ROUTES & BRANCHES
a home for the americana diaspora
April 15, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
I don't necessarily need feel good music to fulfill me. Perhaps you've noticed? Good music is good music, no matter if it is uplifting or downcast. For his fourth solo release, Milwaukee's Joseph Huber chooses the latter perspective. On a record that finds him focusing more on lyrical content, the songs read like tarot warnings or accounts of the last days. The Suffering Stage is the platform on which our lives unspool, where dice are tossed and lives are lived in the balance.
Huber hails from the now defunct .357 String Band, the same outfit that yielded Jayke Orvis. His first three solo releases traded in more folk or stringband sounds, populated with banjo and fiddle and Huber's reedy vocals, just this side of high lonesome. Nothing on those earlier collections would pass as music for your Friday night rager, though it was occasionally upbeat and good natured stuff. With Suffering Stage, Huber amps up the folk-based sound, creating a fuller and more resonant noise. Fiddle and banjo haven't left the building, though they share the room with drums, pedal steel and electric guitar.
"Playground/Battlefield" introduces the updated approach, with shuffling drums, mandolin and fiddle. Musically, it's the CD's most propulsive cut, with a hint of grass and two-step country. But keep this in mind while you kick up your heels: Did you hear the new law of the land? / Every man 'gainst every man. / They say a piece of cold steel in every hand / Will help it settle down ... You find the workingest folks in the torndownest place. Nothing wrong with taking the liberty to invent those new words, and when you feel called to prophesy there's no reason you shouldn't lay it down thick.
The lyric sheet for Suffering Stage burns with this sort of warning. "Sons of the Wandering" plays like a heartland rocker, a midtempo strummer boasting one of the album's strongest vocals. There's a flatness and a matter-of-factness to Joseph Huber's delivery, with just a touch of twang to turn up the edges. A lively mandolin propels "Sons", joined by piano and those drums on a track that seems as timely as the front pages: The more money in the race, the more the mask becomes the face, / And truth can't hold pace with thundering.
Suffering Stage isn't all about the suffering, just as the common man's existence can be sewn through with the occasional bright thread. A sweetness and genuine gratitude guides "You Showed Me", and while the protagonist delivering "16-10" acknowledges his demons, there's a retro-country playfulness in lyrics like: I never surrender, but, honey, that was then / Now, I'm holding 16, and you're showing 10. And while the words bear the weight of real thought and honest soul searching, Huber's tunes are consistently engaging. The addition of these extra musical elements only serve to strengthen his message and to deepen the appeal.
The title cut and "Souls Without Maps" show great promise in the maturity of a Nebraska-like songwriter. Both work in some striking poetic imagery: Tall corn, gravel road, / Stained glass on the window, / Wrapped in the ragged soul of an old gentle hymn ... Like Springsteen or Jackson Browne or Mellencamp, Joseph Huber can warn of a storm on the horizon while focusing on the particulars of one small life. Running at just over seven minutes, "The Suffering Stage" is a patient masterpiece, handing out resonant line after resonant line as a hushed fiddle swells into an anthemic full band and the singer holds court with an expert lyric flow. "One more day ... oh, just one more day, Lord, here on the suffering stage". Best case scenario holds that the storm will come and the rains will nourish the fields. The families will empty onto the sheltered front porch, and at least for one moment the tentative bonds that hold us together might seem just a bit stronger. There's a real gravity to the music of Joseph Huber, a folksinger in the grips of an increasingly compelling musical vision.
Have I mentioned before that I used to be on radio? That I gave birth to Routes & Branches on terrestrial radio, then abandoned that after about a decade for the familiar environs of my basement? One element of that charade that I miss is the illusion of immediacy and connection with my imagined listeners. When I grow up, I'd like my site to serve as the proverbial public square for conversation about our kind of music. At present, I carry on my ROUTES-casts and write my reviews as a bit of a one-way conversation. While I do occasionally hear from artists and from labels and promoters and even from listener-readers, I like to know that I'm not simply laboring away in my basement for an audience of one: Me. So hey look there's a comment button down below, and you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, but let me know what you think. Give me a sense of what you're hearing out there, what's making a difference in your musical world. If you're an artist, feel free to send me something to preview. I can't promise that I'll give it a spin, but I do promise that I'll give it a listen. To quote this week's track by The Weeks: Put your hands on the radio.
- Beat Farmers, "Gun Sale At the Church" Van Go (Curb, 86)
- Two Tons of Steel, "Sweet White Van" Gone (Big Bellied, 17)
- Left Lane Cruiser, "Still Rollin'" Claw Machine Wizard (Alive Naturalsound, 17)
- Southern Culture on the Skids, "Drunk and Lonesome (Again)" Liquored Up & Lacquered Down (Orchard, 00)
- Jason Eady, "Waiting to Shine" Jason Eady (Old Guitar, 17)
- Sunny Sweeney, "I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight" Trophy (Aunt Daddy, 17)
- Mic Harrison & High Score, "Salt Stained Road" Vanishing South (Mic, 17)
- Ha Ha Tonka, "Arkansas" Heart-Shaped Mountain (Bloodshot, 17)
- Sam Outlaw, "Bottomless Mimosas" Tenderheart (Six Shooter, 17)
- Whiskey Gentry, "Looking for Trouble" Dead Ringer (Pitch-a-Tent, 17)
- Chris Stapleton, "Ain't Living Long Like This (live)" Outlaw: Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings (Blackbird, 17) D
- American Aquarium, "Saturday Nights" Burn Flicker Die (Barham, 12)
- Cory Branan, "I Only Know" Adios (Bloodshot, 17)
- Charlie Worsham, "Call You Up" Beginning of Things (Warner, 17)
- Hooten Hallers, "Garlic Dream" Hooten Hallers (Big Muddy, 17)
- Weeks, "Hands on the Radio" Easy (Lightning Rod, 17) D
- North Mississippi Allstars, "You Got to Move" Prayer for Peace (Songs of the South, 17)
- Andrew Combs, "Bourgeios King" Canyons of My Mind (New West, 17)
- Jade Jackson, "Finish Line" Gilded (ATO, 17)
- Lucero, "Chain Link" Tennessee (MadJack, 02)
- Cale Tyson, "Staying Kind" Careless Soul (Tyson, 17)
- K Phillips, "Had Enough" Dirty Wonder (Rock Ridge, 17)
- Colter Wall, "Motorcycle" Colter Wall (Young Mary's, 17)
- Pieta Brown, "How Soon (w/Mason Jennings)" Postcards (Lustre, 17)
^ Joseph Huber, "You Showed Me" Suffering Stage (Huber, 17) D
- John Prine, "Way Down" Common Sense (Atlantic, 75)
- Jake Xerxes Fussell, "Have You Ever Seen Peaches" What in the Natural World (Paradise of Bachelors, 17)
- Sera Cahoone, "Always Turn Around" From Where I Started (Lady Muleskinner, 17)
- Leeroy Stagger, "Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone" Love Versus (True North, 17)
- Dolorean, "Heather Remind Me How This Ends" You Can't Win (YepRoc, 07)