Spectral Visions Pursuing Ghosts Through Country's Otherworld
Published Aug 01, 2001This is a land of myths and ghosts, this America. God and the devil loom large over the land, and the land looms large over the mind. This sober, God-fearing land that worships guns and cars is a surreal place where minds become unmoored from the steadying ties of what passes for everyday life. God, the devil, ghosts, myths, vision, the land and the withering heat of the desert and American South are the business of a wide swath of the music that sprang from this culture and these minds music that we know as country or even more broadly as American roots music. The Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a goofily erudite reminder that American folkways are not a straight, smooth path, but winding, forking and choked with tangled vines of myth, history and religion. But that's something Tom Waits and Nick Cave two artists with a keen, if slightly skewed, appreciation for the metaphysics of American roots music have known for a long time. Country music and its kin have always been full of otherworldly goings-on.
The forces most earthly and the things beyond our ken create a peculiarly American sort of surrealism in the music of ass-backwards mystics like Jim White, Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous and Drunk's Rick Alverson, who write with the irrational logic and fevered imagery of dreams where the extremes of their environments are embroiled with the power of myth, the ecstasies of religion and American cultural history.
"I think it's a freaky mutation of the old," says White of this branch of roots music. "Just because you hear some tell-tale traces of the old doesn't mean it's comfortable."
Surrealism, impressionism, expressionism these terms are usually reserved for the high arts, but they're not too highfalutin for something as homespun and rough hewn as these latter day campfire singers. They might be nominally alternative country artists, but their songs are elaborate dreamscapes recording lyrical and musical impressions of the American commingling of landscapes with the mythical, mystical and musical. They, like Calexico and Richard Buckner and even Canadians like Oh Susanna, the Sadies and Royal City's Aaron Riches (who would seem to owe some debt to Gelb's croaking delivery and sun-addled perspective), form a branch of alt-country I would call American expressionism. They open their minds, words and sounds to the criss-crossing of the geography, history, religion and myths that formed an idea of America with further expressions of America in literature, film and their roots music antecedents to create stylised expressions of the consciousness and bigger meanings of America.
Think of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" the expressionist painting that hangs iconically on the walls of countless earnest arts undergrads. It howls outward at unspecified horrors and inward at nothing and everything in particular. In other words, it's pure expression both irrational and entirely provoked by environment and "society." The music of Gelb, White and their loosely gathered cohorts is a multihued conduit to an American netherworld within the everyday strains of country music. It's a mental landscape created by the physical environment, myths, history and religion of the United States notably the South and Southwest and some of the most expressive forms of American art: the shadowy, stylised worlds of the Western and film noir and their existential codes, and the Southern gothic's random violence and religiously inspired dementia.
Within American roots music, these artists are outsiders to the outsiders, horseflies in the alternative country buttermilk. The currency of alt-country's all-star songwriters, like Lucinda Williams, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Earle and precocious punks like Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams, is their gritty, often confessional realism. Rough-and-tumble characters who sing honest, direct songs about the usual grievances of country music heartache, betrayal, failure, loneliness, disillusionment or simple pleasures like love and cars or simple hardships like work.
But the music of Gelb, White and their fellow expressionists is less earthbound. It may be sound and words, but it burns images into the consciousness and opens the mind to wanderings ravelled in things that are bigger and more irrational, more ephemeral, like the ghosts spawned by the country's preponderance of myths and religious fervour.
In Canada, we've always looked a little bit down our noses, and a little enviously, at the power of American mythologies. No wonder so many Canadian artists are fascinated with American roots music and the access it gives to a tapestry of myth so much more colourful, and outrageous, than our own. Suzie Ungerleider, better known as Oh Susanna, was born in Massachusetts, but grew up in Vancouver, all the while identifying with American culture and finding the grandeur of American mythology irresistible.
"The myths are way more overt and romantic in the United States and also portrayed in literature and movies in a really strong way," says Ungerleider, who now lives in Toronto. "In the United States, you go way back to the Promised Land myth, Exodus, homecoming, the place untainted by civilisation those myths are so old."
Ungerleider set her first album, Johnstown, in a Pennsylvania town on the eve of a disastrous flood that killed more than 2,000 people in 1889 a historical event that hearkens back to a distant time when natural forces seemed more fearsome and mysterious. It was a powerful gambit, spreading a ghostly presence across the album to approximate a Canadian gothic in music, even if does take place in the United States.
