ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
January 8, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
It's been some time since I've so enthusiastically received the news of a new record. Two artists who have largely defined the vibe of Routes & Branches over the past couple years, collaborating on a project with such an evocative sound. Will Johnson has paired to date with Jason Molina, Vic Chesnutt, M Ward, Jay Farrar and many more, not to mention his catalog with South San Gabriel and Centro-Matic. Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster has produced three CDs with Water Liars, as well as last year's superb Constant Stranger solo set. Together they perform as Marie/Lepanto, and are on the verge of releasing a remarkable project called Tenkiller (Big Legal Mess, January 26).
The duo discovered their common musical ground when Water Liars opened for Centro-Matic during the band's farewell tour. Marie/Lepanto reportedly earned its moniker in tribute to a roadsign between SE Missouri and W Arkansas where Johnson and Kinkel-Schuster came of age, respectively. The primary sessions were set to tape at Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis.
Tenkiller succeeds in advancing the respective sonic palette of both artists, reigning in Johnson's tendency for sprawl 'n squall (not complaining), while simultaneously pushing the limits of Kinkel-Schuster's quieter acoustic work (still not complaining). Aside from producer Jeff Powell, the duo are responsible for every bit of Tenkiller's thick, rich sound, from writing and playing to sharing the vocals. The songs respect the unique spirit of both, without sounding fractured or schizophrenic.
"Inverness" is Tenkiller's crunchy and discordant beast, Crazy Horse guitars and garage worthy drumming propelling the track. A reckless electric solo and coda push the piece towards "12", in all the most lovely and satisfying ways. The dual guitars of "High Desert" both chime and grind, riding a blues riff and puzzling over a riddle: Your love is a problem / A knot I can't untie / A map I can't follow / A sum that won't divide.
The term "high lonesome sound" has already been trademarked by bluegrass, but it's an apt descriptor for what's going on throughout Tenkiller. The harmonies shared between Johnson and Kinkel-Schuster will never be mistaken for the Louvins, but the tension created can be haunting on songs like "Simple Scenes". "Patient Patient Man" patiently unfolds from an initially understated black key reflection into guitars ringing into an empty sky.
Instrumentally, moments of noise are balanced by relative hush. And even when the guitars, piano and percussion are allowed more quiet space in which to drift, the songs err towards the melodic and purposeful. The intimate "Famished Raven" evokes the dark night blues of Jason Molina, emerging as another watermark in Will Johnson's vast catalog. When the night it comes devouring / Like some tired famished raven seething / Quick to the punch, and then just maybe / You will start to see / Just what you need.
Also on our generous plate this Episode is Ain't It Like the Cosmos (Last Chance, Mar 9), a new solo project by Kinkel-Schuster's foil in Water Liars, Andrew Bryant. Bryant's is the louder and more direct of these projects, working wonders with more traditional song structures.
He lays out his mission on "Practical Man": I used to be the type to hide my mistakes / Bury them in a mix of guitars and bass / But the older I get the more I want them in my face / I'm a practical man at the end of the day.
But let's backtrack a couple cuts to the record's opener, "Robert Downey Jr's Scars". With charcoal black guitars that sputter in and out of the picture, it's a remarkable piece that is alternately vulnerable and hammer-heavy. It also rivals the recent work of Mark Kozelek for quotidian detail: Iron Man was on the tv / Poured myself another beer / Thinking 'bout all the pain that's in my heart / Thinking 'bout Robert Downey Jr's scars / And man I know just what it takes / Yeah man I know just what it takes / To start again.
Cosmos is bold in its soul mining and revelation. Bryant sidesteps the troubled shadow of his forebear on "I Am Not My Father's Son", ticking off his conscious efforts to avoid the sins of the father. The refrain "I am not my father's son" can be heard as both a declaration and a mantra, a reminder-to-self that things will be different. As with Tenkiller, Cosmos features moments of great instrumental drama, though Bryant is more likely to add subtle studio touches and synth textures to achieve his sonic goals.
That said, there are moments of more straightforward Southern rock 'n soul. "Practical Man" mines an Isbell-esque vein, heavy and tuneful guitars sharing the scene with thoughtful lyrics and a gradual build that will catch most in its path. "I Take Pride" offers a similar return: I take pride in my work / I take pride in my hurt / I take pride in my word / And I'll say what I mean for what that's worth.
