In more ways than are probably worth counting, the devil’s admirably present in the details 11 songs deep on the disc that begins with “Diablo Diablo.” Dollar Foxes’ petal-to-the-metal country rocker, “The Letter,” deals with the devil of unwanted communication, while Cadillac Flambe’s “The Devil’s Heavy 12,” offers a revenge tale straight out of a particularly gothic Spaghetti western—made transcendent by an operatic bridge worthy of Ennio Morricone. The nemeses in The Atlantic’s “Dixie is Dead” sport devils on the back of one’s hand and in the palm of the other. Unlike “The Letter,” which suggests confrontation can be put off inevitably, both the Cadillac Flambe and Atlantic songs insist on the inevitable fight to the death. Taken together, these three songs work like a suite, moving from both the sound and resignation of ever weightier country in the first two songs to thrashing metal anguish on “Dixie is Dead.”
That progression nicely sets up the arrival of Hammerlord , followed by Expo ’70 and Umberto. Hammerlord hits hard, the band’s dual guitar (grounded-by-bass) attack both massive and perhaps lightning fast enough to offset the Devil-God of a femme fatale “Kali Bundy.” [BTW, contender for year’s best song title?] And though Expo ’70 would probably give its free ranging drone music any title but metal, this cut, “Closet Full of Candles,” centers on a classically heavy rock march through a nightmare landscape fraught with electronic improvisation that calls to mind all varieties of goth-metal horror. As the song suggests, though the landscape sounds huge—like a swamp gas lit battlefield—it may be even scarier to think it no larger than the confines of Carrie’s prayer room. Umberto’s “JonBenet” calls to mind devils unmentionable with keyboard progressions weaving tapestries followed by pointillist electronic starlight and wordless choral counterpoints. It's the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey carrying you somewhere a good deal scarier than the edge of the universe.
By contrast, it’s a relief to hear Akkilles’ “She’s Alright.” Guitar and banjo strings gently accompany this meditation on acceptance. If there’s a devil being come to terms with here, it’s the self—“it’s too late to be the good guy.” But then, despite the very real systemic evil that surrounds us, that devil we know best is often the most vexing. La Guerre’s beautifully sung “23” tackles a similar fight for dignity in a similarly isolated electronic meditation. Completing this suite of self exploration, Gemini Revolution’s acid trip of a composition, “Through the Woods,” starts off like some transcendental walk through a neighborhood park, but it truly gets otherworldly when the backing vocals emerge, offering a bigger vision tied to some sense of community.
The lonesome ballad, “Something to Eat,” by Hidden Pictures starts with simple acoustic guitar, but soon finds the day-glow texturing of the music that came before. In a song about simple keys to happiness, the unnamed key is the one the listener recognizes in Richard Gintowt's and Michelle Sanders' beautiful vocals. As the song itself discovers, the main thing—the act of loving and being loved--is always a work in progress—like friendship, like community, like a life worth living, like a song sung well.
And somewhere in that truth lay a bunch more dust devils behind the curtain. Abigail Henderson takes a broom to those devils with Tiny Horse’s “Ride,” asking a series of questions about what to do at the end of a struggle, at a point of arrival—“Dishes in the sink, and our love on the brink, and the mistakes we make are finally our own.” Though it’s a song about learning to live with limits, it’s also a song that refuses to surrender to the worst demon of all—spiritual defeat.
Fortunately for us, the characters in this song can’t simply muster up some unearned faith. This ain’t no “Don’t Stop Believing.” What Henderson’s voice and Chris Meck’s guitar agree on are a few simple principles. It starts with our need for one another and a call to “ride with me tonight,” and lyrically it can’t reach much further—it can only yearn to “remember what it means to chase a little something.” And the sound they make together does just that—Henderson’s world-weary vocal, turning over each syllable intent on discovery and Meck’s delicately probing guitar sweeping light through this darkness like only he can. This is visionary music, and, by that, I mean the vision’s actually in the music's interaction with the lyric.
Of course, any of the 1,100+ Facebook friends of the Midwest Music Foundation know that the organization grew out of Henderson and Meck’s vision, informed by and maintained despite a long fought war against cancer and the vagaries of the health care system. I say this because for all my talk about personal demons here, this is a song that knows the real world is even more dangerous than we think, so the struggle between the personal and political here is inextricably linked. There’s no answering one without addressing the other, and that’s why, even when we’re left facing nothing but ourselves...our pitiful, bedeviled selves, working together, may be just what we need. They're certainly all we have.
It was “Ride” that told me I had to write about this compilation. And it was “Ride” that said I needed to chase it not in some general way but song for song. The first time I’d played both CDs, somewhere south of Chicago on a rainy November night, I hit repeat on that last cut over and over—Matt Richey’s opening martial drums, Zach Phillips’ pulsing bass, Cody Wyoming’s ethereal mists of keys and Chris Meck’s searching guitar ushered in Henderson's hard fought questions and urgent plea. And it was this song’s quiet beauty that called to me when I lost steam after a couple of blogs and scrambled to find a new hand hold with Part 3. Just as Meck’s guitar alternately caresses and provokes Henderson’s calls to “chase a little something,” the record kept pulling me forward.
Thank you to everyone involved. Happy New Year!
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