"I wanted to set the album in a place that isn't necessarily a real place," Ungerleider explains, "but it's murky, dark, rusty, earthy and a place where disasters can occur, whether those are internal or not. Johnstown is like a theatre that way. It has a sense of stepping into a vast landscape, stepping out of life as you know it."
Surrendering to the mythical and the irrational may also be a way of enlarging the self and the possibilities of songwriting beyond the abiding country truisms of love and heartbreak.
"The thing that's so interesting about dealing with myths is it's hard to discuss them in a rational way," says Ungerleider. "It's about getting in touch with mystery. It puts you in touch with a spiritual realm. The people who first settled in the United States were very religious and believed in witchcraft and in a way, everything around them reinforced that. They were in a crazy place with storms and winters. They were also on a holy mission, so they were battling the darkness and other natural things they couldn't control. People like Jim White create haunting music, and that implies that there are ghosts, and that's something the modern world is pretty devoid of."
Ghosts do abound in American culture. Washington Irving, the first American fiction writer, is best known for his ghost story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Edgar Allan Poe remains one of the greatest horror writers ever. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote gothic-influenced tales of the supernatural, mad scientists, and his Puritan ancestors in Salem, MA. Nearly 200 years after the Salem Puritans were burning witches to exorcise evil from their midst, Hawthorne was still exorcising the ghosts of religious madness.
The baffled, outraged ghosts of the Old South roamed through William Faulkner's fiction, and the Southern gothic took form out of the South's haunting by the lost cause of the Civil War, the monumental wrong of slavery and the aristocratic idealism of the Old South. The same ghosts shriek, albeit a little comically, in White's music, but you can also hear them in Drunk and Sparklehorse, both bands from Richmond, Virginia the capital of the rebel confederate states. Blood and history have leeched into the very soil of both Richmond and the music it fosters.
Move further Southwest, specifically to the Arizona desert, and the burdens of myth and history are less oppressive. The sound opens up, mirroring the expanses of land and bizarre landforms punished by the desert sun. The merciless heat keeps things from being too straightforward in Howe Gelb's strange, laconic rhapsodies, which have reached a high point with Giant Sand's Chore of Enchantment and the Gelb's solo Confluence. He has loosened the tethers of common sense to the happenstance of language stream-of-consciousness rambles of erudite musings corrupted by folksy witticisms in a Southwest vernacular. Calexico, now the main project of the Giant Sand rhythm section, Joey Burns and John Convertino, dwell within the same expressionist universe, but evoke a larger cosmology influenced by novelist Cormac McCarthy's often ghastly reimaginings of a mythical West and film noir atmospherics with their sound of shadowy, lonely characters skulking down lonely streets in desert border towns.
"It's more eclectic and in that respect, it's very Western, very much of the Southwest," says Burns from a roadside restaurant somewhere in Texas. "We embody all these elements that make up the music of today, but there's always the need to do something that hasn't been done before, to veer off the road and into unknown territory. With Calexico, we give it a sense of musical journey, going from point A to point B through transitions. There's a crossroads there, and I like crossroads in music.
Funny he should mention a crossroads. In the legend of Robert Johnson's encounter with the devil at the crossroads, a musical tradition and a mythology intersect in one of the defining moments of American culture: Johnson's sudden emergence as the most influential of country blues men. Visions of demons and the pursuit of ghosts soon followed.
Jim White's observations and experiences and even his songs about cars and there are a lot of them often turn out to be ghost songs. The ghost that most haunts White's music, and all of American roots music, is the Holy Ghost, an expression that neatly captures the twining of myth, history and religion in America. His refigured landscapes and characters cut a surreal swath through middle America, so often synonymous with banality, but actually a formidably strange, metaphysical place. It's no coincidence that an Australian, Nick Cave (himself a connoisseur of religious dementia and irrational violence) wrote his novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, in a Southern gothic setting. But Jim White came by the Southern gothic more naturally. He grew up in it.
White was born in San Diego, but his father, a military man, moved the family to Pensacola, Florida a city with greater claim to being the "buckle of the Bible belt" than most, having more churches per capita than any other American city. White was both immersed in the powerful, Christianised energy of the South and remained an outsider, which gives him a certain purchase on the irrationalisms and psyche of the South raw materials for a potent expressionism.
"We were Yankees, and we were not accepted," says White between mouthfuls of pad thai before a late June gig in Toronto, "so when I describe the South, I see it in a way that people who were raised in it and indoctrinated in it could not.
