James Knight Top Ten (Part 3)
We have the always amazing James Knight back this week with a new Top Ten! Love it Jam, cheers!!!!
Back again! Big thanks to everyone who has been in touch about the last couple of top tens, I’ve been really enjoying doing them so I’m glad that at least a couple of people are hyped on them! This month we have, broadly speaking I guess what could be filed under ‘alt-country’ or ‘Americana’:
- “Whiskey Bottle” – Uncle Tupelo
As previously mentioned I did a lot of reading of Mojo and Uncut as a youngster so it was inevitable that I’d end up exploring the bands that those magazines covered and they both had a real predilection for American singer-songwriters and bands that followed in the alt-country/Americana tradition that had been laid out by folks like Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle etc. Props must also go to a dude called Captain America (real name Nick Stewart) who had a show on Virgin who played a lot of this sort of stuff back in the mid to late 90s. While they morphed beyond the genre somewhat from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot onwards Wilco were certainly a pretty big deal in that world. I definitely enjoyed the Wilco albums at the time but I was fascinated reading about how the members of that band had previously played in an outfit called Uncle Tupelo in the early 90s that mixed alt-country with their love of The Replacements. I was not disappointed when I finally got hold of the re-issues of their 4 albums that came out on CD at the turn of the millennium. Their final album Anodyne (1993) is probably the most ‘complete’ but I love their first, No Depression (1990), for its energy and heart-on-sleeve youthful earnestness and “Whiskey Bottle” is taken from that LP. The mix of distorted electric and lap steel guitars is one I’m still a total sucker for! While he’s not had anywhere near the same level of success or notoriety as Tweedy post-Tupelo, Jay Farrar has one of the archetypical voices in this genre, listen to him go on “Sauget Wind”:
While Will Oldham and Jason Molina (more on them later) have some of the most unique and affecting vocal deliveries in this broad field one of the only guy that does the textbook Americana vocal better than Farrar for my money is Robert Fisher of The Willard Grant Conspiracy, talking of whom…
- “The Trials Of Harrison Hayes” – The Willard Grant Conspiracy
This one is like a gut punch. Moving, mysterious, epic, Biblical, oblique, redemptive, bleak, drenched in emotive strings. It does all the things that make me love this kind of music and the whole of Regards The End, the LP that this cut is taken from, is equally excellent. As mentioned above – Robert Fisher’s vocal is straight goose bumps at all times. I saw them play a couple of times and wept like a baby on both occasions. Fisher died early last year which makes this song ever more poignant to the point that it’s actually difficult for me to listen to it these days. The final verse is lifted directly from the book of Job and serves as a fitting epitaph:
Misery doesn’t come from the earth
Trouble doesn’t sprout from the ground
People are born to trouble
Just as sparks fly upwards, into the clouds
Miss you big man, may you rest in peace.
- “Hutterite Mile” – 16 Horsepower
16 Horsepower, and David Eugene Edward’s subsequent Woven Hand project, stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best stuff in this field for me. Edwards has an ability to capture the brooding, menacing, Old Testament, American Gothic vibe that is second to none. Again, his vocal is archetypical and his predilection for drenching it in reverb only adds to the Mad Crow King vibe he has going on. Jim White (another artist who could/should be on this list!) made a film called Searching For The Wrong Eyed Jesus that captures the essence of what a lot the songs on this list, and DEE’s in particular, conjure up and it features a great turn from the man himself. It seems to be permanently up on the iPlayer here:
- “At The Crossroads” – Sir Douglas Quintet
Quite a few of the artists on this list are, I guess, what you could call ‘contemporary Americana’ artists. It’s a bit of a challenge for me to try and define what makes older artists in the broader fields of Country, Gospel, Folk, Southern Rock, Appalachian etc etc etc fit as clear influences on the younger generation but sometime you hear a record and you just know. The first time I head Mendocino by the Sir Douglas Quintet it blew me away. I love every single thing about this song in particular forma that LP so much. The bass line, the keys, the reverb saturated vocal, the sentiment of the lyric, the way he sings the word “down”. Ugh. Here he is doing it live from Austin and looking suspiciously like he might have been indulging in a few beverages and a spot of party powder:
What a badman.
