740 Water Street SW
SONS OF BILL
Sons Of BillOh God Ma’am, the latest LP from central Virginia’s band of brothers, Sons of Bill, opens with a song that on first listen might be mistaken for the album’s outlier: the starkly beautiful, piano driven, “Sweeter, Sadder, Farther Away.” It’s a love song of sorts, but a strange one– sentimental, surreal, and slightly disturbing– lulling the listener in waltz time through an old-world lament of unrequited courtship that seems to end tragically and mysteriously (whether the story ends in murder or suicide or neither for its ghostly lovers is left curiously unanswered). It’s a song that feels both archaic and modern, and yet probably deserves to become a standard. With its sparse production, preternatural melody of an anglo-ballad, and haunting cadence of strangely cerebral rhyming couplets– the message is clear that the listener has signed up for a very different sort of rock album. It’s wistful, darkly contemplative, and plays like an opening statement of purpose– the sound of a band whose inner voice is just getting weirder and sharper.
The nine songs that follow on Oh God Ma’am comprise the band’s most coherent and sonically ambitious effort. Recorded both in Seattle with west coast indie legend Phil Ek (Shins, Fleet Foxes) and in Nashville with Sean Sullivan (Sturgill Simpson) and mixed by Peter Katis (The National, Interpol) the album moves beyond the galvanic americana-rock comfort zone of previous efforts, for a more elegant and restrained sound– a darker, and more complexly layered rock record that manages to be the band’s most emotionally intimate and sonically expansive. Insistent rhythms and dreamy, hook-filled, pyrotechnics abound, creating a deceptively anthemic mood around songs that are in and of themselves intensely introverted– an interior voice that is both earnest and aloof–as though singer James Wilson were mostly addressing himself, or at least inviting the listener along for the journey inward.
As three sons of a venerated theology and Southern Literature professor at the University of Virginia (who also taught his sons how to play guitar and write songs)– the Sons of Bill were always keen to represent the American South with a slightly higher brow– an upright and literary aspect of the southern culture that rarely gets an adequate hearing in pop music. And like so many of the southern writers they grew up reading (James teaches and is currently writing a book on William Faulkner) The Wilson brothers often pull songs from the darker regions of the human imagination– slyly and earnestly scratching at their own spiritual scabs with both humor and sincerity, as a way of exploring life’s enduring complexities: faith, love, and the weirdness of time. It gives the whole record a unique atmosphere of tragicomedy– equal parts post-adolescent anxiety and old-soul humility. In search of the proper nomenclature, one critic would simply describe Sons of Bill as “metaphysical american music.”
Its a record that was years in the making. After touring extensively on both sides of the Atlantic on breakout record Love & Logic, the band was beset by a series of personal and painful tragedies. There were divorces, addictions, and undiagnosed mental conditions within the band, that seemed to creep up out of nowhere. To make matters worse, youngest brother James (tragically and comically) fell on a champagne glass in the middle of the recording process– severing five tendons and the median nerve in his right hand. He not only lost all movement of his fingers, but all feeling in his hand as well. He was given the diagnoses that he may never be able to play guitar again.
“Sorrows never come as single spies. But only in battalions” James said, quoting a line from Hamlet that was often referenced by the Wilson’s father. “I think we were all raised with a certain tragic sense of life, which has always come through in our songs, but until you’re in the paralysing throes of adult suffering, you have no idea how dark it can actually be.”
“It certainly marks a moment, where we could have hung it up,” James continued, “We had all lost the innocence of youth, each in our own way, and in many ways, that innocence is an essential part of being in a band. Too much reality is absolutely lethal to a certain type of art– rock music especially. It needs a certain infantile grandiosity–the courage of its illusions and dreams. It’s why we love it, and why it feels harder to make vital music as you get older and the ugly realities of everyday life begin to set in. But i’m glad we all took the time to simply channel all that was happening into making a different sort of record. If we had tried to make the same youthful rock record over again it wouldn’t have worked. We just wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
The end result on Oh God Ma’am is the sound of a band growing up– sober, healthy, wiser, intentional–even grateful. While these themes of struggle and survival certainly make their way into lyrical elements of the record, they do so with a sense of poetic distance–the voice of a wisened mind observing itself– taking stock of life’s inherent struggles with clarity and grace without any of the youthful naivete of trying to resolve them. As James asks himself on “Where We stand,” an apparent existential fist-pumper about life’s random suffering. “If you never get used to this, could you love it all in spite of what it is?”
Musical highlights on Oh God Ma’am abound– from the lush, meditative, dream world of love and its illusions “Good Mourning (They can’t break you now)”, or its bawdy antithesis, “Before the Fall,” a propulsive ode to youthful indiscretions reminiscent of Summerteeth era Wilco– the Sons of Bill are obviously committed students to the vast and varying decades of popular music. You can hear everything from Neil Young to New Order–insistent, dancey rhythms with an ethereal rock and roll swagger, all with the poetic distance and humility of Virginia boys who grew up listening to much older music. Those with a taste for the murky indie of the mid-aughts will sink into “Green to blue” and “Signal fade” while the driving hooks of “Believer / Pretender”, “Firebird 85”, and “Where We Stand” will quicken the pulse of any cinematic rock fan.