"My family was very middle class, so I guess my way of rebelling was that I started running with the white trash kids. It was amazing to hang out with these people. One minute they'd be in church giving glory to God, and the next they'd be breaking milk bottles over each other's heads."
There's a kinship between White and Flannery O'Connor, the mid-20th century master of the Southern gothic whose characters were beholden to a logic known only to themselves, wreaking violent havoc on everyone around them. O'Connor was also a paradox a devoutly Catholic woman in the solidly Protestant South who wrote vividly and without judgement about mindlessly violent people, often of white trash extraction.
"She had such empathy for the underclass," says White admiringly. "You have to feel that she wished she could have accessed that level of irrationality to feel that kind of impellment to religion."
Like much Southern gothic literature, O'Connor's characters are driven by religion, schooled by tradition and confounded by the changing face of the South. Factor in the heat, and you've got endless potential for people becoming unhinged. "If you live in the South without air conditioning," says White with the thinnest of smiles, "you're begging for apocalypse. There's a real dementia brought on by the relentlessness of the heat."
The admixture of heat, irrationality and religion of Pensacola populates White's songs with a multihued carnival midway of holy-rolling charismatics, wayward souls and self-styled mystics dancing betwixt God and the devil. Even God and Jesus become side-show attractions in his albums, Wrong-Eyed Jesus and No Such Place. Both albums swing from tuneful folky pop to burlesques of countrified boogie-rock. They also leave little wonder why his fellow Pensacolans, who believe the devil could walk among them (not unlike those early settlers in Salem), consider him a heretic.
"I get letters and emails from people worried about my soul some say I'm going to hell," White says flatly. "One journalist said he thought my songs were about surrealism, but after he went to Pensacola, he said he thought it was reportage. It's the home of the world's longest-running revival six years running, every night. It's the same Pentacostal church I was saved at when I was 15. Now people come there from all over the world, and they'll wait for six or seven hours to get in. It's full of people screamin' and hollerin' it's real bacchanalian and carnal, by which I mean a strange state of flesh."
White is one of the few alternative-identified musicians I can think of who can speak of being saved without contorting his face into ironic twitches, and that's another hallmark of these expressionists. There's little irony or cynicism, and that matches the "surrealist country blues" tag that seems the snuggest fit for White, especially given the shuffling blues rhythms of No Such Place. God and the devil have always capered across country blues, going back to Robert Johnson, which White takes as a simple fact. Even songs about desire are seen through the prism of the Southern gothic: a spectral voice intones, "Nothing's prettier than a pretty girl digging a heart-shaped hole in the ground," in "The Wrong Kind of Love," invoking a homely kind of macabre.
But White's outlook extends past the myths of the South. Aside from O'Connor, his greatest literary influence is the blood-soaked, apocalyptic Westerns of McCarthy, whose pitiless outsiders, untouched by morality or common decency, take the shine off the myth of the white-hatted cowboy and revise the cherished American mythology of the West. But even if the myths are not static and no longer tenable, they do not go down quietly and never seem so vivid as when they've been thoroughly discredited. He even suggests that this expressionist roots music was made necessary by those tears in the mythology social fabric of the South and Southwest.
"I think the music had to change. It had to describe new territory. Just as Faulkner talked about characters within the social structure of the South and O'Connor talked about people rejecting the social structure of the South and Cormac McCarthy talked about characters oblivious to the social structure of the South, you're dealing with an existential arc. Funnily enough, I think Hollywood invented the existential cowboy hero."
McCarthy aside, the myth of the cowboy's rugged individualism is still the most potent myth of the West and Southwest, thanks to America's most significant export: Hollywood. From the strong, silent code of John Wayne and Gary Cooper Westerns to Clint Eastwood's existential heroes in spaghetti Westerns, the Hollywood dream factory wasn't just creating escapist idylls. The dreams were deep with darkness and mystery, especially as woven into the music of Calexico and Giant Sand, who draw from sounds, most notably Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western scores, that are forever associated with the images and narratives of the Western.
The Sadies are a Toronto band that convincingly evokes both the richness and the disturbing overtones of this American mythology, capturing the classic John Ford Westerns of the 1940s as well as anyone, while continually drawing favourable comparisons to Morricone.
"To be compared to a composer like Ennio Morricone means that I have achieved my mission, which is to create soundscapes literally, instrumental music that makes you create your own lyrics out of a sound association. I don't mind not saying much literally, not saying much lyrically, as long as the music tells stories," Sadies guitarist Dallas Good told me about three years ago.