Where Marie/Lepanto's lyrics tend towards a more poetic expression, on tunes like "Pay Your Rent" Bryant shows himself to be a much more direct communicator, even to the point of harsh self-deprecation. Above lazy pedal steel and a strummed acoustic: No one needs your story, it's so contrived / No there's nothing really special in there / There's nothing really special in your mind / So just go to work and pay your rent / Try to love yourself and live with it.
"Bittersweet" is a lovely ode to Bryant's beloved Mississippi: Lord ain't it bittersweet / This place we call our home / Ain't it like the cosmos / To light up the magnolias at dawn. It's a fleeting but passionate statement, heartbreaking in its simplicity.
Tenkiller and Ain't It Like the Cosmos - records that do justice to the legacy of artists like Jason Molina and Mark Kozelek and Richard Buckner, folks who believe in and practice the rhythm and sound of words. Writers who map the shadows of day-to-day life, while creating pure poetry from its familiar bits and pieces. While the release date for Andrew Bryant's record was actually bumped back to March 9, these are tremendous albums with which to launch our 2018 year in posts.
- Black Keys, "Never Gonna Give You Up" Brothers (Nonesuch, 10)
- Dan Auerbach, "Cellophane Girl" single (Easy Eye, 18) D
- Ruby Boots, "It's So Cruel" Don't Talk About It (Bloodshot, 18)
- JD Wilkes, "Walk Between the Raindrops" Fire Dream (Big Legal Mess, 18)
- Anderson East, "Girlfriend" Encore (Elektra, 18)
- Marah, "Walt Whitman Bridge" If You Didn't Laugh You'd Cry (Yep Roc, 05)
- Rodney Crowell, "Shake Your Money Maker" Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James (Sylvan Songs, 18) D
- Sue Foley w/Charlie Sexton, "Come To Me" Ice Queen (Stony Plain, 18) D
- Gasoline Lollipops, "Child of God" Soul Mine (Ellenburg, 17)
- Pearl Charles, "Sleepless Dreamer" Sleepless Dreamer (Kanine, 18) D
- Railbenders, "Bourbon County Line" Medicine Show (Railbenders, 17) D
^ Marie/Lepanto, "Inverness" Tenkiller (Big Legal Mess, 18)
- Crooked Fingers, "New Drink for the Old Drunk" Crooked Fingers (Merge, 00)
- Caleb Caudle, "Love That's Wild" Crushed Coins (Cornelius Chapel, 18)
- John K Samson, "Prayer for Ruby Elm" Winter Wheat (Anti, 16)
- James McMurtry, "State of the Union" single (McMurtry, 18) D
- Mike & the Moonpies, "Beaches of Biloxi" Steak Night at the Prairie Rose (Moonpies, 18) D
- Craig Gerdes, "Slide Off Your Satin Sheets" Smokin' Drinkin' & Gamblin' (Sol, 18) D
- Dallas Moore, "Mr Honky Tonk" Mr Honky Tonk (Sol, 18) D
- Fruition, "I'll Never Sing Your Name" Watching it All Fall Apart (LoHi, 18) D
- Sonny Smith w/Angel Olsen, "Burnin' Up" Rod For Your Love (Easy Eye, 18)
- Richmond Fontaine, "Horace Hopper" Don't Skip Out On Me (Fluff & Gravy, 18) D
- Lilly Hiatt, "Everything I Had" Trinity Lane (New West, 17)
^ Andrew Bryant, "Robert Downey Jr's Scars" Ain't It Like the Cosmos (Last Chance, 17) D
- Shovels & Rope w/Hayes Carll, "Death or Glory" Busted Jukebox Vol. 2 (New West, 17)
- Ronnie Eaton, "Devil in My Suitcase" Hand That Mocked Them & the Heart That Fed (Eaton, 18) D
- Jim White, "Wash Away a World" Waffles Triangles & Jesus (Loose, 17)
- Lambchop, "King of Nothing Never" What Another Man Spills (Merge, 98)
- Mary Gauthier, "Brothers" Rifles & Rosary Beads (In the Black, 18)
- Glossary, "Little Caney" Better Angels of Our Nature (Young Buffalo, 08)