Sons of Bill essentially make roots music in the best sense of the term. For a modern genre that is often more sartorial than musical, Oh God Ma’am is the timely antidote– excavating the vast annals of traditional and popular music to craft a rare and refreshing album of nuance and depth in a confusing and overstimulated age. it’s a soundtrack of love and survival– in a time when it is a triumph to simply survive. As James harmonizes with Molly Parden on the duet “Easier”– all of the struggles, in art as in life, persist in the hope that someday “when it’s easier / they’ll know we were the vines that held / the walls upright / For all this time.”
WRINKLE NECK MULES
Wrinkle Neck MulesMost bands don’t make it to their second month much less deep into their second decade. Celebrating 15 years together in 2015, Wrinkle Neck Mules aren’t slowing down despite being a study in fits and starts, dichotomy and contrast. They have amassed a long list of bizarre accomplishments that hardly seem capable of attribution to the same band. They’ve been ridiculed by Don Imus on live TV, featured in a mainstream television commercial, and have recorded with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Reviewers called them both “ascendant and essential” and “under the radar.”
Essentially every term available in the Americana lexicon has been used to describe Wrinkle Neck Mules’ music: indie rock, Southern rock, roots rock, newgrass, bluegrass, country, alt-country, alt-Americana, and even something called “heavy folk metal.” They’ve earned all of these genre bending descriptions because they often flank their rock framework with country instrumentation and bluegrass-style singing. To further complicate matters, the band splits songwriting and lead vocal duties between Andy Stepanian and Chase Heard, resulting in tunes ranging from rustic and old-time to anthemic rock.
The band will release its 6th studio album, I Never Thought It Would Go This Far, on February 17, 2015. On the thirteen tracks, the band does not abandon its heritage but more often steers into lush and epic, often mellow, sonic territory rather than the more back porch stomping grounds of the past. The album was recorded live to analog tape in Barboursville, Virginia over eight days in May, 2014 with the help of engineer and co-producer Rob Evans (Dave Matthews Band, Old Calf).
Carl Anderson“I think the first thing I heard from the record was ‘Separate Ways’ and it immediately reminded me of the best parts of what I liked about Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. It took me back a bit to think that there wasn’t a wider audience that had heard it yet, and I wanted to figure out a way to change that.” It’s high praise to be compared to the gentleman who arguably invented the job description for every songwriter that came after him, especially on a debut record. But Don DiLego, who is releasing Carl Anderson’s LP Risk of Loss on Velvet Elk Records, is onto something. Carl Anderson, a young singer and songwriter from Virginia, has a rare authenticity, a quality that manages to be both self-assured and yet decidedly free from pretension– a subtle confidence and humility that puts him in step with an older stock of songwriter. It’s a voice that manages to be both virtuosic and yet free from airs; never outshining the simplicity his words; words that never outshine the song. And like all great songs, they always seem to dictate the motions of our hearts before our heads have time to figure out exactly what they’re about.
Carl Anderson’s story reads like the stuff of legend. It’s almost too perfect– like a page torn from the annals of the American Songbook, or the unread script of a made-for-TV special on what we want our artists to look like. Carl was born in rural Wolftown, Virginia to a father who was a part time folk singer and full-time wanderer. Known simply as “Virginia Slim” to his fellow travelers in the “hobo circuit”, Carl’s father had been riding trains across the country singing and working dead end jobs since leaving home at 10 years old. Though Carl was raised on the fidelity of a single mother that gave everything to her family, he still carries with him vague memories of his father as a charming man with a beautiful melancholic tenor that Carl’s mother would come to recognize in her own son. He was a man with obvious gifts, but with a darkness inside of him that only those who were closest to him were able to see. It was a darkness that wrecked his family, and left him unable to cope with a life that wasn’t in a constant state of unrest. Carl’s only distinct memories are of his mother gathering his brother and sister to leave the house in the dark of night when he was only 6 years old– fleeing a situation that had become too painful to bear.
When Carl hit his teenage years and found himself unequivocally drawn back to the same vocation of a father he barely knew, it must have been both enchanting as well as terrifying. As Carl sings on Different Darkness: “We’re not that different / same wanderlust, met with a different darkness / I can see his face in mine.” While the story itself might seem a like a vignette of songwriting folklore, for those who have to live with it, the pain is all too real.
The fact that Carl Anderson inherited a rare gift is clear, but what every artist can never know is the reality of whether that gift is going to save him or destroy him. The whole vocation is an act of faith that it’s worth the risk.
It’s this tension at the heart of Risk of Loss, not simply the story, that gives this particular collection of songs an unmistakable authenticity that hits you as a listener long before the depth of meaning sinks in. The substance and source of the melancholy and yearning that runs throughout the record remains deceptively elusive. It’s sometimes unclear precisely who the singer is addressing– a former lover, a father he barely knew, or even God– but this is precisely what makes Risk of Loss as purely compelling and universal as some of the best in a long tradition of American songwriting. It’s the sort of authenticity that can’t be cheaply bought like the archaic instruments and anachronistic outfits that plague the genre. Carl is finally doing what every great writer does– he is writing to discover who he is. A young man who was born to sing.