The Life in the Songwriting of Two Cow Garage – Part I

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Several months ago I went to see Two Cow Garage play. They had a local band opening for them and this local band has a bit of a following in town, has put out a record and played a few, but not many shows out of town. I had heard a song or two on the radio but never thought much about them. Needless to say, when they opened for Two Cow I was not a fan.

I don’t mean to band hate, and I hope you don’t see this as that, but their songs were about parties and if you couldn’t catch the meaning during the song the members of the band told us between songs that “this song is about…”. And they “rock-out” on stage but in such a way that they were trying to prove that their songs were rocking. That’s a terrible description but I’m sure all of you have seen what I’m talking about.

micahTwo Cow songs are about life not about lifestyle. There might be songs about drinking too much but they’re phrased in regret instead of celebration. I only started thinking about these two bands and the juxtaposition because a few nights after the show a friend asked me what I thought of the opener. I said it wasn’t my thing and he asked why, and I had to think about it. There are consequences and desperation in Micah and Shane’s songs. There is no escaping in those songs, no casual “it’ll all work out” and no hipster indifference.

Let’s rewind a decade and look at 2004’s The Wall Against Our Back. I think Micah was about 21 when these songs were written and recorded. There is a healthy bit of teen angst within these songs but there is also plenty of foreshadowing to the subjects and worldview he would spend the next decade writing and obsessing about.

Make It Out Alive

“Make It Out Alive” isn’t the most ingenious song title ever and it seems clear that the lyrics are written by a 21 year old songwriter but what is present and clear is a sense of desperation. I need desperation in music, I need to know that other people have felt it and survived. “Make It Out Alive” is a precursor for what’s to come for the band while also making a statement about what Two Cow is not. They are not a band that writes about running away from the cops or the fun of getting so fucked up you can’t really remember the night before. I don’t need those songs but I need Two Cow songs.

135

But the line from The Wall Against Our Back that makes me smile the most comes from “135”. I know I’m pulling one line out of a song and using it to illustrate a larger point, but just follow me a little longer. When Micah sings “never really stopped to think it all through, about the things we’ve done wrong” I can’t help but laugh a little. In the context of “135” it may be an accurate statement but what Micah was already starting to do, and what he and Shane have both done in the decade since is think it all through over and over and over again, both about the things done wrong and things not done. The way I see it, back in 2004 Two Cow Garage was defining the themes of their songwriting; desperation and regret (and I don’t feel like regret is the absolute right word here, but it’s as close as my handle of the English language allows)

shaneI don’t know Micah or Shane so I have no desire to infer or speculate about personal issues, but I’ll speak a little about mine. Depression is a part of my life, always has been and always will be. If you’ve read things from me here or on Facebook or Twitter you’ve probably heard that before. I’m also firmly in the camp of people that prefer to acknowledge the condition instead of hiding it. There is no shame in depression and the more people that accept that fact the easier it is for people like me to cope.

I am often drawn to art that expresses emotions like sadness, frustration, desperation and loneliness. I’ve had the conversation with multiple people, not just about music but books and movies, about not finding sad art sad. I didn’t realize I was drawn to these emotions in art until I was working in a bookstore. I often made recommendations and when the customers would return I would ask if they enjoyed the books they bought based on my suggestions. More than a few times I heard they had enjoyed them but that they were terribly sad. I had to give this some thought.

There is a comfort in sad songs that provides great joy. From them you can see that you aren’t the only one who’s ever felt the way you’re feeling and even if it’s through speakers or letters on a page, you’re not alone. I don’t know if I’d call many of Two Cow’s songs sad, but in my eyes, they come from writers who understand sadness. The emotion manifests itself as desperation and regret and by the time they released Three in 2007 these themes were front and center.

*In part two I’ll talk about a couple of songs on Three as well as try to find the value and beauty in being able embrace the sadness in life.  

LEE BAINS III & THE GLORY FIRES – DERECONSTRUCTED

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The following is my review of the new Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires record. I don’t talk about the sound or the music a lot, so let me get that out of the way now: it’s loud, forceful Alabama punk rock’n’soul that makes you want to sing and shake and stomp and sweat. Lee Bains, Eric Wallace, and Adam and Blake Williamson are a potent machine, creating a wall of sound that is a pure joy to listen to in its interplay. This record doesn’t sound like their last record, it sounds more like their live show. Plenty of people have written about it, from the New York Times to NPR, people who have written about music a lot more than I have. I’m not very good at writing about sounds so I’ll leave that to them. I’m interested in something much bigger than the sound of this record.

You may have seen the stellar in-depth write-up on Bitter Southerner by Chuck Reece, and if you haven’t I suggest all of you go ahead and read it right now. You’ll get a lot of history of Lee, and a lot of the context for this record that is vitally important. One of the most striking things that Lee says is in response to a question that Mr. Reece posed to him, “Why did you make this record?” The following is a piece of Lee’s answer, a line, a scrap, but one that I feel is of the utmost importance: “The South is not the object here. The South is merely my context, that abiding point in space and spirit from whence I encounter creation.”

