Josh Hurst

Month: March, 2016

NOBODY KEEPS ANYTHING

Or: Birds of Chicago get real gone.

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Inspirational thinking and basic chronology reassure us that midnight is where the day begins—only what if, one day, it isn’t? What will become of the love we’ve made, once the final curtain falls and to dust we all return? Will our strange affections for one another light up the night sky like so many constellations—or will we be left looking likes fools, standing amidst collapsing sandcastles and crashing waves? These are the questions raised by a tough and soulful young band called Birds of Chicago on their breakthrough album Real Midnight, which might as well be called Final Midnight. It’s an album of eschatological hoedowns, campfire songs for the last night on earth. It’s a record of bruised and purple hearts, though not strictly speaking a breakup record; it’s an album of ticking clocks and rising tides, but not really an album about death. These eleven songs inhabit a moment of holy waiting, tentative joy, and dread anticipation: The moment when we might summon our every breath to exhale a cosmic love song even though we know it may soon fall silent; the moment when we might pledge to the beloved that we’ll love them ‘til the end of time, even as we wonder it that’ll be a thousand years from now or sometime before lunch tomorrow.

It’s an album of everyday apocalypses—sky full of fire, pain pouring down. The future is a time bomb, a death sentence for everything you’ve loved and built; and in the past there’s no solace—just the specter of all the things we’ll never get back. In the first song on the album, “tomorrow’s on you like a pack of wild hounds”—or, as another guy once put it, “time is a lion and you are a lamb.” On the song that follows, we meet a young man who’s trapped “alone in his room with the ghosts of past summers.” On “Pelicans,” the album’s keynote and benediction, there is only now: “I am a pelican/ in the eye of a hurricane/ Nothing good behind me/ Up ahead is pain.” In this harrowing chronology, a refrain like “I believe in yesterdays” feels like a taunt, “the times they are a-changin’” a threat. But here is the staggering and miraculous thing about the album: For all its heaviness, this isn’t a morbid song cycle. It’s not about being trapped in a corner, though most of its characters are; it’s about punching your way out, knowing that even if you go down swinging there was something sacred in your struggle. Real Midnight is about loving through the black eyes and the bruises, building something that may last forever even if you doubt there could be any such thing. It’s about moments of active, decisive engagement with another human, made meaningful by the long odds and ticking clocks. How does the pelican’s song conclude? “Let’s drift a while and feel the sun/ And oh, by god, you’ll know my love/ And I will know your love.” It’s a lover’s hymn from the eye of a hurricane; it’s delivered as a whisper, atop a pillow of fingerpicked strings and piano, but it’s got the roar of a battle cry.

The Birds of Chicago are, primarily, a husband and wife combo; JT Nero writes most of the songs and sings a couple of them in a coarse, whisky sour voice. Allison Russell writes a couple and sings even more, her own voice soaring and soulful. The record was produced by Joe Henry; he discovered the band through Rhiannon Giddens, their long-time champion, who also sings and plays throughout. There is deep cosmic significance to the recording of this album: As it happens, it was the very last album to be recorded in The Garfield House, Joe Henry’s famed home studio that birthed Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me, Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi, several of Joe’s own albums, and at least a dozen other classics besides. As a For Sale sign went up over the Garfield’s door, this crew kicked up a mighty ruckus in the room below; a chapter was closed and a story ended, all wrapped up with fierce and fiery singing. Thus, ontologically, the album proves its own point.

Henry’s production is perfect for this band—an “Americana” roots group, by most contemporary classifications, whose arsenal here includes piano, organ, ukulele, guitar, banjo, clarinet, and voices lifted up in gospel choir effects. Yet the sound of the album doesn’t resemble any other Americana album you could name, at least not from recent years; there’s no fetishization of “twang” or “grit” here, none of the analog authenticity that T-Bone Burnett might have brought to these sessions. It sounds more like the musicians were playing together in real time and in close proximity, their instruments filling the basement space, spilling over into one another, creating a thick, warm sound that often swells to foundation-shaking heights. “Secular gospel” is a term the Birds like to use, and what’s here does indeed sound like a joyful noise; church music traditions shape everything here, making each song sound like a communal sing-along, the cumulative impact a wild yowl. The songs may be non-denominational, but their sound is one of affirmation, empathy, and inclusion; they are “secular” only if you deny humanism as its own kind of liturgy.

