Indie Americanaby Katy Henriksen
More experimental than traditional, a number of recent releases have little in common except the wide-open spaces and haunted universes conveyed within. Indie, yes, in the sense that these recordings are all from young musicians on smaller labels. Americana, maybe, depending on who you talk to. The twang isn’t always direct, but it’s there. These young artists are transforming the American landscape.
Bosque brown, a band from Texas fronted by Mara Lee Miller, recently released Baby (Burnt Toast Vinyl), a sparse, harrowing, and catchily circuitous ramble. These songs, even after one listen, are memorable, with catchy riffs and hummable choruses that burn their way easily into one’s memory. Miller’s vocals prove the center, although the details from (of course) pedal steel are there. At once raspy and warbly, a little scratchy but somehow rounded, her notes linger in juxtapositions. Whether belting a chorus or lingering in a few a cappella bars, Miller is always in command. Although the subtle frame that cozies itself around her is just right, she sings as though she’d be equally adept at wailing a punk anthem or crooning to a smooth R&B classic. Bosque Brown’s song structure comfortably weaves jangly pop, country-western, blues, and (of course) songs about whiskey to come up with songs that won’t situate themselves just anywhere; the instrumentation of keyboards, guitar, drums, and bass creates a wide sonic swath ranging from jubilant to harrowing, but it’s not a sound that would fall comfortably on Americana traditionalists’ ears.
At first listen William Elliott Whitmore’s Animals in The Dark (Anti-) captures a more traditional Americana sound. Although adept at banjo and with a low, deep blues voice, Whitmore wouldn’t fit in with a purist take on any form of traditional Americana. There’s something overtly punk rock that insinuates itself into Whitmore’s bold tunes. An urgency in his delivery, combined with at times percussive heavy anthems, as in the opening track, “Mutiny,” conveys exactly why this guy has toured with the likes of the Pogues. The raucousness of the opener leads, however, into a smoother, drumless ballad titled “Who Stole the Soul,” punctuated by mellow cellos and a forcefully plucked acoustic guitar. Here Whitmore’s vocals are tinged with a heavy folk-blues melancholy, although they’re belted out with his usual urgency. As with Bosque Brown, emotion and experimentation take precedent over virtuosity, and vocals hang as the centerpiece.
Marissa Nadler continues to hone her mad skills at crafting otherworldly ballads on Little Hells (Kemado Records). The quiet mood of 2007’s Songs III: Bird on a Wire has been amped up, with Nadler not ashamed to bring her recent obsession with Kate Bush’s more experimental recordings into a previously less produced mix. Synths, echo chambers, and drum-machine beats are overflowing here. Still, underneath all the sonic chaos there is a love of traditional songs written by the likes of folk-blues legend Elizabeth Cotten (whose iconic playing of guitar upside-down and backwards, plucking the treble notes with her thumb, led to the coining of the term “Cotten style,” with Taj Mahal making her song “Freight Train” a folk-blues classic). Then there’s her voice, which seems to radiate out of a timeless place haunted by spirits. Each note Nadler sings brings a sensation of tears forming in the eye, and this is a completely unsentimental well. She’s not desperately trying to pull heartstrings; rather, she easily breaks your heart with each word.
And what could be more melancholy than a Willie Nelson song? The psych-country-rock band Phosphorescent, masterminded by Matthew Houck, decided to brave the world of Nelson purists and release an album of entirely Willie Nelson covers. Titled To Willie (Dead Oceans), this is a tribute to someone who is an indisputable living legend of American music. Houck’s vocals provide a sultry counterpoint to Nelson’s more straightforward delivery; rather than either reinvent these classics or try to stay true to the originals, Houck wavers somewhere in-between. There’s a luster here, a melancholy shine in Houck’s delivery that cannot help betraying his youth. But this is undoubtedly a youth who knows how to convey a world-weariness soaked in spilled beer and bar fights, however romanticized. The twang is evident everywhere here, interspersed with mildly psychedelic turns that harken to Phosphorescent originals. To be clear, not all of the tunes represented here are Nelson originals (the album opens with Merle Haggard’s “Reasons to Quit”), but the whole is most certainly
There’s really nothing tying these diverse recordings together besides a thin line that beckons to the vast unexplored abyss that still clamors, an ever-growing myth of wide-open spaces that no longer exist. While not necessarily producing the very best Americana (whatever that term means) coming out recently, these artists have each taken hold of that most grandiose of ideas, the America of manifest destiny, independence, and, beneath it all, perhaps more than anything, a sense of both tragedy and glory, of fate and free will. But really, mostly it’s the sadness, a unique sadness that aches just so, a melancholy at once naive and wise.
KATY HENRIKSEN posts regularly at helloloretta.tumblr.com and twitter.com/helloloretta.