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Country music once served as a sort of refuge for aging rockers, burnout cases who had exhausted their audience, material, or youthful exuberance. These days, mainstream country is made by people who might as well be in Bon Jovi, and the haunted sound of backwoods sin ‘n’ salvation is just another flavor, more effectively simulated by such globe-trotting ex-junkie literati types as Nick Cave than by Billy Ray Cyrus. Which makes old-timey a perfect hide-out for indie rockers, always on the lookout for promising turf far off the main roads.
The slow, brutal thump and occasional guitar distortion on the Palace Brothers’ There Is No-One What Will Take of You come courtesy of some members of Slint, one of the obscurantist indie guitar bands treasured by those who find Pavement too pop. It doesn’t say that on the sleeve of the album, which also doesn’t contain the name of the chief Bro—sometime actor and, according to Drag City’s cryptic description, “notorious Louisville scenester” Will Oldham—or, for that matter, the disc’s full title. While the Brothers pluck banjos in the apparent hope that their doleful plaints might be mistaken for long-lost Smithsonian field recordings, they package their album in the vaguely suggestive mode of a conceptual-art project.
Oldham played an Appalachian preacher in John Sayles’ Matewan, and he uses (and abuses) fundamentalist language in songs like “Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Playground,” “O Lord Are You in Need?,” and “(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit.” Yet his songs are less sermons than anecdotes, and not so quick to proclaim damnation. “Wherever folks gather/To imply a rule/They are each one a sinner/Each one a fool,” Oldham offers in the latter, while the hypnotically bleak, dourly blasphemous “Riding” explains that “God is what I make of him.”
The tip-off that these aren’t real country-folk songs is that they’re all texture and mood, indie-rock specialties. Songs handed down from generation to generation tend to have tunes, whereas Brothers numbers like “I Had a Good Mother and Father” or “I Tried to Stay Healthy for You” contain no more melody than Oldham’s flat, distant, rambling cadences can manage on the spot. Yet his voice, along with the plaintive plinks and thuds and occasional rough harmonies that support it, is strongly evocative. “I’m no fan of you most of the time/In fact I’d rather be alone, you know” he sings in “King Me,” and There Is No-One is just about the starkest, alonest music that could be imagined.
James Mastro comes out of another indie-rock tradition, that of the Hoboken/Manhattan pop scene that fostered the dB’s, the Feelies, the Individuals, and his own band, the Bongos. He’s named his new outfit the Health & Happiness Show, after a 1949 radio program hosted by Hank Williams, and it sports the picking and fiddling that provenance suggests. The band’s Tonic also owes plenty to power-pop, though; the album crackles with the tunefulness the Palace Brothers fastidiously avoid.
Mastro’s songs didn’t have much of a role in the Bongos and didn’t hold up their side of the Barone/Mastro busman’s-holiday album, Nuts and Bolts, but since then he’s finessed his craft. Leading a quintet that includes early Feelies drummer Vinnie (now calling himself St. Vincent) DeNunzio, Mastro marries the sound of trad country (fiddle, dobro, mandolin, and accordion are among the featured instruments) to the suburban transcendentalism of the Feelies’ The Good Earth. The opening “We Are Here” (“in God’s hands,” he explains) is a pretty paean to sky, trees, and grass, while “River of Stars” takes a similar pleasure from the after-dark firmament.
Tonic includes the usual complement of love ballads (“I Do” is a particularly lovely one), as well as songs that suggest the traditional country topics: “Sinner’s Lullaby” and “Drunk-Eyed Waltz.” New Jersey is secular-humanist territory, though, and such old-timey tunes as “Woman of Gold” and the chugging “Engine Engine” are countered by the sentiments of “You Are What You Dream” and “River of Stars,” which decides that “God made heaven, but he didn’t make sin.”
If such a line sounds more punk-defiant than country-tragic, so at its core does a lot of H&H’s music. Despite its trebly timbres, the musical skeleton of the insinuating “The Ghost of Love” is Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” via the Bongos’ “The Bulrushes,” while the rollicking “River of Stars” and “Drunk-Eyed Waltz” are as much Celtic rock as they are Appalachian fiddle tunes. Yet the country tang isn’t forced. Like the distorted Byrds riff buried in “We Are Here,” it belongs to Mastro and his Hudson River neo-pastoralists just as surely as do the sky, the trees, and the grass.
Self-immolated martyr of the country-rock sect, Gram Parsons is the ideal of every indie-rocker who wants to soak his music in tequila and twang. That doesn’t mean that lining up such college-radio types as Steve Wynn, Uncle Tupelo, Peter Buck, Bob Mould, Victoria Williams, and (of course) some former Long Ryders to re-record the Parsons songbook is such a great idea, though. The songs on Conmemoritivo: A Tribute to Gram Parsons are such a perfect fit with their interpreters that there’s virtually no friction. Despite such piquant possibilities as hearing Parsons’ daughter Polly sing “The New Soft Shoe” or ex-Chill Martin Phillipps play sideman to ex-dB Peter Holsapple and still-Cowsill Susan on a live-in-the-studio “A Song for You,” this is mostly competent and mostly bland. Even the Velvetsy feedback Pet Clarke adds to “Hot Burrito 2” sounds routine.
Named after Sauzo Conmemoritivo, a tequila favored by Parsons and Chris Hillman in their Flying Burrito Brothers days, the album was “conceived and compiled” by Francesco Virlinzi for a Sicilian label, and the one Italian contribution, Flor de Mal’s somber “Juanita,” is one of the better tracks. It’s unsurprising, though, as are such other agreeable (and mostly uptempo) offerings as the Wellsprings of Hope’s “Big Mouth Blues,” (ex-Ryder) Stephen McCarthy’s “One Hundred Years From Now” (recorded with members of House of Freaks and the Silos), and Finger’s Stonesy “Still Feeling Blue.” The Coal Porters, fronted by ex-Ryder Sid Griffin (who wrote a Parsons biography), do the only one of these 17 songs never released by Parsons, “November Nights”; a single for Peter Fonda in 1966, it could be a Gene Clark song, but not one of the better ones.
Conmemoritivo would clearly have benefited from a wider stylistic range. Mostly the work of a small LA/New York/Athens post-punk clique, the album sounds samey and shortchanges Parsons’ songs by implying that they’re too fragile for anything other than respectful country-rock treatment. Though Something Happens’ version of “Brass Buttons” didn’t need to be recycled, seeking out more pre-existing Parsons covers might have been wise; the only other one here, the Mekons’ “$1,000 Wedding” (from the 1986 Slightly South of the Border 10-inch) deserves its position of honor at the album’s end. But then Tom Greenhalgh has the sort of mournful voice the song requires, and that counts for more than all of Sid Griffin’s scholarship and idolization.