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In Nero’s lyrics, pop songs are treated as folklore, little bits of them quoted throughout—the common vernacular for lovers in dangerous times. There are snippets of The Beatles here, “St. James Infirmary” there—so when one song title exhorts us to “Remember Wild Horses,” we do so: The weary, lived-in vibe of that Rolling Stones classic is a perfect touchstone for these weathered reflections. Russell and Nero trade verses, sketching out characters who believe in yesterday, even when it’s to their detriment. Nero’s verse is the most pointed: He runs into an old buddy who breaks into mirthless laughter: “I said man what’s so funny?/ He looked up at me like he wanted to punch me/ He said, ‘Nothing’s funny, not one damn thing is funny.’” (See also: “When you asked me how I was doing/ Was that some kind of joke?”) The man’s whole story tumbles out in two scant lines: “I loved her so long I believed that she loved me/ I promised her, she promised me.” When the chorus erupts and the two singers join their voices—his wounded, hers soaring— it becomes the kind of song designed to break down inhibitions and provide instant catharsis. “Remember wild horses running on with the morning in their eyes/… You don’t have to wipe away your tears, go on and let ‘em fall/ You’re just remembering wild horses is all.” It’s a song about pining; a song about how our fractured love so suddenly turns into memories that haunt. Like so many songs on this album, it seems to be sung from somewhere deep within a thundercloud, bass and drums bleeding into each other to form an ominous background rumble—the singers singing loud to overpower it.

But time is a dare, and love an act of resilience— even defiance. “Barley” has the feel of a spiritual, and offers one survivor’s metaphor after another: “The wind that shakes the barley will not shake me.” “The rain that floods the valley will not drown me.” “The fire that takes the kindling will not take me.”  Of course every kindling has its day, but the song itself is a redemptive act, the singing a feat of courage. And it’s presented starkly: Russell sings it a capella for a couple of verses before before handclaps and percussion add their assent. The arrangement is stark, but the feel robust, humane. It’s a music of many voices rising into something collective; it’s a riot scene.

Russell is a singer of huge presence, and—like Giddens—she draws her power from restraint. Her star-making turn here is “Kinderspel,” where she wears naked desire in the raggedness of her voice—but listen for how she digs deep into her gut for the final chorus. It’s a big moment that’s earned by the song’s patient build. The lyrics address a lover from a place of hurt, and of need; they’re stark but hypnotic in their repetition: “You, you cared for me/ You, you cared for me/ Smelled like a wild sea/ Tasted just like a wild sea/ You were hungry, yeah you were hungry/ You were hungry so you took me/ You were hungry so you took me/ You took me ‘cause you were hungry.” A fleet piano solo carries the bridge, Jay Bellerose’s bass drum and cymbals provide dramatic accents, and then in the final verse Russell delivers what could be the album’s keynote: “Nobody keeps anything/ Nobody gets to keep anything.” Like Lucinda Williams, even her thoughts turn to dust, to transience—yet that’s just where her voice starts to soar. This is a song for the morning after real midnight; a song for picking up the pieces.

Nero, meanwhile, takes center stage on “Estrella Goodbye,” the last dance on the deck of the Titanic; a string-band throw-down for the very last days. It sounds like a party song, banjos plucking, drums building momentum, Russell’s gospel harmonies swooping in and out of the song, and Nero issuing a call for joy without inhibition. The temporary nature of things gives it its urgency: “Tomorrow’s gonna come and kill tonight/ Least you could do is put up a fight.” Or, as Joe Henry put it on Tiny Voices: “All manner of abandon is just the thing we need.”