This is absolutely a record by a boy from Birmingham, Alabama. The geographical origin of this record, though, is neither its be-all or end-all. Lee has a lot to say on this album that may get overlooked in the face of its power and gall; reviewers and listeners not used to  parsing every line may miss the forest for the trees, and with a record like De-Reconstructed that would be a shame. I don’t want to dwell too long on the points that will no doubt earn Lee and his band well-deserved adulation, but there are a few points regarding this album that I believe are worth making: the issues broached are more than just Southern issues, it breaks with many conventions of whatever-the-hell genre this is, and it is an active protest record in every sense of the word.

If you haven’t taken the time to read the lyrics along with the record, you absolutely should: they’re available at the band’s website. Once you dig a little deeper than the soulful and frequently shouted verses, you’ll find a breadth of references to everything from biblical history to current events to Lee’s own family members. “We Dare Defend Our Rights!”, a song referencing the state motto of Alabama, opens with the crushing inequalities such a motto can represent: the 16th Street Baptist church bombing in 1963, the modern fight for gay rights, and the plight of immigrants in the country legally or otherwise. Although the framing of these issues is the South, the issues themselves are anything but; in Bains’ eyes (as in mine), you cannot frame gay rights or immigrant rights as anything other than a Civil Rights issue. As the generation who holds views like ‘homosexuality as sin’ grows older (but not yet old enough to no longer hold political office), and a more tolerant generation begins to make their voice heard, there will be friction. It is hard to imagine the “hollering in the streets” that Lee references as anything other than Occupy-like protests. He even references that movement directly, in “The Company Man”: “Remember Woodruff Park, where America’s step-kids sang ‘We Shall Overcome'”. Occupy Atlanta was in Woodruff Park for 20 days before they were arrested, and indeed “Hauled off down Andrew Young!”

The Occupy movement is anything but absolutely Southern, though it is no surprise that it took hold in the South. Discontent and protest may not always have the same symptoms but you can bet damn sure the disease that sent countless hundreds to Wall Street in 2011 sent many more to a park in Atlanta. The Reconstruction, a series of failed post-Civil War policies that attempted to give some order to the re-admitted Southern states, is and was absolutely the South’s cross to bear. The rest of the country, though, also has its own weight and baggage to carry. For every Southerner drinking  tea “whose leaves were picked betwixt firing squads in Sudan” there is sure to be one Northerner or Easterner doing the same. To paint this record as an analysis of the Modern Southern Trials and Tribulations is absolutely fair, but ignores the larger picture: the rest of the country is facing the same demons, but maybe from a different perspective.

When listening to Dereconstructed, at first listen you may think that it has an interesting sound but otherwise falls into the wheelhouse of similar Southern Rock or Alt-Country or Post-Punk-Folk-Grunge or whateverthehell kinds of records there are. There are two important points that, on the graph of genre records, make this one an outlier: there is not a single love song, or a single reference to drinking or drugs. Yes, “Mississippi Bottomland” and “The Weeds Downtown” both very clearly reference female love interests, but the relationship with the woman is not the point of either song. Those songs, along with the stellar “The Kudzu And The Concrete”, are love songs dedicated to a place. Bains is more than capable of writing gorgeous ballads to lost love: look at “Roebuck Parkway” or “Everything You Took” off of his last album. On a ten-track record, six of the songs are dedicated to social or economic inequality (both past and present), three of the songs are about the South itself, and one song is about passion and music and race cars. None of the songs are about being drunk or getting high or heartbreak or waiting around to die (no offense meant, Townes). Each of these songs are active, are aggressive, in a way that Two Cow Garage’s latest record was: these songs are not songs by or for people who wait around for things to happen.

This brings me to my last point: this is a protest record. Lee Bains III did not make a kickass rock and roll record so that we all could listen to the vinyl and buy his t-shirts, although I’m sure he does appreciate the sentiment. This is a record for being mad as hell and not taking it any more. This is a record of convictions, of lines in the sand, of compassion and hard work and the pursuit of happiness. This is a record intended to stick with you after you’re done listening to it. As Lee says in “We Dare Defend Our Rights”:

“If you won’t let us lay the plans on the supper table,

We’ll build the thing in your front damn yard”

“Dereconstructed” hearkens back to an older time, a darker time that doesn’t look too different from the present when you start paying attention. How many thousands, millions of us, have seen protests on our TV screens or computer monitors and inwardly expressed solidarity with those marching out or sitting in, but did nothing to participate? How many politicians that sicken us have been re-elected on our watch without our vocal participation in the democratic process of debate? This is a record by a Southerner, from a Southern point of view, but I grew up in a Western desert and went to school right in the middle of the country, and I can safely say that the system isn’t perfect across the Alabama state line.

