MJ Lenderman's 'And the Wind (Live and Loose!)' Could Stand to Be a Little Looser
Published Nov 14, 2023At only 24 years old, MJ Lenderman has accomplished a lot. He plays guitar and sings back-up in Wednesday, the much celebrated (and rightfully so!) countrygaze band from Asheville, North Carolina, and has released a number of full-lengths and EPs as a solo artist. His latest — and best — solo album, 2022's Boat Songs, was beloved for its crunchy melding of country and indie rock, and with And the Wind (Live and Loose!), Lenderman has done what so many road warriors have done before him: released a winding, expressive live album (that's a little less loose than its title would suggest).
Recorded live at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, IL and Lodge Room in Los Angeles, CA, And the Wind features Lenderman and a robust backing band made up of Jon Samuels (guitar), Colin Miller (drums), and Lenderman's fellow Wednesday bandmates Xandy Chelmis (pedal steel) and Ethan Baechtold (bass). While the bulk of the material comes from Boat Songs, the band deftly floats through Lenderman's oeuvre with grace and distortion, recontextualizing a few of his early tracks through the lens of a full-band, each member bringing their own dynamics and playing styles.
Lenderman is a key (if left-of-centre) proponent of the guitar-driven '90s-revivalist sound that's infiltrated all corners of the musical landscape. His songs cannibalize the likes of Drive-By Truckers, Songs: Ohia, early Liz Phair and the slacker-cool of Pavement to great effect, even if he sometimes sounds so much like Jason Molina it's downright unsettling.
With its brittle, plaintive lilt, early album-highlight "Knockin" sounds exactly like a lost Songs: Ohia classic, an existential mini-epic full of references, puns and lamentations. It also has one of the best opening lines ever released in the history of recorded music ("We saw John Daly sing 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door'"). Lenderman's voice sounds shredded, but he manages to wrangle control of every pained syllable, particularly during the jammy ending, where he repeats "knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knockin'" into the ether with no resolution.
Lenderman is able to tackle esoteric topics with such heartfelt minutia that you'll be forgiven if you miss some of his analogies and turns of phrase. In "TLC Cagematch," he distills the slings and arrows of life down to a wrestling match, an apt metaphor for those moments when you feel like the world has kicked the shit out of you. "Rudolph" sees the titular reindeer smeared across the pavement by a blacked-out Lightning McQueen from Cars; "Live Jack" (a version of "Gentleman's Jack" from Ghost of Your Guitar Solo) has Lenderman aspiring to the good life, which he equates to Jack Nicholson sitting in his well-worn front row Lakers seat; "Dan Marino" recounts Lenderman's father's brief interaction with the hall of fame quarterback. Sometimes, these specificities risk feeling trite, perhaps a bit too clever for their own good, but Lenderman's music isn't trying to be sarcastic or superficial. Instead it's dry and deadpan and oddly heartfelt, like a Nathan Fielder sketch transcribed by your local bar band.
The trouble with live albums is that they only ever manage to capture part of the live experience. The music is and should be central, but there are performative elements on both sides of the curtain: as an audience member, you dress up, go out, make your way through crowds and spills and smells, find your place and take it all in. While And the Wind is a ton of bummed-out fun, boasting a fair share of noise and powerful playing, at times the album sounds more like a live-off-the-floor studio rerecording of Lenderman's material rather than a traditional live album (a bit too much Alive! and not enough Time Fades Away). It's a little too perfectly mixed, and there are a number of times where you forget you're listening to something being played in front of sold-out audiences. Although the crowds cheer at the ends of songs, their absence during the songs — whether through their own self-imposed reverie, or a lapse in mixing — makes the proceedings feel hollow and constructed. The only time we really get to hear them during any of the performances is when Lenderman introduces the band in "You Are Every Girl to Me."
While these woozy, mid-tempo tracks are all comfortable in their fuzzy, country-fried lanes, they are also all very similar in both tone and feel. Halfway through, the album starts to drag and the extended sections of usually much shorter songs begin to feel stretched simply by virtue of their being played live — sometimes not enough of a reason to jam. Fortunately, the album ends with an inspired, off-kilter cover of "Long Black Veil," a classic country ballad that stands as a fitting and messy end to an album that often feels a bit too clean for its own good.
And the Wind will inevitably serve two purposes: for newcomers, it can act as an introduction to Lenderman's sound and energy; conversely, those already well acquainted with his discography will find unmistakable charm in the full-band interpretations of both new and old songs. Lenderman's foray into the live-album tradition is fed by his music's effortless nostalgia, but you can't help but wish he'd leaned into the dive bar clatter and freewheeling wildness that always feels just at the periphery of his music. As it is, And the Wind acts as a solid addition to your deep-summer-backyard-beer-drinking soundtrack — sometimes that's all you need. (ANTI- Records)