Hearing the Sadies floods the mind with visions of wagon trains, massive cattle roundups, short-tempered sheriffs, cut-throats who kill for sport and with the plains and badlands of the West and Southwest.
Landscapes tell stories, too. Listen to Giant Sand or Howe Gelb's solo albums (or even old Meat Puppets records) and you'll hear the sound of a stark, arid geography where a strange beauty exists, where the heat and unrelenting sun loosen up sense even without the added irrationalisms of charismatic religions.
"Arizona isn't really part of a Bible belt," says Gelb with some mischief. "It's just too hot. There's a healthy balance here there are just so many Satanic worshippers and just so many people who believe in the good word. I think when you get to the desert and extreme heats, God is a cool breeze."
Gelb describes his upcoming solo piano album as "ambient, like a soft weather condition in your room," but it takes some coaxing for him to draw the same kind of connections between the desert and the open sound of his other work. It's not exactly an overwrought, angst-ridden sound that one would associate with expressionism, but when you hear his flat, affect-less voice singing absurdities over sleepy-eyed twang, it sounds like a certain desert state of mind.
"I could play that up or down, and mostly I've played it down because I thought it was better not to blame an area for your mess. But it's also good to have a comfort zone to make your mess in. I'd like to think that it would sound the same wherever I was, but I guess it also has to do with a certain minimalism of space in the music. Silence gives you a different type of rhythm, and I guess that rhythm reflects the desert."
Gelb notes that his band-mates Joey Burns and John Convertino have fewer reservations about trying to casting a specifically Southwest, desert atmosphere with Calexico. "Joey's take on it is overt exploitation of the sound of the area, and he's always been very good at impressions and duplications," says Gelb, a little backhandedly.
Burns himself echoes Gelb on the care they take to keep their sound open and uncluttered. "We like to create a cosmos or a space," says Burns, days after turning in an electrifying show in Toronto. "Most important is the space. In Arizona, more and more civilisation is encroaching on space, and we want to preserve the space. It's about creating a feeling, like entering a darkened room to see a movie. You turn off your cell phone and enter another room and leave all these accessories behind."
Calexico's music also feels like leaving the here and now behind. Their interplay of vibes, mariachi trumpets, acoustic bass, pedal steel and Convertino's jazz-influenced drumming conjures images of clandestine trysts and skullduggery in a border town a sound aptly pegged as desert noir. When I hear songs like "The Ride, Part II" and "Crystal Frontier," in particular, I immediately picture the bloated, greasy face of Orson Welles in the film noir classic Touch of Evil a consummate portrait of corruption gone off the rails in a town near the Mexican border. It's not just the aura of intrigue that raises the spectre of film noir in Calexico. As an outgrowth, in some ways, of the shadow play of German expressionism and a mythologising of the American demi-monde, the film noir hero is an urban extension of the cowboy as rootless existential hero treading through the same quiet menace of McCarthy's dangerous West, where extreme violence always lurks in shadows and around corners.
"I envision some of the characters, some of the places the music may have been coming from," says Burns. "With [Calexico's 1998 album] Black Light, I kept thinking about a place that Cormac McCarthy might have written about it could have been a soundtrack to what I was reading, and it also could have had something to do with [Western director] Sam Peckinpah or Morricone."
Calexico collaborated with Southwest writer Lawrence Clarke Powell, playing background music at his readings, shortly before his death last year at 98, and they regularly play at readings at the Singing Wind Book Ranch at Benson, Arizona.
"It's a bookstore at a ranch run by John's in-laws," Burns explains, "and playing there has given us a lot of inspiration to tap more deeply into themes in our music like space and images of the Southwest."
It turns out that Burns and Convertino have a lot of experience giving a sound to literature. They were the rhythm section on Richard Buckner's latest CD, The Hill, which is in its own way a collection of ghost stories, based on poems from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, which recounts the turn-of-the-century epitaphs of the dead of the fictional Midwestern town of Spoon River. Again, the voices never seem so loud or compelling as when they're coming from beyond the grave.
Long Ryders Native Sons (Frontier, 1984)
The cream of L.A.'s "Paisley Underground" scene of the mid-80s that also gave us Green on Red, Dream Syndicate, the Rain Parade, Thin White Rope and ultimately Opal and Mazzy Star. Long Ryders flamed out quickly, but this was a glorious uprising of country-rock, psychedelia, garage punk and a fascination with train wrecks and ghost of American history.
