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Thursday, July 20, 2017

photo by Richard Markham
the very best of americana, and roots music
July 17, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Back in 2013, John Murry's Graceless Age found a place near the top of my year-end favorites list.  I wrote:  "Murry sings in a slurred baritone that resonates somewhere between the junkie hymns of Alejandro Escovedo and the American mythology of Springsteen."  More than any other album on that year's list, Graceless Age continues to haunt me.  Nearly five years later, "Penny Nails" and "Little Colored Balloons" still transport me like they were new.  This is an exceptionally rare thing when it comes to my relationship with music.

There's a brief promo for an in-the-works documentary about Murry that shares the title of his new record, Short History of Decay.  In the trailer, the writer returns from "exile" in Ireland to his Mississippi home, to explore the family history that connects him to William Faulkner.  Even with crashing waves, sprawling landscapes and haunting cityscapes, there's nothing more mesmerizing in this footage than John Murry himself.

Thanks to producer and Cowboy Junkie Michael Timmins, Murry's broken, wired, ramshackle, glorious spirit shines through the songs of Decay.  Whereas Graceless Age seemed a carefully, deliberately arranged mosaic of song, sound and spirit, new tunes like "Under a Darker Moon" and "Wrong Man" are barely held together, conveying the same reckless passion that seems to drive Murry's live sets.  The guitars buzz and shriek, piano enters tentatively, and Caitlin O'Riordan's backing vocals come across as a ghostly afterthought.

"Under a Darker Moon" is the record's most standard rocker, offering a steadily skittering beat and bass to cling to, as well as a surefooted melody.  With in-your-face guitar and a lack of definite resolution, it'll never be mistaken for radio bait.  But its urban late night street sounds bring to mind figures like Mark Lanegan and even Lou Reed at his most tuneful.  All I do is fix what I did the day before.

"Come Five & Twenty" is a prettier number, spectral lyrics brightened by a burbling organ and O'Riordan's subtly charming vocal.  Life is a gift / I don't recall taking  / I wear it till it fades.  With its delicate acoustic and midtempo percussion, it brings to mind Richard Buckner.  Matter of fact, I'd argue that Buckner's classic Devotion + Doubt is an apt comparison.  Despite the fact that it's generally a lighter, less intense set, both records employ silence and space to masterful effect.

More commonly, Decay plods along at a pallbearer's pace.  "One Day (You'll Die)" is a drowsy reflection that morphs unexpectedly into the 1959 instrumental "Sleep Walk".  It's one of a couple moments of relative levity that Murry forces into the thick dark.  "Wrong Man" is a Nick Cave-esque folk ballad no more substantial than smoke, with piano given a slight echo treatment and the sound of fingers sliding across frets as loud as anything else in the mix.  I'm the wrong man to ride shotgun / On your murder mile.

The songs on Decay aren’t entirely different than those on Murry’s effort of 5 years ago.  There is talk of mortality and meaning, lyrics couched in religious imagery, perhaps a pervasive lack of hope or trust.  He remains a smart and literate writer, drawn towards the sort of grand statements more common in philosophy and literature (the record’s title is borrowed from a book by Romanian nihilist philosopher Emil Cioran).  The dividing line between the two CDs comes down to the producer’s choices.  Michael Timmins has left more of the grain, the texture in Murry’s music, resulting initially in a more challenging listening experience.  But with repeated trips through Short History of Decay, the gradual familiarity carves a path towards a deeper appreciation of John Murry’s tortured art, and for the jumbled, raw setting that ultimately compliments his overall vision.  On “One Day (You’ll Die)”:  I’ll remain nothing more than a misquote in history’s back pages.  Bleak as it is, the music trades in genuine emotion.  

This week's Episode also brings new stuff from the Southern rock outfit Blank Range, as well as something decidedly fantastical from Ian Felice.  Also, Howling Bells' Juanita Stein launches her solo career, and Alex Williams is 4 real.

- James Elkington, "Wading the Vapors" Wintres Woma  (Paradise of Bachelors, 17)
- Nick Lowe, "Lovers Jamboree" Pinker and Prouder Than Previous  (Yep Roc, 17)
- Danny & Champions of the World, "Waiting For the Wheels to Come Off" Brilliant Light  (Loose, 17)
- Steelism w/Andrew Combs & Jessie Baylin, "Lonely Game" Ism  (Intoxicating Sounds, 17)
- Mastersons, "Don't Tell Me To Smile" Transient Lullaby  (New West, 17)
- Steve Earle, "News From Colorado" So You Wannabe An Outlaw  (Warner, 17)
- Robyn Ludwick, "Texas Jesus" This Tall To Ride  (Ludwick, 17)
- Tyler Childers, "Universal Sound" Purgatory  (Hickman Holler, 17)
- Will Hoge, "This Ain't An Original Sin" Anchors  (Edlo, 17)
- Matt Woods, "Fireflies" How to Survive  (Lonely Ones, 16)
- Whiskey Shivers, "Liquor Beer Wine & Ice" Some Part of Something  (Clean Bill, 17)
- Amanda Anne Platt & Honeycutters, "Brand New Start" Amanda Anne Platt & Honeycutters  (Organic, 17)
- Jeremy Pinnell, "Ballad of 1892" Ties of Blood and Affection  (Sofaburn, 17)
- Dead Volts, "Enough" Hate Ray  (Twang N Bang, 17)  D
- Alex Williams, "Little Too Stoned" Better Than Myself  (Big Machine, 17)  D
- Lee Bains III & Glory Fires, "Nail My Feet Down To the Southside of Town" Youth Detention  (Don Giovani, 17)
- Blank Range, "Opening Band" Marooned With the Treasure  (Sturdy Girl, 17)  D
- Yayhoos, "Bottle and a Bible" Fear Not the Obvious  (Bloodshot, 01)
- Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, "Find Yourself" Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real  (Concord, 17)  D
- GospelbeacH, "Kathleen" Another Summer of Love  (Alive Naturalsound, 17)
- Heartless Bastards, "Swamp Song" Stairs and Elevators  (Fat Possum, 04)
- Juanita Stein, "Cold Comfort" America  (Hand Written, 17)  D
- Moot Davis, "Shot Down in Flames" Hierarchy of Crows  (Wilburn, 17)  D
- Deer Tick, "Jumpstarting" Deer Tick Vol. 2  (Partisan, 17)
^ John Murry, "Under a Dark Moon" Short History of Decay  (Latent, 17)  D
- Ian Felice, "In the Kingdom of Dreams" In the Kingdom of Dreams  (New York Pro, 17)  D
- Spirit Family Reunion, "Put the Backseat Down" No Separation  (SFR, 12)
- Justin Townes Earle, "Graceland" single  (New West, 17)
- Sam Baker, "Moses in the Reeds" Land of Doubt  (Baker, 17)
- Zephaniah Ohora, "I Do Believe I've Had Enough" This Highway  (Ohora, 17)

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