Friday, August 03, 2007

Sojourner: Nashville Moon

This is a review (or at least what passes for one around these parts) of Magnolia Electric Company's Nashville Moon CD, from the Sojourner box set.

Each of the 12 songs on this disc were recorded with the main Magnolia group in 2005 in Chicago. The first 3 songs on the CD made it on to the last MEC studio album, Fading Trails. Because they were taken directly from these recording sessions and put onto Fading Trails, they'll be intimately familiar to anyone who owns that album. The songs are "Lonesome Valley", "Montgomery" (also known as "Montgomery Bound") and "Don't Fade On Me." It's probably only a little bit hyperbolic (and fannish) of me to say that there's just not a bad note or word to be found on any of the 3 songs; but if there are, I can't hear them! I loved them on Fading Trails, I thrilled at hearing them (for the first time) in concert last year, and I absolutely adore them here. With lyrics like these:

"Now I’m not worried about heading back
I will be punished by a civil death
If I’ve done enough but not my best
I turn my pain into a simple plan
Harmony onward friend
Dragging myself out again
Oh through the lonesome valley, the lonesome valley"


and

"All my doubt my life has measured out
And it’s taken my hat at the door
All my reasons for wanting less
And all yours for not needing more
Stops my breath and my heart in time
No want, no waste and no fight
This boy is Montgomery bound
You see I make my mistakes on my own time
Now let the twilight show the girls the town
This boy is Montgomery bound
Brown-bottle eyes and the black cat’s hips
The road becomes what you leave
And my ghost ain’t waiting"


and

"Even that tired old moon has finally come back to town
And she’s been asking for you
And I thought that no one lived for nothing now
Even christ stayed until he had run out of doubt
But you faded on me"


how can you not go weak at the knees when you hear them? They're probably the strongest of the songs on this CD, but that's most definitely not a case of damning with faint praise! They're just really outstanding examples of music.

Next up is "Hammer Down", re-recorded from the version that shows up on What Comes After The Blues? Like most of the re-recordings on this CD, it's done in a style that - to my amateur ears, at least - sounds consciously more Country & Western. I don't know if that simply reflects the tone or mood of the recording sessions, the target audience, or a direction that the band was considering at the time and wanted to play around with. I'm no C&W fan - by any stretch! - but I find where MEC music is concerned, I'm usually able to still enjoy what they come up with in that vein. (More often than not, I can do that with the Eagles, too. Not sure what that indicates, but there it is!) This is no exception, although I think I'd still take the slightly rockier version from What Comes After The Blues? over this one, but it's a close call. I suppose the argument could be made that any song with the truck-drivin' title of "Hammer Down" always was C&W to begin with anyway, so...

The first (sort of) new song for me, "No Moon On The Water" shows up after "Hammer Down." We heard this one in concert last year but that's the extent of my exposure to it prior to today. A small amount of Internet searching now reveals that this had previously been released as a solo Jason Molina "single", meaning this represents the first time it was done in the studio by the whole group. It splits from the relatively laid-back tone of the first four songs, breaking quickly into a frenetic beat that's pure rock, including a much more pronounced drum beat than typical MEC. While not as impressive as some of the other material in terms of lyrics, I do like:

"I have to work hard to suffer alone
I have to work harder to be so alone
Don’t like half of who I’ve been
But I’ve kept my promises to all of them"


as it evokes the typical MEC introspection that I've come to know and love. I think I'll come to like this song more over time, but currently I'm only lukewarm on it.

The title track, "Nashville Moon" follows, and is the first song that I think I'm hearing for the very first time on this CD. It resumes the slower pace that "No Moon On The Water" had broken from, although it moves in and out of that mode throughout its four and a half minutes. It's definitely a song that, had I heard it out of the blue before getting this CD, I'd have known pretty quickly that it was MEC (in much the same way that I recently recognized the voice of Radiohead's Thom Yorke over the end credits of The Prestige, despite not knowing he was on the soundtrack nor having heard his solo album at that time). Of all the new songs, this is my early favourite. What's not to like about:

"How many ghosts
Will I meet on the road
That depends
On how hard you're runnin'
That depends
Which ones you know and which ones know you'll be comin'
How far away is that Nashville moon
That depends...

And how many miles
'Til my mistakes catch up
That depends
Which ones you're countin'
That depends
What you're forgettin' again

Does it matter whose side I'm on
Or does that depend
Baby, on the fight
Does it matter that every star fell from the sky
Or does that depend
Baby, on the night"


The seventh track is, by far, the biggest treat on the disc for me. It's a very lively recording of "What Comes After The Blues," a song that I've heard a few times but never owned before. You'd think, considering that Magnolia released an album with that very same name, that it would've been the title track on that CD; but no. There's actually no recording of "What Comes After The Blues?" on What Comes After The Blues? Yeah, I know... weird, huh? And despite some typically-morose lyrics, the song has a fabulous up-beat to it that makes you want to get up and dance to it (I don't dance, but you know what I mean). To say that I truly and deeply love this song would be putting it mildly. Just dig this snippet:

"You see I nailed my guilt
To the back of my eyes
So I see it now before the sun
Now who was I
Now who am I
Lord... what have I done
What comes after the blues

Now Noah must've had
A lotta room on the ark
For all of them broken hearts
Stay with me now
Oh crimson pal
Pain like this will even outlive the dark
And come after the blues"


Mmmm mmmm, that's some fine magic.

