Behold the Cosmic Cowboy (09/10/99)
Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (Almo Sounds 1999) - Though Gram Parsons has now been gone for 25 years (his death in 1973 at age 26 in Joshua Tree National Forest has become a thing of myth), his influence remains. Return of the Grievous Angel is a 13-track collection spearheaded by collaborator Emmylou Harris, and is highlighted by a timeless sound.
According to the liner notes from Bud Scoppa, "Gram Parsons was a subversive Harvard-educated hillbilly who invented country-rock in the mid-60's with the prototypical International Submarine Band before perfecting it with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and on a pair of extraordinary solo albums."
Scoppa adds, "While the Eagles polished Parsons' country-rock to a multi-platinum sheen, his original vision was hell-bent, haunted, and heart-wrenching. He called it Cosmic American Music, and the fact that the term fits this batch of interpretations as well as it fit the original recordings is a testament to the enduring quality of the songs themselves."
Apart from his esteemed solo albums (G.P. from 1973 and Grievous Angel from 1974), the height of Parsons' career was his 1968 pairing with the Byrds that culminated in the landmark, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
Listen again to Bud Scoppa tell it. "The seemingly effortless manner in which the 21-year-old newcomer took the wheel of this great and purposeful band and steered it straight toward the mythopoetic south speaks the boldness of Gram's vision. Surprisingly, strongwilled Byrds founder/leader Roger McGuinn went along for the ride."
"We hired a piano player," McGuinn said in a 1969 interview, "and he turned out to be Parsons . . . A monster in sheep's clothing. And he exploded out of this sheep's clothing - God! It's George Jones! In a big sequin suit! And he's got his guitar and sidemen accompanying him. He took it right into the eye of the hurricane - and Raaaaaooow - came out the other side. It was Japanese."
Bedecked in a suit from Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, Parsons lived a life of excess, punctuated by drug problems emanating from a bad motorcycle crackup in 1970. Yet the music remains true. Emmylou Harris appears on three cuts, including a wonderful duet with the Chrissie Hynde on "She," and a strange pairing with Beck on "Sin City."
Other highlights include the countrified "Hot Burrito #1" performed by Raol Malo and the Mavericks, the stripped-down "Sleepless Nights" performed by Elvis Costello, in which Elvis continues his return to form (though I remain put off by a misogynistic set I saw him perform in California in the mid 90's).
Also included is the distinctive Lucinda Williams paired with David Crosby for "Return of the Grievous Angel," and the album's concluding number (and perhaps Parsons' best-known song), "In My Hour of Darkness," as performed by the Rolling Creekdippers, a one-off band that includes Victoria Williams on banjo and vocals, Gurf Morlix on lap steel, and Mark Olson and Jim Lauderdale on vocals.
Sure, there are some low points: "High Fashion Queen" by Chris Hillman & Steve Earle has too much country twang, and "$1,000 Wedding" by Evan Dando & Juliana Hatfield shows why these two singers never took off.
Yet at the end of the day, it's the songs that bring you back. On a track like "Ooh Las Vegas" (as performed by the Cowboy Junkies), Margo Timmins' deep-in-the-mix vocals produce a delicious feel, even if you can't finger the song as a Parsons original.
Return of the Grievous Angel has a coherent feel, which is not surprising, as all of the songs were penned by the same hand. For a contemporary introduction to Gram Parsons, look for Return of the Grievous Angel.
10,000 Maniacs, The Earth Pressed Flat (Bar None Records 1999) - Phase II for the 10,000 Maniacs continues with The Earth Pressed Flat. Now fronted by the gentle voice of lead singer Mary Ramsey, the band continues to refine its blend of ethereal strings, guitars, and earthy keyboards for a sound that lands somewhere to the left of folk rock (like the Beautiful South).
The Earth Press Flat is the band's second post-Natalie Merchant album, following Love Among the Ruins, which included the hit cover of Roxy Music's "More Than This" (a track which continues to draw attention on the European dance charts).
The other Maniacs are John Lombardo on acoustic guitar, Robert Buck on electric guitar, Dennis Drew on keyboards, Steven Gustafson on bass, and Jerome Augustyniak on drums.
The band describes their feel as "not so much unplugged as un-stressed." The Earth Pressed Flat was recorded in an unhurried fashion in and around the band's Jamestown, New York, home base with assistance from producer/engineer Armand John Petri.
In addition to original songs, the band performs two well-chosen covers; Mimi Farina's "In the Quiet Morning," and Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes."
From tracks like "The Earth Pressed Flat" through "Ellen" and "Cabaret," 10,000 Maniacs remain remarkably true to their original college rock style. With Ramsey's pleasant voice, and the cohesive musicianship of the long-time Maniacs, The Earth Pressed Flat is a fair addition to the Maniacs' canon.
Starflyer 59, Fell in Love at 22 (Tooth and Nail Records 1999) - Brian Wilson ("In My Room") meets the Velvet Underground and takes a walk in the park with Love & Rockets. That's what I think of when I hear the three-piece Starflyer 59 (hailing from Orange County).
Working in dream-rock territory that has been largely left unexplored since Cocteau Twins, this five-song EP starts off with the latest single from Starflyer 59's most recent full length album, The Fashion Focus.
The band features Jason Mark on vocals and guitar, Wayne Everett on drums, and Jeff Cloud on bass. (Former bass player Eric Campuzano left to spend more time with his family, at school, and in his new band, Lassie Foundation.)
In addition to the undertones of "Wanted Bad," Fell in Love at 22 contains the 14-minute, "Traffic Jam." Explains Jeff Cloud, "we originally recorded 'Traffic Jam' too slow, so we were going to speed it up in the studio. But we got there and started feeling punky and decided to leave it the way it was. Our producer, Gene Eugene, said it would be good movie music for a desert scene."
The final track, "Sampson" is an out-take from the band's third album Americana. Says Jeff Cloud drolly, "We're always demo-ing."
Fell in Love at 22 boldly ventures into territory unoccupied by current rock trends. For a serving of distinctive and challenging mood music, try Starflyer 59.
- Randy Krbechek © 1999
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