ROUTES & BRANCHES
it's our kind of music
August 13, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
Remind me not to look for other online reviews before I write my own. Apparently, I'm not the first to write about Tyler Childers' Purgatory. I drove thru Kentucky a couple weeks ago. All I remember is thunderstorms, humidity, horses, lightning bugs and life-changing sea bass. That, and alcohol. But apparently Childers has spent his life in Eastern Kentucky. His new CD sums up that misspent youth, gathering songs from throughout the last several years (some of which have been previously released). The project arrives amidst a genuine hubbub, which is curious given the fact that he spent most of his touring years quite close to home. I'm sure much of the buzz began with the news that fellow Bluegrass Stater Sturgill Simpson had chosen Childers' collection as his first production project (along with veteran producer David Ferguson). The team admirably balances more restrained, traditional acoustic arrangements with a couple more adventurous moments.
Purgatory serves as a fine companion piece to Sturgill's own 2013 solo debut. Both demonstrate an eclectic grasp on a range of roots sounds, from regional 'grass to hard country. The two records are also deeply grounded in a real sense of place, showing glimpses of a grasp on Life the Universe and Everything (subjects Simpson has wholeheartedly embraced in his subsequent albums).
Like Parker Millsap or John Fullbright from a couple states to the left, Tyler Childers delivers his stories in a fully realized, soulful voice, equally conversant in the more trad folk and more contemporary alt. vernacular. "I Swear (to God)" is a loose and good-natured ramble, one of several cuts ornamented by Stuart Duncan's bluegrass fiddle. It paints a vivid, Prine-esque portrait of the artist as a young roustabout, "Working on a building out of hand hewn brimstone". "Whitehouse Road" holds the signpost for the harder edge of things, boasting boldly of long evenings of questionable choices and general abandon. In this guise, Childers brings to mind a young Steve Earle.
Tyler Childers' lyrical promise is demonstrated on pieces like the 'grassy "Born Again": "Once I was and you were too / And we were both the word of truth / We built this world together / With a loud and mighty bang". Like recent releases from Jason Eady or Colter Wall (which featured a guest pass from Childers), he works in familiar forms and themes, but instead of falling into the ruts and habits of contemporary country writers, Childers explores a more personal and poetic expression, establishing himself as one of our present day writers for whom words matter. "Tattoos" is confident in its quiet, with sweet fiddle and waves of pedal steel: "The past is fading / Over time / But it's still hanging on for life".
While Purgatory earns its stripes by demonstrating its ability in these pre-established arenas of folk, country and bluegrass, the album's two highwater moments demonstrate Childers' willingness to stare down those boundaries. "Feathered Indians" is simply a great song, a piece Guy Clark would've been pleased to write (or Sturgill Simpson). In its portrayal of relational bliss, it celebrates the latter frontiers on the writers' journey from troubled roustabout to settled guy. It's also complimented by the collection's strongest lyric: "Well my belt buckle makes impressions / On the inside of her thigh / There are little feathered Indians / Where we tussled through the night / If I'd known she was religious / Then I wouldn't have come stoned / To the house of such an angel / Too fucked up to get back home". Musically, the CD's peak comes with "Universal Sound", a nod to the perennial hum that lies beneath, within and throughout all of Life. My sense is that it's the song that most clearly bears Sturgill Simpson's fingerprint as a producer. Like much of Simpson's Metamodern Sounds, it preaches a decidedly universal message, with just a hint of psychedelic philosophy. While it's Purgatory's most obvious outlier, "Universal Sound" might offer a glimpse of Tyler Childers' next record. But first he's probably got some more living to do, more stories to collect.
It's my sense that for just about any roots music album that's been released, there are about half a dozen blogs willing to heap praise upon it. A CD or digital file will arrive, heralded by Mr Twang or Meat 'n Potatoes as the best thing ever. I'll give almost anything a couple minutes, but it really is remarkable how much "pretty good" music there is in the world.
