By Vadim Rizov
[Editor's Note: "Indie 500", a look at the music scene past and present, is published every other Thursday, alternating with John Lichman's Japanese cinema/anime column, "Idiot Savant Japan."]
Until a week ago, I hated Willie Nelson. Please understand: from ages 6 to 18, I grew up in Austin, Texas. Austin is a lovely city, full of Tex-Mex food, a bastardized cuisine equal parts queso, spicy meats and Mexican staples whose equal I have yet to find in NYC. (Authentic Mexican, sure; the greasy, cheesy Texas version, not yet. Please advise.) It has the nicest weather in Texas, and since everyone has A/C, we get by, unlike New York's sweltering shit-heap apartments in the summer. It has pretty hipster boys and girls fighting for their turf across from aggrieved UT fratboys, and one of the most supportive scenes for film production in the country.
That said, Austin has, for a long time, been dominated by smug ex-hippies who want to make sure everyone knows what a lovely place it is. Cold brew, country music and cool weather: that's all us liberals in refuge from the rest of the state want, right? Growing up with public radio dominated by blandly earnest "rootsy" singer-songwriter fare (as if we were all 16-year-old girls, still automatically impressed by anyone who can play, sing and project sincerity simultaneously) began to feel like some weird, anomalous form of cultural fascism. Austin prides itself on its music scene—a scene which has plenty of awesome bands, but also plenty of middle-aged dullards peddling dowdy authenticity by the yard. I spent an ill-advised year on the rowing team, and every day we'd go past a bronze statue of Stevie Ray Vaughn.
This insistence on Austin's funkiness—musical conservatism disguised as integral part of a pleasant city—may have blinded me to how people in other states think about country music. It was new to me when Noel Murray announced in this week's (typically excellent) installment of his "Popless" project that "Even people who aren't that deeply into country music usually have a few country artists they like and respect. Johnny Cash is a perennial, and Willie Nelson." Well, Johnny Cash we all know about—this is what happens when you cover Nine Inch Nails, project deathly gravitas without even trying, and scare all the punks into respecting you. But Willie? Pigtailed, hippie-endorsed Willie?
So with some sheepishness, I take it all back: I may have been hating Willie Nelson because that's what you do when your Texas band of choice is Spoon. Still is, but I've spent the last week plowing through One Hell Of A Ride—(a Columbia/Legacy box set coming out next Tuesday). I got promo discs to give me some context for an upcoming Nelson bio I'm reviewing. And I got it: at four discs, 100 tracks and nearly five hours of music, One Hell Of A Ride—see, that Austinite self-congratulating smugness is even in the title!—is about as comprehensive a sweep of Nelson's career as you could wish for. (How did people listen to box sets before allmusic? Listening along, checking how many tracks were taken from which albums, how consensus ranks those albums—what am I supposed to do, trust the liner notes?) And, um, I'm pretty impressed.
Disc 1 begins with a fairly representative slice of '50s country; for all the talk about how Nelson plays behind the beat and messes with unfamiliar musicians, outside ears won't hear much different here. That changes rapidly: I was sold, oddly enough, by the relatively unheralded track "Good Times," which sounds like a frail, lost folk song—strip it of a name, and I don't hear the faintest hint of twang, just a Harry Nilsson demo. (Incidentally, his version of "Everybody's Talkin'" is less country than Nilsson's own—with its strings and sweetening, that sounds like the patented "Nashville Sound" applied to a folk song. Willie cranks up the sparse bongos and lets it go.) Not that I'm suggesting that things have to avoid regionalisms to win my favor: no less than four tracks from 1971's Yesterday's Wine are here. By all descriptions, this is a fearlessly loony country concept album of a man's reflections approaching death [!], but the sampling here makes me want it immediately, regardless of how goofy the framework is. Honky-tonk, lazy, shuffling: exactly right, regardless.
