Country Ukiyo-e


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Courtney Barnett: The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (Mom & Pop Music)

A pile of current (or at least recent) CDs by female artists appeared on the floor of my apartment, which led me to write something really trite: In addition to being a great year for music in general, a lot of the water for 2014 is being carried by the ladies. Yet as I’ve played though Lily Allen’s spectacular Sheezus, plus very good-to-great records by Toni Braxton (& Babyface), Laura Cantrell, Melissa Lambert, Amy Levere, Lydia Loveless, St. Vincent, (Röyksopp &) Robyn, and let’s neither forget half of Wussy’s worldworn tunes nor omit Laura Jane Grace, 2013’s The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas by Melbournite newcomer Courtney Barnett has belatedly been a hit in my household-of-one. If my initial reaction was “lo-fi meh”, presently I’m thinking something along the lines of: gothic with a back of alt-country, inspired equally by Lou Reed (“Anonymous Club” plays along to the chords of “Here She Comes Now), the Smiths, and peyote, and able to strike a note of droll bemusement better than anyone since her Australian compadre Robert Forster. Barnett constructs songs like she was never taught I-IV-V structure (a plus), and she’s got the knack of creating monumental, slightly surreal scenarios from meager ingredients: The asthma attack that disrupts the clothes line saga “Avant Gardener” deserves all its adulation, “History Eraser” name-checks Ezra Pound, the Stones (both kinds), angry footballers, and the Triffids, “Lance Jr” tops that by mashing up masturbation, weed, and Tamezepam, and “Don’t Apply Compression Gently” is an exile in Velvetville that finishes with “I may not be 100% happy but at least I’m not with you”.  Clever cover art too. So yes Barnett is lo-fi, sonically Bee Thousand but lyrically Kimya Dawson (who never freaked out on guitar like “Canned Tomatoes (Whole)” does), so let’s keep our fingers crossed that there’s a pathway to Whitechocolatespaceegg in her future. 

Shaver: Shaver's Jewels: The Best of Shaver (New West)

Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Spade Cooley, heck, even Johnny Paycheck— Billy Joe Shaver holds his own against all of the country music hellraisers. Born fatherless into abject poverty in Texas, Shaver quit school in the 8th grade to pick cotton, joined the Navy underage until he was booted out (honorably) for fighting an out-of-uniform officer, and cut off most of the fingers of his right hand necessitating a detour away from manual labor. He attempted to hitchhike his way to California in a cantaloupe truck but only got as far as Tennessee, where he became arguably the best Nashville songwriter in the ‘70s while drinking and drugging his way to high heaven. A mountaintop call to Jesus rescued him from his demons but didn’t help his solo recording career, which never amounted to much. Perhaps in atonement he struck out indie-style in the '90s on a never-ending juke joint tour with his son Eddy, who was schooled in slide guitar by none other than Dickie Betts. Together as Shaver, Eddy allowed Billy Joe a resurrection vehicle for his plainspoken wordslinger gifts on a series of albums until Billy Joe’s mother, wife, and Eddy himself died (cancer, cancer, heroin) right before the release of Shaver’s last, best album, The Earth Rolls On. Then Billy Joe had a heart attack. Onstage.

If Shaver had died right then, we’d talk about a late-career renaissance that rivaled and perhaps even exceeded Johnny Cash in its less conspicuous way. But Shaver kept going, remarkably, as only those who’ve lived through it all can do. Lives still in fact, sings still, writes still, records still, tours still. The thin, unconvincing voice on his 70s records now resonates like a National steel that warped in just the right way to finally stay in tune. In the meantime, New West Records has released a 17-song compilation of the tunes that Billy Joe recorded with Eddy, Shaver’s Jewels: The Best of Shaver, to commemorate what we’ll now fondly call Billy Joe Shaver's middle era. Spanning five albums, including the six best from The Earth Rolls On, Shaver's Jewels doesn't just have an oak-aged voice or nobly doomed songwriting to get over—Eddy was a helluva slide guitar player, less flash than Derek Trucks, occasionally placidly beatific, and almost always playing with rather than over the song. Great from beginning to end, greater still because the new classics (“Leavin’ Amarillo” and the deathly “Live Forever”) stand proud against Shaver’s first wave (typified by “I’ve Been to Georgia On A Fast Train”, which gets a refresh here). Shaver lives up to his sins, seeks redemption for them from his God, and knows he’ll die with them on his soul anyway.