Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Everly Brothers: Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (1958)



In this space we have dissected the evolving career of the Everly Brothers, their move from Cadence to Warner Bros. and their gradual shift from vital if incongruous young pop stars to institutional statesmen, guest stars in their own career. Surely we'll discuss that much more in the future, for this is one of the bands that, all told, means the most to me across the years. But that brings up the equally interesting matter of how the group's first decade of music has morphed with the years, fitting and refitting to changing times and trends. In the same manner as the Beatles, whose progression has been reinterpreted with each decade since they imploded, the utility of the Everlys has changed dramatically by now. Indeed, it's to such an extent that their hits now seem unlikely and incredibly noncommercial, while their riskiest and most eccentric album now seems like it could've come along yesterday.

That album is their second, the ethereal and minimalistic Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, a defiantly backward-looking production that stands in complete contrast to every conceivable notion of rock & roll in the '50s, within or without the Everlys' own twists upon the genre. Containing no singles and no upbeat selections, it is exactly what its homey title suggests: a flashback to the boys' childhood, of music emanating from their father Ike's guitar and ringing off the walls for years on end. You can almost hear the clatter of those bygone times, the expanse of Kentucky all around -- it can't be stressed enough how far this strays from an LP in the standard pop idiom, how much it flexes its genuine Appalachian origins, and how remarkably prescient this album-length expression of individuality is. And in the era of the indie-folk revival brought forth by artists like Iron & Wine and Horse Feathers, the record seems eerily timeless -- far more so, for instance, than the Byrds' first two records or anything recorded by most of the '60s folk-rockers. The Everlys' great innovation here may be to leave their influences, their literal closest possible influence indeed, unadorned, to present and document like musical archivists. In this sense and in the sense of the pleasure in the beauty of the recording, the album is a major success, and indeed the best of their golden period. Years hence they'd explore these themes again in their finest full-length LP, Roots, but this album captures something simpler and in some ways more effective.

It's no accident that one's mind wanders more to Bill Monroe than to Elvis or Buddy Holly when Phil and Don carefully wander through "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet"; one reason this all is a godsend to the connoisseur of American folk music is its utterly unashamed directness, a clear genealogical bloodline to an earlier period that the band sees fit to leave be. They don't trump these songs up or alter them to fit their own style -- quite the opposite, which might at the time have seemed a disappointment to their many fans (this was the peak of their popularity) or an artistically lazy decision, but on the eve of their departure from Cadence they must clearly have seen this as a golden opportunity, perhaps the only opportunity, to acknowledge their true origins. It's fortunate for us that they did so, likely in defiance of all commercial concerns. Those with great love for the Everlys' discography will note that this is more of a piece with their general concerns than it may first appear -- "Oh So Many Years" has the calm, casual romance of something like "Let It Be Me" if fewer friendly flourishes, and "I'm Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail" is a sweetly weepy moment of "Take a Message to Mary" melodrama. But if these selections clue us in to what sparked these men to their genius in the beginning, it seems incidental compared to its purity as an act of love.

The songs are all traditional pieces, some better known than others, some dating back as far as the seventeenth century, nearly all staples of the early 20th century folk repertoire, but (with the exception of opening "Roving Gambler," at least, and the inexhaustible "Down in the Willow Garden") fading in general cultural presence and influence by 1958. Songs Our Daddy Taught Us likely did little to alter this course at the time, but it quietly planted seeds and its intentions would be echoed later by Bob Dylan and the Band in the late '60s when a return to simplicity and rootsiness would become the order of the day, cosigned by a small army of eager record companies. But no one might ever have rendered, while remaining true to their signature of close harmony and deliberately strummed acoustic guitar, so ghostly and delicate an artifact in the name of this scope of influences. The smoky simplicity of "Roving Gambler" has far less of its impact in the hands of more distant singers like Simon & Garfunkel, who later covered it, and for all the starkness, something happens to you when the voices soar over everything, and tradition becomes something inescapably present.

The same phenomenon of vocals rising, towering immeasurably over miniscule arrangements serve the Brothers well on "Long Time Gone" and "Barbara Allen," but on this record the carefully cultivated blend and complement in Phil and Don is more expressive than ever, as the age-old insights and emotions in these songs do something new to them, to our ears but not to theirs. They know these songs well, they're rattled to their core by them and feel every second of them, they fall in love with them and rebel against them, they hear their upbringing and their early lives in them, and they hear "young man, I think you're dying" in them. It's a remarkably sustained, haunting performance of unflagging intensity. "Haunting" is too trite a word, especially for the goosebump-inducing take on the deeply disturbing Appalachian (but with European origins) murder ballad "Down in the Willow Garden," the most singularly Gothic recording in the Everly archives and maybe the most gorgeous, which is saying a good deal.

"Directness" is the operative word for all this. Every song is a good one, logically arranged and passionately sung, and every word in the title is unmistakably true -- and then, so more than ever is every word of the band name. Big friendly block letters on the front cover tell us precisely who these two men are, and it was never more relevant. They are the sons of Ike Everly, who taught them these songs, and they are brothers, and that is significant because the family thematics in "Rockin' Alone (In an Old Rockin' Chair)" and "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine" and even "Lightning Express" mean everything, in an impressively unsentimental and matter-of-fact manner. You can hear the history as much as you can hear the place, which is finally explicitly called out in "Kentucky" (though we should mention that only Don was born there, yet it seeps from every note): everything you'd want from purest and most meaningful Americana, a paean to "the dearest land outside of Heaven to me," and without any editorializing on their part except the kind that comes from a tic in the voice and a waver in a high harmony, the essence of a stunningly mature statement about growth, loss and memory from two men, one barely in his twenties and one not there yet.

Cadence Classics: 20 Greatest Hits (1957-60)
The Everly Brothers (1958)
Walk Right Back: Warner Years (1960-69)

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