- “Decoration Day” – The Drive By Truckers
A cursory glance could easily lead to the wrong impression of The Drive By Truckers but the reality is that their music and lyrics reflect and deconstruct the complexity of Southern identity as opposed to glorifying or revelling in it. De facto band leader Patterson Hood’s father is David Hood, best known as bass player and founding member of The Swampers, the legendary Muscle Shoals session outfit and Hood’s fellow Swamper Spooner Oldham is known to pop up on their records. This direct link to Southern rhythm & blues royalty has never been something the band have leaned on and they have ploughed their furrow for over twenty years now. I have a soft spot for the rawkus and raw early couple of LPs Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverence but I reckon the high point of their output remains their early 00s trilogy of LPs – Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day and The Dirty South. It is perhaps no coincidence that this period roughly coincides with the addition of Jason Isbell on guitar, vocals and lyrics duty alongside the formidable creative duo of Hood and Dave Cooley. I sure as shit am not from the South of the United States of America but there is something intensely universal about the music that the Truckers make and this cut from Decoration Day in particular. It’s another song that has moved me to tears more than once when I have seen them play it live. I promise that I don’t weep at every live gig I go to. Honest. Here’s an acoustic version of the song featuring a dried out and cleaned up Isbell reunited on stage with Hood and Cooley many years after his initial separation from the band for inter-personal and drinking issues:
6. “One More Dollar” – Gillian Welch
There’s no shortage of exceptional female songwriters, performers and voices in this broad field, all the way from Lorreta Lynn and Emmylou Harris to Lucinda Williams and Neko Case. None move me quite as much as Gillian Welch though. I often return to her first two LP’s, 1998’s Hell Among The Yearlings and her 1996 debut Revival(which this song is taken from). There’s an unadorned honesty to Welch’s vocal which allows it a timeless quality that I never tire of and the sparse bluegrass and Appalachian instrumentation that she and her regular co-conspirator Dave Rawlings tend to lean towards is a perfect accompaniment. I’ve always quite liked artists whose discographies are slight but exceptional and with five LPs in twenty odd years Welch certainly falls into that category so another tick there from me! Here’s “Revelator” from her 2001 LP Time (The Revelator):
7. “Jacksonville Skyline” – Whiskeytown
(Disclaimer - this was written way before it came out that Ryan Adams was a creep).
It would be disingenuous of me not too include Ryan Adams in this list. I totally get why people hate on him and he can be a total doofus no doubt but his work with Whiskeytown (and, I’d argue, large chunks of his solo output) stands right up there with the very best stuff in this field. Whiskeytown’s third LP, Stranger’s Almanac, is a bonafide cornerstone of the 90s alt-country revival and his vocal is, again, textbook. I can’t lie, I love the guy! “Jacksonville Skyline” is taken from the ‘lost’ Whiskeytown LP Pneumonia which was eventually released several years after the band split and it’s a wonderful evocation of his hometown that has been endlessly covered by others. He’s famously prolific and there are plenty of gems in his post-Whiskeytown output but I’m a big fan of the mid-00s LPs he put out as Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, an ensemble which featured Jon Graboff excelling himself on lap steel, here’s “Let It Ride” from that period:
And just for good measure here he is doing “Wasted Years” by Maiden from their Somewhere in Time LP in a solo acoustic stylee while wearing and Emporer T-Shirt:
Come on, how can you hate on that?!
- “Song For A Blue Guitar” – Red House Painters
I am not sure many people would necessarily put Red House Painters in this context but this is where they live in my record collection and in my head. Red House Painters music has always sounded to me like Americana shot through that ethereal filter that a lot of 4AD artists seem to share and topped off with Kozelek’s down-but-not-quite out vocal and, this track in particular feels connected to a lot of the other music on this list. The Red House Painters discography certainly conforms to my all killer no filler penchant mentioned earlier, you can’t really question any of the 6 LPs and the first 3 4AD LPs are stone cold bad boys. Here’s “Katy Song” just because:
9. “Horses” – Palace Brothers
Not sure where to start with Oldham. I’ve been a full blown full discography acolyte since the release of the early Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy records circa the turn of the millennium and couldn’t believe what I was hearing when I went back and discovered the various Palace and related recordings, many of which I bought on CD from Selectadisc in Nottingham (where Chris used to work, RIP to that wicked shop!) He’s right up there for me beyond the confines of this or any genre and he’s one of only two artists I’ve been to see with my mum. The other was Philip Glass and I fell asleep at that one! Anyway, ‘nuff props to Big Will, one of the all time don gorgons. I absolutely love everything he touches and have a particular soft spot for the Superwolf LP he did with Matt Sweeney so here’s a track off that:
- “Cabwaylingo” –Songs:Ohia
Again – no idea where to start with Molina, his music remains a constant in my life, I carry it with me as some kind of a sonic totem in my phone and they are the only songs that never get deleted. I genuinely miss him on a regular basis, something I can say for no other artist who has passed away. I met him only once briefly but he gave so much through his songs that I am sure I’m not alone in feeling that when he died I’d lost someone I knew well and cared about deeply. Much like Oldham – his output was flawless and both his sound signature and vocal were unique, haunting and compelling. I could have chosen any number of songs but his debut album (the ‘black’ Songs:Ohia LP) is probably the one that I return to most regularly, his lyrics on that one are perhaps at their most strange and opaque and the imagery is seared into my brain. I’ll leave you with “Farwell Transmission”, if only Jason could have somehow held onto the wisdom he intoned in this song:
“The real truth about it is no one gets it right
The real truth about it is we’re all supposed to try
There ain’t no end to the sands I’ve been trying to cross
The real truth about it is my kind of life’s no better off
If I’ve got the maps or if I’m lost
I will try and know whatever I try, I will be gone but not forever”
R.I.P. Jason. I miss you.