Take the time to read the lyrics, to listen to the songs. Take the time to think about your hometown and what you’ve said about it since you’ve moved away, or since you wish you had. Think about the times you’ve held your tongue instead of speaking your mind, at work, at home. There are plenty of uninformed opinions flying around all over the place, but there are plenty of informed ones that never get spoken, too. Think about the people you meet in your life, and how you treat them. I can safely say that this band, this album, this songwriter have affected the way I think about my life. I can honestly say I hope they affect yours, too.

I’ll close with maybe my favorite lines from the record, off of “The Kudzu And The Concrete”:

“We were like to drown
In the odour of honeysuckle
And old Lincolns running rich
On Oporto-Madrid:
The pecans that would dot
The little yard our great-granddaddy cleared;
The old ragged men that would stop
Slinging slurred words over the fence.
With a smiling nod, Granddaddy’d pick us up and tote us inside.
He’d say, ‘Big buddy, any good man can fall on mighty hard times.'”

Listen to the record with an open mind and heart. Pick it up, support the band. Talk to us here at 9b about it, talk to each other about it, talk to your friends about it. Go out and see a show. But then take it a step further. If you love this record and this band as much as I do, if you love where you’re from and this planet and each other, it’s time to start getting each other through the bad times.Bring earplugs if you need them: with Lee Bains III leading the way, it’s bound to get loud.

The Company Man

The Weeds Downtown

We Dare Defend Our Rights

BEN NICHOLS BEFORE COMMON ERA

The archive is not a repository of cultural memory, but of dreams, a bank of dream material. The work of history is not memory-work, but dream-work.

~ Steve Reinke

Thanks to superfans at the FuckYeahBenNichols and DearBenNichols fan-sites, us lazier musicologists now have access to the man’s earliest known bands. So, let’s go backwards a few decades before working our way up the imminent new Lucero album.

In Little Rock, in the early early 90’s, Ben played bass in high-school band The Harbingers, and shortly after, with the same personnel, in Victory Garden. Guitarist Brad Sims wrote most of the lyrics and sings lead, but Ben sings lead on the songs he wrote and back-up on most of the others. Like many upstart bands of the time, they wore a significant R.E.M. influence, but added accents of Hüsker Dü and early Joy Division. They sound like the south’s response to Miracle Legion, which itself had been the north’s response to R.E.M. For such a young band, they had that southern college rock sound down–they could float it out on new waves and surf vibes, tie it together with ribbony guitar and anchor it with concave drum. Ben’s bass stands out every now and then, (like in the mostly instrumental “Truth is Rude”) but in these recordings at least, the Harbingers and Victory Garden were guitar-focused bands.

In the mid-90’s, Ben’s tastes punkified and he started his own Jawbreaker-influenced band,  Red Forty. This is where the story becomes more well-known. Red Forty incinerates Little Rock for a few years before Ben moves to Memphis. There, he starts a new band in the same vein called Lucky Old Sun, which only leaves behind a few shows and a demo tape featuring the song “Crystal Blue,” later played occasionally by Lucero. Ben’s punk period stands on it’s own as a great few years of songs; Red Forty and Lucky Old Sun deliver the emotional weight of any Lucero song, but quirked and revved to supercharged pace.

After Lucky Old Sun, Ben plays a stint on bass in the Memphis band/institution Pezz. He would leave Pezz to concentrate on a new cowboy band he was forming with another former Pezz bassist, Brian Venable. The rest, as they say, is … on the Attic Tapes.

Almost fifteen years later, Lucero has proved almost as variable as the rest of Ben Nichols’ career, which is the main thing to take away from how a dude’s high-school bands sound. Fashions change and artists sometimes outgrow them; if an artist started his/her work as a teenager, then that has to be for the best. To the message-board posters who say they could never listen to Lucero because the singer’s voice seems so put-on, I mean, he didn’t sing that way when he was twenty-something in Red Forty, the revelation of an earlier phase in Ben Nichols’ evolution will probably only add fodder to that argument. To the Lucero diehards who say they can’t appreciate the new records as much because they’re just don’t sound like same band, it’s not Country to use trumpets, the Harbingers and Victory Garden might not mean anything because they don’t sound like “All Sewn Up.” However, I think each of those positions are as absurd as saying I don’t buy into Picaso’s Cubist Period, I mean, a few years before he was painting normal-looking people.

We’re talking about an entire lifetime in art, spontaneous in some phases, but composed in others. Red Forty, the first four Lucero albums (S/T, TMFW, TN, ND, RRSB), and the Cormac McCarthy album are Nichols’ compositions, but Lucero’s latest material seems to be Ben’s most instinctive since Victory Garden–it is an actual evolution, unlike Obama’s “evolution” on equal rights for same-sex couples, which is just a choice. Ya burnt!

If you haven’t been following the links in the post, you can follow them now to download the bands discussed above for free: The HarbingersVictory GardenLucky Old Sun, Red Forty.

Thank you again to the aforementioned fan-sites, their readers and sources. Good work.

The Harbingers – Standing On The Shadows Of Angels
Victory Garden – Gallowglass
Red 40 – Cry At The Table