Nick Cave The Firstborn is Dead (Mute, 1985); Kicking Against the Pricks (Mute, 1986)
An Australian one-time goth's particularly mordant take on American roots, full of fire and brimstone and churchly apocalypse and able to make the women jilted by Johnny Cash in "Wanted Man" sound like the hellhounds on Robert Johnson's trail.
Tom Waits Swordfishtrombones (Island, 1983); Rain Dogs (Island, 1985); Bone Machine (Island, 1992); Mule Variations (Epitaph, 1999)
Under-acknowledged as a roots music pioneer, Waits' music is an off-kilter version of an American roots cabaret, especially with these albums. As Jim White says of Waits, "He's the lo-fi grandpa. He's John the Baptist hollerin' in the wilderness. God bless him for Swordfishtrombones, cuz that album set my brain on fire."
Giant Sand Glum (Imago, 1995); Chore of Enchantment (Thrill Jockey, 2000)
More minds set ablaze, this time by the Arizona sun, and doused by cool evening winds. With Howe Gelb at the helm, Giant Sand has never played straightforward country-rock, but a dust-choked, cranky take on the myths of the West and frontier music.
SparklehorseVivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (Capitol, 1995); Good Morning Spider (Capitol, 1999); It's a Wonderful Life (Capitol, 2001)
Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous is perhaps the most Waits-influenced of anyone labouring in alt-country climes. Linkous mumbles lyrics heavy with the myths and history of his native Virginia in a beleaguered voice that sounds unsure of the boundary between dreaming and waking over oddly pastoral arrangements suggesting a natural world not beholden to humans.
Drunk To Corner Wounds (Jagjaguwar, 1997), Tableside Manners (Jagjaguwar, 2000)
Like Sparklehorse's Linkous, Rick Alverson sounds deeply burdened by the ghosts of Richmond, Virginia, but it doesn't end there. Drunk has the Old World to contend with, too, and remnants of European history and folk music haunt Alverson's wearied, wispy vocals.
Jim White Wrong-Eyed Jesus (Warner, 1997); No Such Place (Luaka Bop, 2001)
White is the possibly the most anomalous of David Byrne's signings to his Luaka Bop label. Religious figures are inseparable from carnival hucksters, once-beautiful cars lie as rusting husks in front yards and desolated hover over the South searching for meaning in White's haunting folky pop and country-blues romps.
The Sadies Precious Moments (Bloodshot1998); Pure Diamond Gold (Bloodshot, 1999)
When they're not demonstrating just how close surf instrumentals are to country twang, the Sadies make music that sounds like their name like a sharp-tongued barmaid in a frontier town. Killing songs and round-up songs in equal portions, all evoking the imagery of the West we know from John Ford Westerns and Morricone's spaghetti Western soundtracks.
Calexico Black Light (Quarterstick, 1998); Even My Sure Things Fall Through (City Slang, 2001)
Now the main project of the Giant Sand rhythm section of Joey Burns and John Convertino, there's more of the American Southwest in Calexico than any other American cultural project I can think of. Westerns and film noir suffuse an atmosphere of intrigue and mystery for some of the most evocative American music of any genre. As post-rock as Tortoise and as rootsy as Los Lobos.
Oh Susanna Johnstown (Square Dog, 1999)
The closest thing I've ever heard to a real Canadian gothic, which is to say a less garish, somewhat chillier version of the Southern gothic. Tales of love, desire and ill intent take on a dimension of the mythical with their hoary settings, haunting arrangements and the rich-grained vocal tones of Suzie Ungerleider.
Howe Gelb Hisser (V2, 1998), Confluence (Thrill Jockey, 2001)
Sometimes even Giant Sand is just too cluttered for Gelb, who brings it way down in his solo work. It's almost like stumbling upon someone half-crazed with sunstroke mumbling into a ham radio, but Gelb has the the most unlikely charm and uncanniest wisdom of anyone in roots music today.
Spokane Close Quarters (Acuarela, 2001)
Rick Alverson's new project is as hushed as Drunk, but somewhat more opened up to modern world. However, Alverson is still haunted by the same things that gave Drunk its strange power.
Aaron Riches Rain (DROG, 1998)
On his second solo album, Riches, who moonlights with Guelph's Royal City, mumbles and croaks obtuse wisdom like Howe Gelb over sparsely beautiful arrangements, as if the words are changing shape and risk becoming snared as they make their way through his throat. As uniquely and strangely compelling as Gelb, too.