ROUTES & BRANCHES
a home for the americana diaspora
October 15, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
This marks the first week where we feature stuff that's planned for release on the other side of the New Year. It's a sign that it's time for me to retreat to my burrow to work on my year-end favorites lists. I've actually sifted out about 35 or 40 contenders, though some of these late-in-the-year releases are sorta messing with it all. Lee Ann Womack. Ronnie Fauss. Turnpike Troubadours. I'm talking to you.
Anna Tivel's Small Believer isn't an easy listen, but it's as beautiful an album as you're bound to hear this year. It's the sort of beautiful that happens in an Edward Hopper tableau, born of light and space and story. The Portland artist calls it, "a collection of patchwork stories drawn from conversations with strangers, on the road, in restaurants, and rest stops".
The sound is intimate, generated by a close group of friends, primarily Tivel and producer Austin Nevins. Like Joe Henry's more recent projects, songs like "Illinois" paint with a light acoustic brush: Guitar, acoustic bass, keys, only the necessary percussion. Anna Tivel delivers these narratives like she's confiding a secret, her voice a hybrid of Julien Baker and Suzanne Vega.
Light shines dimly through Small Believer, spitting from flickering basement bulbs, angling down alleyways or falling from newborn stars. "Saturday Night" provides a soundtrack to that Hopper canvas. Tivel's streets and stoic buildings are seemingly devoid of people, but allude to untold stories and abiding aloneness. The chamber folk arrangement is full without crowding, hushed but never disappearing.
but sometimes still at night i dream, an empty bottle in the alleyway / on a night so clear a billion stars are born / and each one is a world i guess, of dust and flame and wishes cast / by lovers hoping love will last 'til morning -- "Alleyway"
Perhaps the most striking moment on the record comes from "Dark Chandelier", a picture of a man crushed in the wake of losing his blue collar job after thirty-one years. Tivel's delivery is calm and contained, even when the story calls for anger or outrage or personal connection. The writer can betray a great sympathy for these souls, though the picture is one of a documentary angel floating above the scene, permitting tears but always from a distance. Tommy lies drunk on his own front lawn / at three in the morning, his work shirt still on ...
Much of the beauty is in the details of songs like "All Along" or "Last Cigarette". They are just ordinary moments in the lives of everyday people, but they convey a universe of meaning. Like Julien Baker, Tivel's emphasis is on imagery and isolated episodes of revelation. Stories that speak volumes: and Joe on the line, all the burns on his arms, and his girlfriend at home with a yellowing bruise.
These are glimpses into small lives on a trajectory towards redemption or ruin (we're rarely told which). On "Ordinary Dance": And oh, oh my god, I wanted to do something great. Small Believer is a collection of short stories, gleaned from the constant buzz and murmur that surrounds us. The heartbreaking "Blue World" begins with a picture of the quiet planet, sharp-focusing on the damp uncovered earth and the fallen bird. A soul escapes from the bounds of our daily details, taking flight like a sigh.
- Turnpike Troubadours, "Pipe Bomb Dream" Long Way From Your Heart (Bossier, 17)
- Margo Price, "Cocaine Cowboy" All American Made (Third Man, 17)
- Travis Meadows, "Pray for Jungleland" First Cigarette (Blaster, 17)
- Langhorne Slim, "Zombie" Lost at Last Vol. 1 (Dualtone, 17)
- Americans, "Nevada" I'll Be Yours (Loose, 17)
- Ronnie Fauss, "New Madrid" Last of the True (normaltown, 17)
- Deep Dark Woods, "Roll Julia" Yarrow (Six Shooter, 17)
- Blank Range, "Crimson Moon" Marooned With the Treasure (Sturdy Girls, 17)
- Joe Ely, "Tennessee's Not the State I'm In" Joe Ely (Geffen, 77)
- Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, "Lithium" Not Dark Yet (Silver Cross, 17)
- Lydia Loveless, "All I Know" Boy Crazy & Single(s) (Bloodshot, 17) D
- Anderson East, "All On My Mind" Encore (Elektra, 18) D
- Lee Ann Womack, "Sunday" Lonely the Lonesome & the Gone (ATO, 17)
- Mark Porkchop Holder, "Captain Captain" Death & the Blues (Alive Naturalsound, 17) D
- Sharon Jones & Dap-Kings, "Matter of Time" Soul of a Woman (Dap-Tone, 17)
- JD McPherson, "Style (is a Losing Game)" Undivided Heart & Soul (New West, 17)
- Wilco, "Passenger Side (Live at the Troubadour 11/16/96)" Being There (Deluxe Edition) (Reprise, 17) D
- Calexico, "End of the World With You" Thread That Keeps Us (Anti, 18) D
- John Murry, "Defacing Sunday Bulletins" Short History of Decay (Latent, 17)
- Nicole Atkins, "Listen Up" Goodnight Rhonda Lee (Single Lock, 17)
- Neil Young & Crazy Horse, "Sedan Delivery (live)" Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise, 79)
- Will Hoge, "Anchors" Anchors (Edlo, 17)
- White Buffalo, "Heart & Soul of the Night" Darkest Darks Lightest Lights (Unison, 17)
- Mavis Staples, "Little Bit" If All I Was Was Black (Anti, 17)
- Derek Hoke, "Little Devil" Bring the Flood (Little Hollywood, 17)
- Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats, "I've Been Failing (live)" Live at Red Rocks (Concord, 17) D
- Joe Fletcher, "Haint Blue Cadillac" You've Got the Wrong Man (Wrong Reasons, 14)
- Becky Warren, "Full of Bourbon" War Surplus (Deluxe Edition) (Warren, 17) D
- Texas Gentlemen, "Bondurant Women" TX Jelly (New West, 17)
- Hiss Golden Messenger, "Lost Out in the Darkness" Hallelujah Anyhow (Merge, 17)