Note-perfect though it may be, the Jeff Bridges country-music yarn “Crazy Heart” is, in the end, just another movie about music. I left the theater with a shrug, probably because I’d spent the day and previous night listening to the real deal. To that end, here are three homegrown offerings about life, loving, drinking and loneliness that stuck with me long after the movie credits rolled:
Jennifer Markey, “We’re All Going To Hell” (Jennifer Markey). The best line from “Crazy Heart” comes when a young music journalist asks the hard-luck troubadour where his songs come from. “Life, unfortunately,” answers the dude, and that is the crux of Markey’s 12-song rootsabilly crucible, as suggested by the opening track, “Bottom Of The Glass,” which finds our heroine drinking and waiting on her man. Make no mistake: This is no warbling folk-pop or faux-roots indie rock; it’s classic femme-country rock on the order of Wanda Jackson and Rosie Flores, typified by the protagonist in “Two O’Clock in the Morning” who boasts, “At age 14 you could hardly guess/I had a knife and a pistol underneath my dress.”
Produced and recorded by Eric Koskinen (who knows a little something about barroom bad-assery and classic lived-in country music and who will be uncorking his own record before the year is out), “Hell” is a trip through the same barrooms that Hank and Waylon and Loretta slit their wrists in, but with a decidedly Midwestern twist. “Minneapolis Or You” and “And The Jukebox Played `Sweet Child O’ Mine’” are fun would-be radio hits, but there’s real pathos and yearning in stuff like “Say Somethin’” and “Calico Girl.” It’s all doused with pedal steel guitar, banjo, fiddle, and the expertise of her band, anchored by the warm guitar of Dan Gaarder. All in all, it sounds like a trip to Lee’s or Nye’s coming out of your dashboard; if this is what going to hell feels like, well, everybody grab hands and jump in, because the flames feel fine.
David Hanners, “The Traveler’s Burden” (David Hanners). Like Townes Van Zandt doing “Nebraska,” the Texas-born Hanners steers his way through 12 story-songs in the voice of troubled folks, loners, prisoners, sad sacks, Iraq War vets, murderers and dark dreamers. It’s a road record, in other words, made for listening to while contemplating the creepy cubbyholes of America and all the sordid souls she incubates. Throughout it all, Hanners, a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, proves to be an uncommonly empathetic medium for his subjects, but the tunes themselves are crafted with great subtlety, built on emotional nuances that cut to the quick of the storytellers’ motivation.
“My name’s Mohamed Saleh/As if you even care/To you I’m just another Somali/To me you’re just another fare,” sings Hanners, in the voice of the cab driver who was murdered in Minneapolis in 2003. It’s a dramatic tale, sung with real outrage, but sometimes the story is simply about the drudgery of living. “Westfield Blues” is a non-judgmental narrative about a meth lab operator who loves his girl-slash-partner-in-crime and concludes, “Some do it for the money/Some do it for the thrill/I guess I cook to pay the bills.”
Hanners’s thin, twangy voice make the desperation palpable, as do the spare guitars, harmonica and harmonies, whether it’s the title song — a peak into the soul of lonely salesman-turned-killer — or the cry-for-help prayer that is “When My Demons and I Come Home.” Like the bulk of “The Traveler’s Burden,” these are stories that rarely make it to songs, much less newspapers, and make for extremely uneasy listening. Highly recommended.
Romantica, “Control Alt Country Delete” (Romantica Music). “Nothing is more beautiful to me,” sings Ben Kyle on the first track of this hushed little classic, and then he stumbles over the chord and lyric, repeats the line, draws away from the mic and finally concludes, “than the way of a beautiful word and a melody.” It’s a hold-your-breath moment, a studio “mistake” left for posterity that illuminates the sentiment behind the lyric itself while offering a good indication that what you’re about to hear is no ordinary recording.
Remarkably, this entire 10-song EP was written and recorded in one day — Monday, March 23, 2009 — by Romantica with some friends in Austin, Texas. The day-long session came on the fifth day of the South By Southwest music fest, and you can hear the party’s bittersweet wind-down in tunes such as the war protest “Blood and Circumstance” and soul-yearners “How To Feel” and “My Love, My Heart.” What carries it all is Kyle’s honeysuckle voice, heart-drifting melodies, and the band’s obvious affection for each other, typified by the sound of freedom given to “Lucky” Luke Jacobs’s train whistle of a pedal steel guitar.
Beyond the disc being Romantica’s most accomplished foray into country music to date, Kyle’s lyrical prayers and the in-the-moment speed with which it was created, there are some flat-out great tunes here, most notably “Lonely Star,” wherein a road-weary musician calls home, wonders what the hell he’s doing with his life, and concludes, “Texas, here we are/You’re not the only lonely star.”
The sum effect of “Control Alt Country Delete” is that of sitting around with friends in an opium den, church basement or fox hole listening to and playing recently made-up songs for each other. That in and of itself is a rare occurrence in these days of digital recording and clam-wiping. And when they unfurl the last track “Goodnight Austin City Lights” for the first and only time (a small band argument introduces the song), you can almost hear the band packing up and getting in the van. Their destination is “home to the St. Paul city lights,” but it’s obvious that they’ve got a long road ahead of them. Lucky for them and us, there’s a lot of beauty to listen to along the way.