The title song is a soulful number, performed with everyone huddled around the piano; it’s like a Van Morrison song in how it seems somehow to bottle the strange weather of the soul. Real midnight’s gonna come; there are real wolves at the door. But as Nero offers grim warnings, Russell’s singing about tender kisses. It might all end badly—or then again, it might not: “Real midnight’s gonna come/ But yeah, that’s alright/ We will be as the stars/ And put holes in the night/ In 10,000 years/ They’ll see how our love shines/ When they’re lying on their backs/ Looking up through the pines.” Maybe our love will last; maybe the ending of things is immaterial. What Real Midnight affirms is that every moment carries the possibility of redemption; it’s just a leap of faith, an act of joy away.


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LIFE & TIMES

Or: Paul Burch’s Jimmie Rodgers dream.

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“Take me to Coney Island so the last thing in my eye/ Is you way up on the Wonder Wheel waving me goodbye.” With his own sun setting Jimmie Rodgers returns to the scene where he lived best, and lived most: Back to the carnival, back to the stage, back to the razzle dazzle showmanship that rode in on gleaming steel to the railroad-hub hometown of his youth. It wasn’t long into his career as a song and dance man that Rodgers was diagnosed with the same tuberculosis that claimed his mother, a fact that in death has made him a tragic figure but in life made him anything but: With a ticking clock over his head Rodgers lived fast and hard, soaking up country and jazz and vaudeville and blues and packaging them in the snappy professionalism of a born showman, Cadillacin’ across the country with his guitar in the floorboard and his eye on the glitz and glamor of the big city, his breast pocket never without a pack of cards, his mind ever sniffing out the next tumble through circus tents and picnic blankets, tangled in the limber arms and legs of a magician’s assistant. His was a pilgrimage of pleasure, and he was too caught up in joy ever to seek redemption. He made the most of what time he had, a life measured not in milestones but in moments. He knew his song well before he started singing.

The great triumph of Meridian Rising, Paul Burch’s patchwork mosaic of Jimmie Rodgers’ life and times, is that it’s not a museum display, a Wikipedia entry come to life, a litany of winking in-jokes and references. Though Jimmie Rodgers’ legacy was significant and specific enough to be summed up in a series of nicknames—The Blue Yodeler, The Singing Brakeman, The Father of Country Music—in truth he contained multitudes; Burch approaches his subject the way Joe Henry approached Richard Pryor and Charlie Parker, not as a legend but as a man, not as history but as humanity: He narrates the album in first person and provides a set of liner notes that are steeped in Rodgers’ history, but the album isn’t a recitation or a pageant. It’s a blur of images and ideas, songs and stories that evade moralizing, symbolism, allegory, or deeper meaning. The album’s not academic, though Burch obviously did enough homework for all of us. It’s an album to be experienced, immersed in. It’s a formal construct of rhythm, melody, and joy.

None of the songs are Jimmie Rodgers compositions. None of them really mimic the style for which he’s best known. Burch sings in his usual Nashville Skyline croon, yodeling only a time or two—most notably on “Baby Blue Yodel,” which has as much in common with a Bing Crosby luau as with honky tonk. He co-produced the album with Americana hero Dennis Crouch, whose upright bass is the hinge on which these gaily swingin’ songs pivot from hot jazz to cabaret, from carny songs to jaunty blues; their crack studio unit includes Burch’s usual WPA Ballclub players, fiddle boss Fats Kaplan, and Gary Tallent of the E-Street Band. It’s a fittingly raucous homage to a man who history books link to such diverse figures as Satchmo and Robert Johnson, and who learned his trade when people cared about “artists” much less than they cared about entertainers, song and dance men who could shift idioms effortlessly and easily and keep the beat supple enough to dance to. Genre in Rodgers’ world was just a matter of inflection, and Burch’s tunes are characterized not by formal conventions but by their energy, their spontaneity, the way they move. Everything here feels freewheeling and frantic—the soundtrack to a life in perpetual motion, an eagerness to see and do as much as possible before time ran out.