A song I'd only ever heard as a live version, "Don't This Look Like The Dark" is next up. I didn't even realize until I started looking for the lyrics to this song tonight that it had only shown up on Trials And Errors, the MEC live CD that I've probably listened to more than anything else on my iPod other than Dark Side Of The Moon. Again, this is a more C&W-ish recording than I'm used to, so it's just not going to resonate in my ear as well as the live one, at least for awhile. I prefer the more driving rhythm that the gang employs when playing it live, after all. But you can't complain about lyrics like:

"I can't start to count the things I said I'd never be
But I became them all the night you quit countin' on me
And all the harder things that you said to my heart
Every one of them things was true but
That one look at the end
That one look at the end
Was what ran it through"


Same goes for the recording of "North Star", although even moreso. The live version on Trials And Errors is just going to be impossible to ever top, and one of the songs I just have to listen to whenever I make that selection on the iPod. But, it's interesting hearing a studio version now, because everything's there, just not as revved up as I'm used to. And, like "Don't This Look Like The Dark", realizing that this song hadn't been released on a studio album before now boggles my mind. It's such a great song, but I suppose having it on their one and only live release probably got it out there enough. Among my favourite lyrics are:

"You used to say I had what it takes
I think I did if you meant too little, too late
And by the looks that I'm getting I made some big mistakes
But I thought you said I was great

I shoot straight and give it my best try
I make my heart as hard as nails
That might be the way you live your life
But it's almost got me killed
Darlin' I'm not giving in
That happened miles ago
I heard the north star sayin'
Kid, you're so lost, even I can't bring you home

Now did you think that we was gonna last
Well, honey, you know you don't have to answer that
Half of that was my kind of joke
But I don't remember which half"


One of my recent passions has been re-discovering the middle three songs on the MEC EP, Hard To Love A Man. The first of them, "Bowery", shows up here, although once again re-recorded to a slightly slower beat. I hadn't listened to Hard To Love A Man all that much initially, simply because it's not quite long enough for a bike ride to or from work. Then I hit on the idea of setting it up to play that CD, and then go automatically into the start of the next MEC album, so that it would last my whole way. And then I really got into "Bowery", "Doing Something Wrong" and "31 Seasons In The Minor Leagues" and haven't left that mode yet. Aside from being a little slower, this recording isn't very different than what appears on that earlier EP. In fact, I've heard it enough times today that I'm already starting to forget some of the subtle changes they've made, so I guess that's further proof that they're quite similar. Like so many of its peers, "Bowery"'s a very moody song that rewards you the more you listen to it, as the lyrics really start to paint such vivid images:

"While the wolf had her fangs
Deep in my heart
Who’s been writing them songs
Who’s been singing
And who’s been listening
Blue eyes while you’ve been gone
That two dollar hat and them old black stockings
Down on the bowery"


(Aside: Mentioning it above made me think of the great lyrics within "31 Seasons In The Minor Leagues" that go:

"And everything you ever looked up to
Now it’s all looking down on you
Trying to see if you can get back up
Out of that hole you climbed into
But they’re not expecting much
Cause you got so far down
You got so far down"


which always make me think of Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and the minor league lifers...)

Another brand spanking new song, "Texas 71" is the penultimate offering on the CD. It's slowly starting to win me over, although it's got a very dirge-like beat through most of it that doesn't welcome the new listener very warmly. As usual, though, the lyrics make up for the lack of energy in the music:

"Now I think twice about every bargain
Everything I've had and I've walked out on
Oh the lone star horizon (x2)
The ones I leave and the ones ahead
The chance I had and the choice instead
Oh the lone star horizon (x2)
Which one of these can I not outrun
Which one of these can I
Oh the lone star horizon (x2)"


Finally, the CD ends with another new-to-me song, "Down The Wrong Road Both Ways" which is a pretty good title, just on its own! It's got that C&W twang to it that I'm not overly fond of, so we'll have to see if it grows on me more over time. There's a nice instrumental riff in it that I wish they did more of, just like I wish many of their songs were just that little bit longer ("Montgomery" weighs in at less than 2 minutes, when it really could easily support twice that amount of time even just instrumentally. On the other hand, as it is, it gets in, it says its bit and gets out quickly, so maybe I should just shut up and trust the song-writer!) Here are just a line or two from the final song on Nashville Moon:

"If I could have my heart come back
And be forgiven for them old days
I'd be headed where I always been
Down the wrong road both ways"


Overall, there's a country feel to this collection that's right on the edge of my C&W tolerance, but thankfully didn't cross the line. For some, however, I imagine it'd be a turn-off so this is probably "one for the fans." As the disc that contains the most previously-heard music of the four, I've spent a lot of my time drawing comparisons between what came before, and this CD. I suspect my experience with the other 3 CDs will be very different, as they're filled with a much larger proportion of new material. Having said that, I'm extremely happy with disc # 1, because it provides so many new takes on songs that I already love. We'll have to see how the others stack up.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Thanks Matt. Can't wait to hear it.

I was blaring Trails and Errors on the way to Killarny last week. What an amazing cd.