There's no need to go over Nelson's genre-hopping here: there's flawless takes on pure country, lite jazz, rockabilly and god knows what else. (The cynical, bitter indie kid in me wants to point out that Willie's genre-hopping ends sometimes roughly in the mid-70s, but whatever.) Disc 4 is the predictable weakling, a way too-generous sampling of the last two decades. Like most career artists, Nelson would have been better served by shooting all of his '80s producers rather than listening to them; a Julio Iglesias duet may have been a good idea commercially, but it holds up rather pathetically. My point here isn't to offer a detailed intro to Willie's career, just to acknowledge that it's far more essential than I realized or wanted to admit—something only I may have needed this long to concede.
No Kids released their debut Come Into My House a few months back to no fanfare: foolishly, after giving their promo a cursory listen, I instantly concluded they were the next big thing and enthusiastically pitched them to various overlords. No luck, so I must pimp these guys to you, my smaller but presumably more devoted readers. Try not to sigh in exasperation over this description: No Kids are a Canadian band specializing in genre-hopping mixed with electronics. They used to be 3/4ths of a band called P.ano. I know, I know.
But they're good. Really good. It's the kind of music that automatically gets dubbed "pallid": wispy-voiced white folks singing in hushed tones over lively, ornate arrangements, carefully avoiding either visceral impact or overwhelming sonics. They're Sufjan Stevens reconfigured as miniaturists: everything sounds naturally recorded and barely manipulated. "Great Escape" is as lovely and thoughtfully arranged an opener as I've heard this year, a delicate flurry of woodwinds and regret ("I've been driving, but it's been no great escape") that could be the comedown to Blur's sarcastic album of the same name. The woodwinds never leave—I haven't heard this many oboes and bassoons in god knows how long—but they're soon joined by Junior Boys' beat kit, pseudo-conga percussion, and even the occasional vocoder. No Kids are fascinated by hip-hop's icier moments—making dance songs where the vocalist appears totally uninvolved—and integrate it into their little chamber fantasies, offering up the occasional weird mash of synth-pop, low-rent percussion and distanced lyrics about wanting to dance, rather than dancing. When they do dance, it's "Dancing In The Stacks."
I'm not thrilled by No Kids' lyrical content—would-be story-telling about poor, lonely little Ivy Leaguers sad because their beach houses feel empty now that their loved one's gone, which is pretty much self-parody at this point. No Kids' musical omnivorousness can lead them to dead ends like "Four Freshmen Locked Out As The Sun Goes Down," a self-conscious doo-wop number over ambient sound that gets no further than the concept. At 41 resolutely non-aggressive moments, Come Into My House threatens to collapse all its fine songs into little more than mope mood music for grad students up too late at night. But they're approaching a neo-chamber sound from an angle seemingly reserved for the exclusive province of Mr. Stevens, and it seems a bit unfair to deny them the chance to play with it further. This is far from a perfect album, but it's distinctive and interesting enough that I'm kind of upset that it's been so roundly ignored; someone even frailer than me may just fall in love with it.
Finally got around to Band of Horses' sophomore album from last year, Cease To Begin, and I love it, which is almost as much of a shock as falling for Willie Nelson. Back around their first album, I was apparently a much cleverer writer: "the biggest rise Band of Horses can get out of me is a slow stoner head-nod; their music plods dutifully, making the band name sadly appropriate." I'm not sure why I gave them another chance—I saw an amiable live show, but that was about it—but I'm glad I did.
Trying to pin down why they're no longer stoner plodders is hard. The tempos are generally faster, the song structures are sharper (rather than relying on layers of slathered reverb for atmosphere). Attention is paid to sequencing: no longer an inelegant grouping of dirges and rockers, there's enough momentum to even sustain one of those under-a-minute ambient interludes bands used to do when people still listened to albums rather than buzz singles. The lyrics still are basically asinine ("no one's gonna love you more than I will"... yeah, whatever), but the music is compact, well-played and exciting. They had me at opener "Is There A Ghost?"—one guitar, one part interrogative vocals in incomplete circles ("When I lived alone...is there a ghost in my house?"), quickly turning into thrashing guitars without a hint of hesitation. Maybe it's the band's new-found confidence I'm responding to: no more weed, just decisive rock. The thing is, the shift from the first to second album is very minimal compared to, say, the difference between big-band swing and terrifying drone rock; why these micro-migrations affect me as much as they do is anyone's guess.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.