I don't want pretty good stuff for Routes & Branches. While I play an absurd amount of new music, it's honestly just a fraction of what I'm given access to on a weekly basis. That said, I love the process, from hearing of the pending arrival of a new record to the first single or two, then the promise inherent in the arrival of the full thing.
Alright. I admit that it's an addiction. It's a perpetual merry-go-round, a carousel with no exit except to leap from your horsey and trust you'll avoid anything sharp on the way down. While each week is a struggle, I'm by no means ready to exit the ride (though I wouldn't mind if we slowed down a bit). This week's playlist is one of the year's heaviest with regards to debuts (they're marked with a capital "D" in our playlists from week to week). Big Ones by David Rawlings share space with lesser knowns like Jarrod Dickenson or Suzanne Santo (she was one-half of HoneyHoney). And it's all good. So hang on to your horsey and enjoy the ride.
- Split Lip Rayfield, "Just Like a Gillian Welch Song" Should Have Seen It Coming (Bloodshot, 04)
- David Rawlings, "Cumberland Gap" Poor David's Almanack (Acony, 17) D
- Whiskey Shivers, "Southern Sisyphus" Some Part of Something (Clean Bill, 17)
- Jeremy Pinnell, "I Don't Believe" Ties of Blood and Affection (Sofaburn, 17)
- Robyn Ludwick, "Lie to Me" This Tall to Ride (Ludwick, 17)
- Will Hoge, "Little Bit of Rust" Anchors (Edlo, 17)
- Lee Bains III & Glory Fires, "Had to Laugh" Youth Detention (Don Giovani, 17)
- Alex Williams, "Hellbent Hallelujah" Better Than Myself (Big Machine, 17)
- Holly Macve, "No One Has the Answers" Golden Eagle (Bella Union, 17)
- Possessed by Paul James, "There Will Be Nights" There Will Be Nights When I'm Lonely (Hillgrass Bluebilly, 13)
- Iron & Wine, "Thomas County Law" Beast Epic (Sub Pop, 17)
- Lilly Hiatt, "Night David Bowie Died" Trinity Lane (New West, 17)
- Blank Range, "Seemed Like Word Got Around" Marooned With Treasure (Sturdy Girls, 17)
- Elliott BROOD, "Til the Sun Comes Up Again" Ghost Gardens (Paper Bag, 17) D
- Nicole Atkins, "Brokedown Luck" Goodnight Rhonda Lee (Single Lock, 17)
- Danny & the Champions of the World, "Long Distance Tears" Brilliant Light (Loose, 17)
- South San Gabriel, "Alabama Crusade" Dual Hawks (Misra, 04)
^ Tyler Childers, "Universal Sound" Purgatory (Hickman Holler, 17)
- Kent Eugene Goolsby, "Throwin' Stones" Every Way But Easy (KEG, 17) D
- Jarrod Dickenson, "California" Ready the Horses (Decca, 17) D
- Margo Price, "Paper Cowboy" Weakness EP (Third Man, 17(
- Mark Olsen, "Time of Love" Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun (Glitterhouse, 17) D
- Suzanne Santo, "Better Than That" Ruby Red (Soozanto, 17) D
- Tallest Man on Earth w/yMusic, "East Virginia" Tallest Man on Earth w/yMusic (Rivers/Birds, 17)
- Whitney Rose, "Can't Stop Shakin'" Rule 62 (Six Shooter, 17) D
- Slaid Cleaves, "Still Be Mine" Ghost On the Car Radio (Candy House, 17)
- BJ Barham, "Unfortunate Kind" Rockingham (Barham, 16)
- Wynntown Marshals, "Low Country Comedown" After All These Years (Wynntown, 17) D
- the Districts, "Rattling of the Heart" Popular Manipulations (Fat Possum, 17) D
- Calexico, "Sinner in the Sea" Algiers (Anti, 12)