featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
May 30, 2017
Scott Foley, king of the road
Don't die / Don't disappear ...
Why no Episode last week? Well, turns out I drove (yes, drove) from Colorado to NYC, then down to Southern Virginia and across the upper South on the way back home. Each day's travel consumed around 8 or 9 hours of my lifeforce, but I did thoroughly enjoy the trip. Because of the whirlwind nature of things, I never had more than a couple minutes to sit and write or to listen to anything other than Sirius (which is far more repetitive than you'd think - how many times can I hear the new National song before it becomes the theme song to my journey?). My wife doesn't share my appetite for musical discovery, and I spend much of my time behind the wheel challenging myself to find music she'll enjoy that doesn't feature Paul Simon. Needless to say, no ROUTES-cast either. We'll kick that back into gear as soon as I can iron out the kinks in my back.
I did, however, pass some time with Matthew Ryan's new record, Hustle Up Starlings. Sounds like he actually considered leaving his shoes in the ring after the release of 2014's excellent Boxers. Not that he was experiencing writer's block. He was just tired of the solitary work of songcraft. Like Joe Henry, Ryan was as a promising alt.country figure during his early days. Also like Joe Henry, Ryan himself never fully returned the affection, opting to romance a more fickle muse over the space of more than a dozen albums. It took a collaboration with producer and Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon to draw him back into the studio for Starlings, a collection that pairs the streetwise cinematic storytelling of Craig Finn (or Fallon himself, for that matter) with the guitar hero moments of Ryan Adams.
Those last two releases have seen Matthew Ryan gathering a crew of conspirators, players who encouraged him to embrace "all that punk and noisy folk with a gigantic heart". That appeal is nearest the surface on songs like "Close Your Eyes" and "Battle Born", tunes that bring to mind Paul Westerberg's edgy folk. The latter invokes heros like Chrissie Hynde and Lou Reed, artists who raged against disillusionment and complacency, screaming hope in the land of the lost. Both songs show Ryan at his most public, making music with sharp hooks and a beat to bounce to, guitars wrestling drums for top booking.
I don't know if there's more than this / A loud guitar, some comfort or a kiss / All I know is that it's in the shape of a fist / And it's pounding inside your ribsHustle Up Starlings also trades in the dusky, internal pieces for which Ryan has earned his reputation. His voice a whisper and a rasp, cushioned in a spacious arrangement that generates a darkness and a tension at the same time it makes a beautiful noise. "Maybe I'll Disappear" and the title track dwell in the shadows of this more cinematic light. "Hustle Up Starlings" comes from that subliminal dialog that has become a perennial part of his work. I smile at strangers / And talk to myself / My thoughts are lonely / Lonelier than hell. It's stuff that's most suitable as the night's tuning up, a gorgeously private poetry for those of us given to melancholy and reflection. With its piano and short muttered phrases, "Disappear" sketches a spare but indelible picture:
The drawl of leaves / And that quiet cold / That settles in / Once you know / We're all hotels / There ain't no home.But while it acknowledges our separation and doubt, Starlings is not a record without its hope. In a recent interview, Matthew Ryan cited a poem by Charles Bukowski in which the writer focuses uncharacteristically on the silver lining while never losing sight of the dark cloud. There are ways out. / there is a light somewhere. / it may not be much light but / it beats the darkness. This new collection is birthed by collaboration, spawned by the community Ryan sought to complete the musical vision and to counter the solitude he wished to avoid. There's an anthemic, rallying quality to songs like "Run Rabbit Run", a nearly U2-esque element to the chiming guitars of "It's a Delicate Waltz". It's a romantic spirit that's the product of recognizing life's inescapable brutality while refusing to banish hope and possibility.
Through the roots rock and the synthesizers, the dissolved labels and the records whose critical reception failed to generate an equivalent popular buzz, Matthew Ryan has made music that matters. If we're lucky, this newfound inspiration will inspire him to continue in the generous vein of Boxer and Hustle Up Starlings. Few artists speak as eloquently to the sticky stuff / between two hearts.
Back to the ROUTES-cast next week, including new stuff from Alabama Shakes, Lee Bains III, Elliott BROOD and no fewer than 27 other offerings. In the meantime, I've left last Episode's files on the previous post. Happy to be home.