There is an appealing slickness to Burch’s work here: He sings his blues without anguish and plays his jazz with the dance floor in mind. He embodies Jimmie Rodgers as a consummate professional who—like Louis Armstrong—knew the value in giving the people what they wanted. Burch’s Jimmie Rodgers prefers spritely tempos, winking wordplay, the occasional cornball joke or sly entendre, and arrangements that overflow with generosity and imagination. Even the most overtly country-ish numbers are fleshed out with the oomp-pa of a brass band; there are theatrical flourishes, like the clarinet figure that opens the curtain on the whole album, but they don’t sound like affectations. They sound like natural extensions of the kinetic, full-band interplay and cheerful people-pleasing that characterizes these performances; the meaning of this music—what it says about living joyfully and intentionally—is conveyed through these spirited arrangements as much as it is the lyrics themselves.

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Burch’s old-timey conceits are balanced by a modern veneer. Check “Cadillacin,’” a jumble of swagger and cocksure youthfulness barreling down the highway on gleaming silver wheels; finger-poppin’ drum breaks and a propulsive piano figure keep the song driving, while scratchy guitars and moanin’ horns threaten that the whole thing could very quickly get derailed. It’s the ultimate road trip anthem, a song about finding pleasure on the open highway; like Robert Johnson, Jimmie’s got a hellhound on his trail, but it’s nothing he can’t outrun. “Let him try to take me,” Jimmie boasts, and it’s enough to put anyone in a Flannery O’Connor state of mind. (“Nobody with a good car needs to be justified,” declared her Hazel Motes.)

Though the album never settles into doom and gloom, Burch situates his colorful songs within a black border. “US Rte 49” runs past the sanatorium where Rodgers eventually died, and references his insistent cough—but the song’s not a funeral dirge; it’s a raucous travelogue, a fever dream full of cars and women, fans hoisting him on their shoulders and nurses following like shadows, grim tidings on their lips. The hellhound’s still on his trail but Jimmie’s moving too fast for ‘im; the song is an uproarious, ramshackle blues with hot fiddle, thunderous rimshots, honky tonk piano, and spindly acoustic guitar work. Burch’s protagonist peels off mad couplets like a man who thinks he can talk his way out of trouble; so long as he keeps narrating his riotous road trip, it can’t possibly come to an end.

The road takes him to Paris and to London but nowhere more memorable than the Gunter Hotel in Texas; “Gunter Hotel Blues” is a comedic set piece where Jimmie wakes up each morning with strange women buzzing around, the house detective is looking into a murder, and Burch feels at liberty to cut loose with a joke lifted from Groucho Marx by way of Love & Theft—yet when he asks Room Service to send up another room, it’s a punchline that masks rising despair. The song’s another burner, though—pounding percussion, slapback bass, furious guitar strumming, and a mad clarinet that cuts through the whole thing. Burch’s lyrics illuminate Jimmie’s fast living with precision: “Now if a woman comes claimin’ to be my wife/ Tell her I stepped out for the night/ But if she says she’s my friend give her a key/ And let her in.”

