as a poet, too.
Over a collection of bare-bones, crunchy-granola tunes that sound a heckuva lot like Wallflowers demos, Whitley informs us that “Desire alone forgoes the crime” (“New Lost World”), that “Velocity reveals how far” (“Frontier”), and that “In tensions untamed/The mysteries are green” (“Assassin Song”). Sometimes, the singer-guitarist drops the poetic pedantry and opts for plain old inscrutability instead. The ramshackle “Wide Open Return,” for instance, begins with one head-scratcher of a fractured verse: “No time lost to passersbye/Lonesome transmission/The miles decide.”
Throughout the album, supporting players Heiko Schramm (bass) and Matthias Macht (drums) conjure up the sparest of sonic settings for their leader’s literary escapades. Meanwhile, as a guitarist, Whitley appears to be a fan of the casual, open-tuned strumall the better, I suppose, for keeping the focus on his words.
To be fair, cherry-picking poetic duds is a sophomore’s game, and Whitley seems more like the grad-school type to me. His deep, pleasantly raspy voice befits his status as a roots-scene veteran (his Daniel Lanois-produced U.S. debut appeared in 1991), and he really does know his way around the library. Hotel Vast Horizon’s liner notes even include a bibliographic reference to French surrealist kingpin Paul Eluard, a citation that’s sure to earn Whitley even more points with creative-writing profs everywhere.
On the other hand, including a photo in the album art of two pairs of hands holding what appears to be a heart-shaped potato is undergrad-literary-magazine sentiment of the basest variety. Christopher, get thee to an MFA program. CP