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When the S.S. Americana lists, skulls shatter across the decks. Once admired for its century-old charm, this ship’s slowly been reduced to a kitschy youth hostel, mere moments away from having its own Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill franchise.
When some Midwestern kids stowed away in the late ’80s to slip the punks, it was essentially a nursing home. They revived the oasis of simplicity and straightforwardness by connecting to a less mannered style of music and expression, like the musical equivalent of the Simple Living movement.
Then, more than a decade later, Clooney and those Coen boys came aboard. Suddenly beards, banjos, fiddles and four-part harmonies proliferated like Starbucks. As Dylan noted, you don’t need a weather map to know which way the wind blows: Increasingly, artists are jumping ship and swimming off in their own direction, or at least establishing a new look in their own quarters.
Some of these deserters have been on their own voyage for years. Foremost among these is Lambchop auteur Kurt Wagner. His early ’90s efforts worked a jazzy countrypolitan mien, but over time, Stax and Philly soul influences have held greater sway. Frequently backed by full string and horn sections, his music offers a singular blend of chamber pop and lounge-like languor. The early country strains are there if you lean in, but these days, he’s much closer to a more approachable Rufus Wainwright than a more refined George Jones.
Transplanted locals Megafaun also started close to the Americana camp before making for its fringes. Formed from the ashes of DeYarmond Edison, which also spawned Bon Iver, Megafaun allowed three jazz-trained musicians to start from an earthy foundation of shuffling roots before adding various bits of exotica: Banjos and harmonies abut Afro rhythms. Cosmic country morphs into ’70s soft rock. Rock, psych and piano ballads sprinkle over roots music; they are even game to back someone like avant garde minimalist composer Arnold Dreyblatt for an entire tour.
Indeed, the breakdown of radio and the major label system has proved a boon. Conformity just doesn’t have the same payoff. Absent label money, why not pursue your muse all the way down the long tail into the niche that suits you best? If many people never listen to an entire album, why not record a couple off-beat tracks? Or an entire off-beat album, for that matter?
That appears to be the attitude of Damien Jurado. The Seattle songwriter enjoyed a long run on indie titan Sub Pop as he made spare, somewhat gritty folk. He’s never been afraid of the occasional curveball, like 2002’s vibrant, rocking I Break Chairs. When finances forced him to let go of his band, the situation offered an excuse to trace a very different path. Working with producer-songwriter Richard Swift, Jurado’s recorded two very different albums. The first, 2010’s Saint Bartlett, is moody and textured folk rock, as though Neil Young were stuck in a meditative moment. The follow-up, the new Maraqopa, is still layered but even dreamier, ensconced somewhere between the tender beauty of The Moody Blues and the psychedelic drift of The Flaming Lips. His folk past twinkles through in the most perfect moments.
Evolution’s the word for any artist, especially when so many similar bands battle for diminishing attention. For newer Americana acts, the need to create something distinctive from the jump feels more pressing than ever.
In the case of Curtis Eller, it’s a matter of doubling down on his own iconoclastic nature: The New York transplant to Durham draws on a mix of early 20th-century influences, like the Squirrel Nut Zippers with more emphasis on twang than swing. The son of a circus operator, Eller has carnival barker in his soul. Perhaps that’s the source of his music’s loose, lively gait. The signatures of other styles flit like shadows across the background, such as on “Queen of Detroit,” which channels a dark Klezmer groove.
The same holds for M.C. Taylor’s undulating music as Hiss Golden Messenger. With multi-instrumentalist Scott Hirsch, Taylor anchored Cali indie-country act The Court & Spark until a few years ago. That atmospheric, western-tinged country is the basis on which Taylor built HGM. While soporific, it’s less psychedelic than Laurel Canyon languor, made taut by whining pedal steel and strong country-soul undertow. It’s hypnotic without being particularly cosmic and stealthily downbeat, as on the peripatetic “Jesus Shot Me in the Head.”
There’s even more restless energy among younger acts just launching their first releases: Charleston’s Shovels & Rope, for instance, are new in name more than deed. Cary Ann Hearst’s been making the rounds as a singer-songwriter for years, while Michael Trent helmed the Strokes/ Walkmen-ish Denver band The Films. Their Johnny-and-June country harmonies and murder-ballad moods balance a garage-soul rumble, rambling ’60s rock and horn-abetted swing, especially on the destruction-heralding “Hail Hail,” off their August debut O’ Be Joyful.
Secret Mountains also began as a duo, but singer Kelly Laughlin and guitarist Jeffrey Silverstein were looking for something bigger. The result is an expansive, gently modulating sound keyed to Laughlin’s croon, which lingers over the music. It’s spacious like stuff that drifts into cosmic country, as well as a kind of hippy-soul. With only two EPs under their belt and a full-length in progress, they’re yet quite green. Still, the sextet’s already demonstrated their versatility and broad-mindedness, both qualities of bands finding vitality outside of how purists might hope to limit Americana.
While Americana may not enjoy the commercial cachet of Nashville, the style’s been a critical rage for long enough that it’s wildly overbooked. When there’s so much conversation in the room you can’t make yourself heard, what else can you do but abandon ship or set fire to the centerpiece? Fortunately, there seems to be as many ways to blow it up as to build it anew.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Chumming the oceans.”