Hounded by the IRS, beset by personal tragedy, and plain worn-out by the ever-diminishing success of his Farm Aid concerts, Willie Nelson seemed washed up when he signed with Island Records three years ago. That was shortly after Across the Borderline, which, with guest stars like Bonnie Raitt and Sinead O'Connor, was little more than a slick bid for commercial viability.
Nothing on that record hinted at what would follow: the stark and thrilling Spirit. Now we have Teatro, which builds on Nelson's single-minded quest for emotional honesty with the talents of producer Daniel Lanois, the backing vocals of Emmylou Harris, and a band that includes Cubano percussionists Victor Indrizzo and Tony Mangurian. And like Spirit, the songs on Teatro sound timeless, or, rather, ancient. Indeed, some of the best tunes, like "I Never Cared for You" and "My Own Peculiar Way," date back to the '60s, when Nelson was writing music history for Patsy Cline and Farron Young.
For all the hoo-ha about Lanois' novel instrumentation and ability to create "atmospherics," his real genius is for the sound of the human voice. His needle-in-the-red job on Bob Dylan's vocals gave Time Out of Mind its Old Testament-prophet sound. And it was Lanois who took Harris' angelic voice, so perfect as an accompaniment and so ill-suited for fronting country blues, and shattered it, drilling it over and over until it became a wavering, wounded thing -- and made her Wrecking Ball the best solo album of her career.
On Teatro, Lanois wisely backs off -- Willie Nelson's voice is about as malleable as an Easter Island statue -- choosing instead to test the material, to see if he can stretch these old hillbilly tunes into the Cosmic American Music that Gram Parsons dreamed about. When it works, which is often, it works miracles. There is nothing on the radio, in any format, as compelling as "Darkness on the Face of the Earth." Only occasionally on Teatro does there seem to be a little too much incense and not enough tobacco juice. It's not hard to imagine a better version of "Three Days," which practically cries out for some rolling Leon Russell piano. But if you can listen to five minutes of country radio these days and not absolutely pine for an album like this, well, as Hank Hill would say, son, you're just not right.
-- Brian Alcorn
How We Quit the Forest
Rasputina are not the only musicians making rock without guitars, but they may be the most original. How We Quit the Forest, their second album, places them squarely in the tradition of rock music that messes with rock music's assumptions. Their first record, 1996's Thanks for the Ether, presented a collection of finely crafted rock/pop songs performed by three women with cellos (Melora Creager, Julia Kent, and Carpella Parvo, since replaced by Agnieszka Rybska), accompanied by the occasional drum track, the composition style largely a somewhat adapted form of classical cello phrasing. For anyone interested in good songwriting, melody, and harmony, or the sound of a cello, that was enough.
How We Quit the Forest, however, launches into new, more original territory. It's an experiment in Noises You Wouldn't Expect From a Cello. The first two songs -- backed by Chris Vrenna's drums and programming -- begin in the tradition of '70s heavy metal. The second of these, "LeechWife," even includes a fake live audience track under its opening cello chords, which are so stereotypically Spinal Tap rock that you have to remind yourself there are no guitars on the album. "DwarfStar" uses strangely accented cello and spoken word in a machinelike experiment in repetition.
Creager's songwriting draws attention to the existence of oddity and imperfection among humans and almost-humans; she seems to be trying to find in these freaks a measure of beauty most people wouldn't credit them with. (Creager wrote all the songs, except for the cover of "You Don't Own Me," the tune Lesley Gore made famous.) In "MayFly," the insect lives for only one day, which Creager suggests is enough. "Herb Girls of Birkenau" wonders how anyone could have seen the experiment victims "not living, not dead." And then there are stories about a brother with trench mouth, medieval methods of exorcism, and "The Olde HeadBoard."
Undoubtedly the songs are more experimental than those on the first album. Indeed, that seems to be the point. The pop-music industry is by its nature a normalizing one, and so anything that questions the set themes, techniques, and approaches of a genre of music is experimental. On How We Quit the Forest, Rasputina, pressing at the edges of rock and pop, present a more daring argument than they did on Thanks for the Ether. There are many ways to write, record, and present a rock/pop song, Rasputina seem to say. So why is it that when we turn on the radio or watch MTV we keep hearing the same damn thing?
-- Jill Stauffer
P.W. Long with Reelfoot
Push Me Again
(Touch and Go)
When former Mule guitarist/vocalist/shitkicker Preston Long fell off the crunch-punkaboogie donkey, he landed smack-dab in the blues. Rather than the low-gear power punch of his previous group's Texas-style grit, Long's current three-piece combo, Reelfoot, works out a more laid-back patter that better showcases his soulful vocal inflection. Reelfoot's first effort, We Didn't See You on Sunday, was a finely varied mix of acoustic and electric country-blues that displayed Long's capacity for honest, evocative appreciation of so-called hillbilly music. The 1997 album's standout track, "My Name," took its blues-stompin' approach from the driving simplicity of a drop-tuned acoustic guitar, Long's howlin' vocals, and the tapping of his foot.
Where that record offered a sturdy efficiency, Push Me Again harnesses an instrumental sophistication that seemed lacking in Long's previous work. Where Mule sought tight rhythmic shuffles without wrangling melodic interludes, Reelfoot digs its meat hooks into gospel riffs for a balance of piercing rhythmic impulsion and soaring epiphany. The harder songs, like "Signifyin' Honkey" and "Eagleye," benefit from the tastefully aggressive thwap of former Jesus Lizard drummer Mac McNeilly and the restrained rumble of Dan Maister's bass. A new addition for Reelfoot's second recorded ruckus is Mark Boyce's swirling, howling Leslie-speaker organ and electric piano trills.
The gospel-tinged organ crawl and musical twang of "Say It Ain't So" takes a dejected blues stagger and injects a bright Fender Rhodes electric piano solo and sing-along chorus reminiscent of Ray Charles. The countrified lament "Fly Trap Lair" opens with muted, warm electric piano leading to staccato accents of guitars and drums. Shifting gears into "Jane Dwim" 's proto-billy 3/4-time shuffle the band kicks up shards of broken notes and crashing cymbals. "Laughing Eyes" tells a tongue-in-cheek mythical tale of an Indian chief named Reelfoot and his doomed love affair, Long spinning the yarn with the elocution of a Southern Baptist preacher. The threadbare bent-note guitar line and saloon piano slugs on "State House" back up his defiant loser's tale, "Fourteen trips to the state house/ I still haven't called it home/ You ain't the only Jesus in town."
Push Me Again shakes off the rigid postures that haunted Long's past efforts. If his solo acoustic numbers sought heart without multiple musical voices, Reelfoot's latest shows he can still sing his lungs out while the band members gleefully flog their gear.
-- Dave Clifford