Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Chatham County Line: Wildwood (2010)
This stylish, gifted band is one of my favorite examples to cite of the weird ways in which great music can come to one's attention. About two years ago, I was spinning records at a bar and was on an alt-country kick with Old Crow, Old 97's, the Avett Brothers, and Whiskeytown; a girl who'd been playing pool and very clearly dug the genre requested something from Chatham County Line. I confessed I'd never heard them; she was amazed and said I needed to. I wrote it down and looked it up, got their albums Route 23 and IV, and immediately became a fan -- dark, theatrical, but sly, they had a terrifically evocative sound and songs to back it up, plus the near-perfect vocals of frontman Dave Wilson (vaguely suggestive of Roger McGuinn at his friendliest). It was a pleasant surprise last week when I suddenly discovered that they were to release a new album on the 13th.
Disregarding Old Crow Medicine Show's dogged pursual of bluegrass purity, Chatham County Line is the only current band I'm aware of with what seems like an actual determination to test how far the aesthetic and temperament of alt-country can go. I feel the Avetts (with whom they share North Carolina roots), for reasons I hope to explain in a future post, were scaracely "alt" to begin with. Old 97's, for my money one of the finest bands in all rock & roll, abandoned the form one record into a major label deal. But CCL are identifiably "alternative" the way that Iron & Wine is, as much as Iron & Wine's records may sound like lilting folk music. For the Line, as much as they may love it, country is a style, a means to an end, and they are as obsessed with their sound and its conjuring of a wall of beauty as Kevin Shields. Discovered by Chris Stamey from the dB's (compare Old Crow, discovered by Doc Watson), the band writes witty, modern-sounding songs that cherry-pick the liberal heart's favorite aspects of country -- all the death and heartbreak and class struggle but little of the God-and-country -- and pepper their lyrics with self-deprecating humor and cultured sarcasm, attempting constantly to gently push a reluctant country music into a new century. I don't mean it as an insult to country to say that the attention to detail here is rare for the genre, nor do I mean to suggest that attention to detail is automatically a good thing. But by the time of IV, their music was so brilliantly calculated and so achingly beautiful it felt as though they could go no further.
In truth, outside of a few instrumental augmentations (piano!), they really haven't, and their extraordinary previous album IV remains their greatest to date (in other words, get it first), but they have recorded possibly the most straightforwardly gorgeous album of the year. You may only remember a couple of the songs after they're over, but you will never want to turn the disc off while it's on. Wildwood expands on IV mostly in the sense that it adds a noticeable sheen to which some purists will object, but I like it; the record is enveloping, full of inviting and homegrown delicacy, like some lost '70s Neil Young project only with prettier vocals. If Chatham County Line sacrifice anything at all in authenticity, the sheer and hypnotic pleasure of their music compensates entirely.
The title track (embedded above) ably sets the stage for what's to follow. Stark lyrics collide with wintry harmonies and an incongrously spacious sound, full of music-hall echo and an effective (if very studio-generated) hint of backwoods menace. To boot, the explicit reference to a line in a previous cut ("Nowhere to Sleep," the opening track of Route 23 and probably my favorite CCL song) points toward further winking ironies throughout the album. (One song consists solely of quotes from rock and pop hits of the past, like a lyrical version of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet's "16 Encores.") This could even well be a nod to the Avetts, who sequel the pleading "If It's the Beaches" with the cynical "I Would Be Sad," the latter reflective of new confidence and maturity as much as pessimism. The same could be said for "Wildwood" as it looks back with a snort on earlier convictions, but unlike the Avett Brothers, Chatham County Line sound more determined than ever to make their alternative bluegrass an uncompromised, universal product.
You can find a certain surprising honesty here as well. Wilson tackles a number of subjects other alt-countryites are unlikely ever to sing about. "Alone in New York," outwardly a straightforward ballad about getting the blues in a crowd full of strangers, plays almost as a blunt repudiation of the light NPR-program-bumper lifestyle (and Starbuck's promotional synergy) to which so many folkie indie rockers now owe their living. But he and his band know they fit the profile -- here with their calmness, their reluctance to show excessive emotion even set against the mournful lyric. I disagree with Chuck Klosterman's complaints of the alt-country community being a consortium of fakery, but a song like "Porcelain Doll" does conjure up his vision of the slick, the intellectual, the upper-rung, not too many miles away from the chuckling Prairie Home Companion audience and admittedly a longshot from the populism of (in my opinion, creatively bankrupt) mainstream country. Not that it's a bad song, just that it leaves no mystery about which world Chatham County Line is in and which they're not. Oh, and there's a song called "Ghost of Woody Guthrie," which is about exactly that.
But two tracks stand well apart and may suggest the sound of the next record. In contrast with the "big" sound of the rest of the album, "Crop Comes In" reins it all in for a much more natural and less sterile "band" sound, consciously built with space to breathe rather than just fill, albeit with still surprisingly slick production values. (But then, it may be hard not to sound slick with today's technology; perhaps the labored poser move these days would be an attempt to "age" the sound, to replicate the wobbly tape of the past. I'm not sure.) The album's best track by a relative longshot is the extraordinary "Blue Jay Way" (not a Beatles cover, to my initial disappointment), a delicate, hauntingly sparse and beautiful Appalachian waltz. Dave Wilson has never sounded so fragile and passionate, and the band's instruments have never been put in service of a piece so atmospheric and moving. And though absent of aggression, it has that integral grit in its vocals and raw texture, thereby in fact taking their music someplace heretofore unimagined without abandoning their niche, no Rick Rubin production required. Entirely separated from any of this, though, the song is still a treasure, a work of purest loveliness, sadness, pleasure.
If all the references to the "other" North Carolina coffeehouse country band seem superfluous, I apologize; such comparisons are inevitable as I eagerly track the progress of both groups through the years. I find myself curious about where Chatham County Line will take their act next; they sound interested in big things, if not destined for them. I don't think they have an eye toward trying to become national roots-rock heroes. I don't think they want to adhere to a formula either. I think they may be onto something, something vaguely new, with the way this bluegrass passes forth at times into a kind of aural soundscape -- but that's only mildly touched on here. And we needn't worry too much about it yet. It's rare that you capture a functioning band in this moment when writing new songs and recording them is enough to keep the planet's attention and their own. Let's enjoy it.