Again, apologies for the absence; things have been nutty. I went to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, work was crazy, and now things are slowing down a bit around the holidays. So I’m going to clue you in on one of my best musical discoveries this year, and next week I’ll be publishing my 2008 top 10.
It’s rare for me, but love at first listen happens and this past autumn, it was love at first listen for me with the band These United States, who are DC-based but hail at least in part from Kentucky, and so get their country-roots-rock pedigree honestly.
It’s no secret that I love roots rock. Give me Springsteen, The Band, The Stones, etc., and I’m a happy camper. Much as Britpop and Scottish indie have made their way into my cynical little heart, I like American music, as the Violent Femmes might say, or at least music from which you can trace a direct ancestry back to Robert Johnson and the devil at the crossroads. When I listen to Springsteen or The Band or The Stones, it’s less like passively listening to music and more like taking a long, cold drink of water on a hot day. It’s nourishing and satisfying in a way that pop/rock music rooted in other traditions just isn’t for me, and certainly it’s the love of a twangy guitar that made me stop chatting to my friends and pay attention when These United States played at the Sunset Tavern here in Seattle a few months ago.
I was there to see another band, the band of a friend of a friend, and These United States opened for that band. They look like a Weird Beard band like Iron & Wine or Fleet Foxes (this categorization is courtesy my friend Anne, who loathes the Nouveau Freak Folk that has oh-so-gently propagated in the Northwest indie scene over the past few years), all scruff and plaintive eyes, but lead singer Jesse Elliott has an intelligent, academic edge to him that lets him write and perform lyrics about Custer’s Last Stand, Mark Twain, Johnny Appleseed and other self-conscious bits of Americana and get away magnificently with the archness of it all. On the opener, “West Won,” Elliott references the Cain and Abel story (but seemingly in the same vein that the story is used in Steinbeck novels; as a tale of the emotional torment and filial failing of Cain rather than a simple tale of murder) along with Dionysus, who is drinking booze “at the back of the bus” to paint a lyrical picture of desperation.
With a sweeping melody, “West Won” evokes the landscape of the Western United States, occasionally harsh and unforgiving, desperate and dry.
Crimes is actually the second album These United States put out in 2008. The first is called A Picture of the Three of Us At the Gate to the Garden of Eden and my reaction to it was an overwhelming sense of “meh” to be honest. I think Crimes is far more interesting. Where A Picture… is mellow, and, dare I say, even fits with the Weird Beard genre a little, though These United States are a lot more edgy than Fleet Foxes and their ilk, Crimes is capable of rocking out. I highly recommend purchasing Crimes, but my recommendation for A Picture… is much more lukewarm. It almost sounds like two different bands produced the albums and it will be interesting to see if the These United States of Crimes sticks around or if they evolve into something new again.
The band veers nearly into straight-up country on “Those Low Country Girls,” a rollicking party song about, um, girls.
Certainly the star of the show on this album is Elliott’s voice, which reminds me a tiny bit of Levon Helm in its ability to crack and break at just the right moment in a song, like in The Band’s “Tears of Rage” and These United States’ “Heaven Can Wait” or to drop into a lower register to rouse his bandmates’ into party-mode, like in The Band’s “Chest Fever” and These United States’ “Low Country Girls.” (Note: Elliott reminds me of Helm just a little; I do not pretend that he is the second coming of Helm, whose voice is nearly unmatched in rock, though adding some honky tonk piano a la The Band might be good for These United States).
“When You’re Traveling At the Speed of Light” is the closing number on Crimes ends with the repeated refrain “if the thing that drives you onward is your heart you must not let that engine die” shouted by many voices after the instruments have ceased, and this was the repeated refrain that These United States ended their set at the Sunset with as well. It’s powerful coming from this band, after an album full of copious references to our American ancestors (the Cain and Abel story, even, having particular resonance in a country formed by revolution), to suddenly fade out on a song about the heart. It’s as if These United States are talking about the things that form the heart of America, and I think they are successful in getting a message across about the idea of moving forward, engines (steam trains, cars, hearts, souls, everything else that made this country able to be crossed) at-the-ready. You can say what you want about the truth or untruth of that idea, or about its ramifications for the people who inhabited the land before us whities arrived, but it’s a powerful image, and a fantastic way to wrap up the album.