Burch has always been a songwriter of immense formal control; his classic Still Your Man is a master class in song craft and specifically in subjugating genre machinery to a real, particular vision. There’s more of that here: “Black Lady Blues” opens with a fiddle that’s straight out of Western swing but it settles into something more like a juke joint blues. The lyric is pure country, though—an extended metaphor that Burch stretches like taffy into a confectionary treat, delivering the lyrics with a shit-eating grin but remaining charming in his commitment to the conceit. “Well I dealt the cards/ Looked at my hand/ Some new suit tryin’ to upset my plans/ Talkin’ tricks to my queen when all I want to do is hold/ Mercy, breakin’ hearts will try a poor boy’s soul!” The twang is offset by the marching band tuba in the background; here as everywhere, any effort to define the song proves slippery and elusive. See also: “The Girl I Sawed in Half,” which opens with just voice and acoustic guitar before erupting into a punch-drunk dance tune for piano, pedal steel, and brass. It’s a song about an affair with a traveling magician’s assistant—you know: A girl who needs someone to help pull the saw. Burch’s Jimmie Rodgers “yodels some blues and ballads” and slips effortlessly into a carnival barker’s husky proclamations, but in the end he’s up to his usual tricks—making the woman disappear.

The record is haunted by life but dogged by darker undercurrents; the listener is free to enjoy this carnival purely for its spectacle, or wade into its humanity in search of deeper themes and stranger conceits. There are even political underpinnings. On “Cadillcain,’” Jimmie’s line-up of vehicles—one for every kind of weather—is what separates him from the common man. A few songs later, though, he’s singing a rabblerouser’s anthem called “Poor Don’t Vote,” a workingman’s blues like Woody Guthrie might have written. It goes beyond policy and election to assert the innate, subversive power held by those society deems to be powerless; politicians write off the working poor at their own expense, the song projects: “You call me greasy and full of muck/ You play me hard for the easy buck/ I bet you see us all like chickens to pluck/ But time’s running out on you.” His own clock’s running out, too—but not too fast to deliver this one with smirk and panache, each lyric delivered like a gut punch and a rim shot: “You got a lot of nerve tryin’ to rock my boat/ You think you’re safe because the poor don’t vote/… You better be kind to me, brother/ ‘Cause if you’ve got my vote or not might be the least of your troubles.”

On the record’s most reflective song, “Ain’t That Water Lucky,” Rodgers stares out into the mighty Mississippi—a central, connective landmark that seems to pull the whole journey into clarity, like Dylan’s Highway 61 or Lucinda’s Highway 20. It’s stark, spindly folk,Burch strumming at the center while clarinet, piano, and fiddle help him navigate the river’s turns. It feels like the turning point in Jimmie’s journey: Doctors have just handed him a death sentence and he stares out into the surest thing he knows, the water’s perpetual motion a kind of constancy that he envies. If you didn’t know the story you might expect him to hurl himself headlong into its waves—another Southern Son becoming one with the land—but a couple minutes in there’s a noticeable uptick in Burch’s inflection: Jimmie hears the water talking to him, telling him that even as everything around him turns to mush there’s nothing to do but to keep drivin’ on. But he can’t keep burinin’ it forever: Later, in a spooky dialogue with a British concert promoter called “If I Could Only Catch My Breath,” Jimmie finally sees the curtain coming down. He wants to take his song and dance to Europe, but dying makes it just another dream deferred.

But while dying is an important thread through these songs, Meridian Rising isn’t morbid. It doesn’t fetishize mortality; it celebrates living in dying’s light. In a way, it’s the inverse of Words of Love, Burch’s excellent Buddy Holly tribute album of a few years back. That record was about going deep into song, unpacking it, seeing what makes it tick; this one is about how song opens us ever outward, how it contains multitudes—and each of us within it. Jimmie Rodgers, it turns out, is just the paradigm through which we see ourselves in these riotous proceedings. In “Fast Fuse Blues,” a soft-shoe number you can imagine pitched under a circus tent, Jimmie seeks to lay his hands to something pleasurable and real, even with time running out; “later’s coming early every day,” Burch sings, and it might as well be a challenge for all us us trying to seize the day even with nightfall on our minds. Of course we all know that Jimmie’s story ends; it’s the how that’s interesting, and here Burch makes one of the album’s most brilliant choices: It goes out on a rollicking instrumental “Didn’t He Ramble,” which sounds less like a wake and more like a Mardi Gras parade. It sounds like a party.


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