–by Paul Ashby
Bruce Langhorne, The Hired Hand
In 1971, Peter Fonda, ricocheting off the commercial success and counterculture impact of “Easy Rider,” was a bankable personality in Hollywood. Universal, to its credit, stayed out of the way and awarded him complete artistic control of his next project — whatever it might be.
It turned into a film called The Hired Hand.
It’s an oddly flawed and beautiful thing, distinguished by arty, impressionistic cinematography (the opening sequence, alone, is worth the price of the DVD) and a compelling and emotionally complex plot, all set to a meandering pace. There’s also some…shall we say stilted dialogue, futuristic (for the late eighteen-hundreds, anyway) sex-positive themes of female empowerment … and gorgeous music.
Critics dismissed the ambitious film — emo cowpoke talkie, anyone? — as a “hippie western,” but most couldn’t help acknowledging the score by Bruce Langhorne.
This music to The Hired Hand is capable of many things. Trust me. It might even go so far as to change the way you think about the banjo. At times certain tracks take me back to Neil Young’s live renditions of “For the Turnstiles,” where the banjo was handled more like a guitar. Langhorne’s plaintive plucking on dulcimer, guitar and banjo is overlaid with fiddle and harmonica and other minimal instrumentation. The result forges a pleasingly hazy (and somewhat forlorn) backdrop.
Like Young’s “On The Beach” and “Tonight’s the Night,” the best time to play The Hired Hand might be around 3am on a Sunday morning, just before (or even while) falling asleep on the couch … perhaps just a tad dissipated (if you’re into that sort of thing). The first time I played it for my girlfriend we were in a car on our way to Bolinas, in West Marin, man. It seemed a perfect fit for the landscape.
I’ve loved this album (all 23 minutes of it) ever since I first heard the Blast First Petite (UK) label reissue CD in 2007. After finally watching The Hired Hand last week, the score transformed into the kind of music I could lay down and wrap myself in. It clearly and uncannily captures and enhances the one-of-a-kind atmosphere of film’s accompanying images. The recording, while not of the most pristine hi-fi quality, stands on its own as a great work — but the film and score together are simply stunning.
There was an early-2013 US vinyl reissue that appears to be out of print, but you might be able to find one (and the elusive CD, as well) on Discogs. On Amazon people are trying to sell the CD for $90. Whatevs.
Blaze Foley, Cold, Cold World
Where to begin? Blaze was a Austin singer-songwriter whose unsteady gait fell upon the ne’er-do-well side of the street. Some folks may have been first alerted (as was I) to the mythology surrounding this Foley fellow via Lucinda Williams’ song “Drunken Angel.” He recorded some LPs, but they’re difficult to find, and, in some cases, were never released due to various semi-legendary misadventures.
There are many, many Blaze Foley stories, and most of them are chronicled on a loving documentary DVD Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah. It’s the best introduction to Blaze’s short life and wonderful music.
Blaze’s baritone voice and nimble fingerpicking can have you sobbing or smiling, and sometimes both. Certain songs on “Cold, Cold World” are downbeat country laments (“Small Town Hero,” “Rainbows and Ridges”); other are bouncy narratives (“Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries,” “Baby Can I Crawl Back to You?”, “Officer Norris”) that verge on the novelty genre. There’s also “Picture Cards”, a love ballad that sorta resembles Blaze’s one big hit (relatively speaking), “If I Could Only Fly.”
Certain tracks on this reissue of the 1980 LP have a cobbled-together Townes Van Zandt feel. That is, the guitar and vocals were done in one session, and piano and additional instrumentation supplied via overdub, in a different studio, sometime down the road. Townes and Blaze were also known to share drinks, trade harmonies, and occasionally raise hell, so there’s that.
This LP reissue sports a glossy black-and-white liner of vivid, funny and affectionate liner notes from Gurf Morlix (bass, guitar, vocals, provider of a couch for Blaze to sleep on), who — along with documentarian Kevin Triplett– has done more to keep Blaze’s music alive than anyone. Gurf’s self-released CD of Foley covers, Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream, is touching proof of The Morlix Commitment to Blaze’s memory. Catch Gurf live and you’re sure to hear at least a couple Foley tunes.
The Secret Seven vinyl reissue of Cold Cold World seems to be disappearing, but if you can track one down, it has a download card — your choice of FLAC or 320k MP3. The CD is (probably?) still be available on the Lost Art label.
William Tyler, Impossible Truth
This is Lambchop guitarist Tyler’s second solo album for Merge. It’s also one of my favorite albums this year. I don’t know if William on a one-man crusade to reinvent the 12-string guitar, but it sure seems like that’s what’s happening here.
Tyler’s technique isn’t flashy, but it ranks up there with most of his contemporaries. The difference is in the tunes. He writes strong, catchy guitar-based instrumentals with, y’know, like, verses and choruses. These aren’t showcases for acoustic shredding, Kottke-esque riverboat rave-ups or dawdling tone poems.
The story each track tells is semi-distinct. Do the song titles refer to destinations, or do the moods build as reflections of travels to the locations he calls his songs? Doesn’t matter, and it’s not worth the headache of trying to put such questions into words (ow). Maybe the answer is that “Impossible Truth” is, among other things, excellent driving music. It just sounds particularly right behind the wheel.
What exactly does the album sound like? Imagine Jimmy Page’s meld of twelve and six string acoustics on “Bron-Y-Aur”. Throw in a appropriately Anglicized tangent on the concept of ragas — both morning and evening. This Hindustani-derived appreciation for drone tones works inexplicably well with a thoughtful, melodic take on the American folk tradition.
(Damn, and I promised myself I’d get through this without resorting to the F-Word. Almost made it. Sorry).
This isn’t a bare-bones session. Tyler knows how to use tremolo, reverb and distortion to enhance his songs, not to obfuscate a lack of skill or technique (or exceptional tunes). There’s some beautiful lap steel work by Chris Scruggs. Tyler’s fuzz bass on the introduction to “Cadillac Desert” verges on the orchestral (the vibraphone doesn’t hurt, either).
The LP comes in a rough-grain gatefold sleeve with MP3 download card. There are two discs with two songs per side. I wish I could say this means improved sound (and it’s better than most vinyl), but, while the recording is excellent, the pressing is a bit more crackly than I’d like.
But hey — anyone who releases an album with thanks to Harvest Records in the acknowledgements is alright with me. Tyler has a firm take on where he’s going, and where he’s been. “Impossible Truth” is a quality travelogue for anyone willing to join him.
In my last column, I spelled Bernd Friedmann’s last name incorrectly. His “Burnt Friedman” alter ego uses one spelling, and his real name is spelled “Bernd Friedmann.” Happy to clear that up, and apologies for the original error.
High Spin Zone
- Tom Russell, The Long Way Around (Hightone)
- Bob Neuwirth, Look Up (Watermelon)
- Heather Woods Broderick, From The Ground (Digitalis/Preservation)
- Jóhann Jóhannsson, Fordlandia (NOTV reissue)
- Aidan Baker, Already Drowning (Gizeh)
- CFCF, Music For Objects (Paper Bag)
- Michael Chapman, Rainmaker (Light in the Attic reissue)
- Andrea Tomasi, Hurricane Dream (Team Love)
- Nils Frahm, Juno Reworked (Erased Tapes)
About the Author
Paul Ashby spends his days maintaining digital content management, sales and social media at Revolver USA, an independent music distributor. He intermittently dotes upon his blog, Anything But MP3, and has contributed to PS Audio’s PS Tracks site and Tower Records’PULSE! magazine.
You can read more about Paul over at our Contributors page.