The gulf between like and love is heartbreaking. Think of that boy or girl you once loved. The one that didn’t love you back. The one that liked you. If there’s a more helpless, hopeless feeling than pinning I don’t know it. Songwriters love endless highways and rolling rivers, rainy days and dark endless nights. These simple ideas we all understand as metaphors for our loves and our losses. At best these are pastoral moments. I think of Dolly Parton’s My Blue Tears or Dwight Yoakam’s South of Cincinnati. Songs that transcend all the cliches of loneliness. I pick out these two songs, but the startling thing about singular talents like Yoakam and Parton is that they do it again and again. Sometimes I’ll put Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc.,Etc. on my turntable and feel it lift me physically out of myself like a great record should.
How easy to miss talent. Would I have known Yoakam’s songs were great from seeing him kicking around L.A. or hearing that rough demo tape he was passing out in the early 1980’s? I don’t know. Part of the problem is simply proximity. Talent is something to be seen or heard with the passage of time comfortably on your side. Part of the problem is trusting your gut.
Zoe Muth’s debut album with the Lost High Rollers, has one flaw. The lead off song You Only Believe Me When I’m Lying should read You Only Believe Me (When I’m Lying). I point this out only because it’s the only flaw on the entire record. Were this not a country album, I would have let it slide, but it is, so I won’t. Now, the songs here are sublime vignettes of heartbreak. There’s a Roger Miller quality to her songwriting, a cleverness of wordplay, and sad clown, mixed with these almost, but not quite, familiar melodies. The pulse of the music is slow, never rushing toward the inevitable. It’s the sound of a girl, road-worn and weary, her voice slightly husky and if not quite resigned it’s because the toughness of the world she accepts. These are not songs of resentment or pity, so much as simple truths simply put.
The record opens with a moan from Country Dave Harmonson’s pedal steel, behind him is the subtle country backbone of Miguel Salas and then Jason Stewart’s banjo slides into the mix as things begin to pick up until the whole thing comes together behind Zoe’s claim of playing it cool. She does too, with this song about unfeedable jealousy and falling out of love, but not quite.
The rollicking Hey Little Darlin’ is knuckles on a door. A sore and bruised hand is all that comes from that, but this quick two step will occupy in other ways if you let it. When I Used To Call My Heart a Home is about as traditional as it gets with the chime bells intro and the lazy slap of the drums. This is a soft anthem for waitresses and baristas who’ve been hit on and picked up one too many times. She might still let you, but don’t expect her to laugh at all of your jokes.
The greyhound is to my generation what I think the train was to my father’s. Sure, I’ve sat and watched the old trains go by and walked along tracks, but I’ve spent hard time on a bus. Head leaning against the cold glass, a little wet, and feel the road’s vibrations. No place to go, nothing really to look at until eventually you feel like an extra in a Larry McMurtry novel. The Last Bus captures all that for me, the hunger, the anonymity.
Such True Love should have been my Albuquerque anthem. The evening sun there is matched by no other evening sun. Keep you Hawaiian paradise and give me that old desert one more time. Albuquerque, for me, seemed to be mostly about relationships ending. Most of them didn’t even really begin. This song in it’s repetition and elemental metaphors all point toward those endings. One of the few lines on the album that doesn’t completely work for me is in the last verse where Zoe sings “There’s far too many rich folks in this town”. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t disagree with the sentiment, at least if we’re talking Seattle. Albuquerque certainly doesn’t have too many rich people living there. That isn’t a criticism of Albuquerque. The line jars me out of the song a bit, though she reels me back in when she offers love over diamonds. That I can understand.
Country music in Seattle can seem a bit incongruous. But, only if we forget our roots. In the post depression cities where the country people found themselves living honky-tonks sprung up to give them a electrified version of the old home place. As much as the home place was romanticized, the new urban world seemed cold and lonely. That was certainly my feeling for a number of years and that’s what connects me to Middle of Nowhere. In an earlier blog, Chop Suey, I wrote about Edward Hopper’s paintings he did of women in the 1930’s joining the workforce for the first time. There’s a lonesomeness to those paintings that capture the hustle and bustle of the city of disconnected people. Middle of Nowhere has that same feeling for me. Painted faces, alone at a table for two. Marvelous.
Not You is the Loretta Lynn song. Listen to the lyrics, “Been keeping your boots shiny and clean / But when you come home to me you never wipe them off you just sit down in front of the TV screen. It’s cynically resigned to the ways of a man. The Running Kind was one of the initial standout tracks for me. It lilts easily with Ethan’s bittersweet mandolin lines floating over the action. I once kissed a pretty, wind swept Oklahoma girl on a New Year’s Eve afternoon. This song is that kiss.
Every country album needs a real good two-step. A pause in time to hold someone tight and spin around a hardwood floor. I’ve also written about listening to melodies before lyrics. This song snakes into my boots so easily I still haven’t really listened to the words. All I need to hear though is “the softer the touch the harder you’re let down” and let the rhythm do the rest.
The album is a long one, and it takes some time to get around all its sides. I mentioned earlier that parenthesis are missing on the title of track one. The two minute country song is also missing. That’s not so much a fault as an observation. When Zoe slips into My Old Friend with its mournful bluegrass feel, accentuated by the sweetest lap style guitar by Country Dave, it’s the beginning of the end. It’s last call.
Which would make Wasting My Time the “leave with who brung ya” song. Except it questions that very logic, as it must be from time to time. Then there’s the morning after. Never Be Fooled Again is quite possibly the best song I’ve heard this past year. It’s nostalgia for all those hard, broken times. For the times before that. It strikes me that nostalgia is a type of bitter hope. If this is an album of lost relationships then it surely starts young. Children remember their parent’s fights. Their fuck-up Dad’s and Mom’s with cold, cold, hearts. This is the second song that mentions men and their TVs. I suppose there’s a lesson there though. A man can get used to being talked to, and when that’s gone something needs to fill the void, but that doesn’t explain the times when he’s not alone. This isn’t only his song though, it’s her song too. “When Hank Williams cries and Bill Monroe hits those high notes I know in our darkest hour there’s still a light shining down inside.”
The funny thing about a good heartache song is it doesn’t make you feel bad, it makes you feel better. Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers haven’t given up on love so much as look it straight in the eye. Great albums don’t come along all that often, this is one to pay attention too.
Post Script: Zoe Muth will be performing live on Walkin’ the Floor with Iaan Hughes on Sunday, May 30th, at 8am. Live on KBCS 91.3fm and streaming and archived at http://www.kbcs.fm