Because Songs Matter

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     

9 Comments

  1. Scott Fuchs Scott Fuchs
    May 30, 2014    

    Excellent review. You’ve clearly put a lot of thought into this record. My problem with the record is I’d prefer to be able to hear the lyrics when I listen to the songs instead of having to read them on their website, unfortunately, I can’t.

  2. John John
    May 30, 2014    

    I thought “There is a Bomb” was one of the best albums I’d heard in a long time. It was an eclectic selection of songs that all tied together so nicely. It was a completely unique and cool listen.

    I was eagerly anticipating the new album. But after listening to it a couple times now, it feels like a step backwards to me. Too often the record seems to cross the line from hard rock, which the band does exceptionally well, to just a lot of distorted noise. The vocals are completely drowned out and it’s a real challenge to make out more than a single word here or there. As punk rock, I guess this might have been cutting edge 30 years ago, but to me it just seems tired.

    Making one album as great as “There is a Bomb” would be a successful career for most bands, but I’m hoping there’s more in store from LBIII.

  3. May 30, 2014    

    I think this record is badass. They definitely bumped up the master compressor or whatever folks do these days to make it sound “loud”, but I think it’s very fitting of the subject matter. “There is a Bomb” wasn’t as angry as this is. “Dereconstruction” is very much a protest record, and I think it sonically fits the mold. I love it.

    It could also be a nice companion piece to “Three Alabama Icons” by the Truckers

    This may be one of the most well constructed and thought out reviews I’ve ever read. Well done, Gabe.

  4. May 30, 2014    

    You wrote everything I was going to write in my own review. When I first listened to the album I was like “eh.” But then I caught that lyric about Sudan and the one about selling black men and I was like “eh?” After listening to it three times consecutively, I became a fan.

  5. Nick Nick
    May 30, 2014    

    It’s loud and the vocals are low. I would have said this about every show of their’s i’ve been to in the last year as well so it’s not a surprise to me. There may be some words here and there that I can’t make out but that happens on some records which doesn’t bother me at all. As a whole the production matches the message of the record which Gabe stated eloquently above. The lyrics on this record are so good that I wish it was clearer so everyone could enjoy it.

    This is one of the more well written pieces i’ve read on this site. Great work Gabe.

  6. May 30, 2014    

    The intro to The Company Man puts my head into a forward and backward head movement every time. The first 30 seconds sets the tone of the album perfectly and the rest of the album doesn’t let up. Great, great record.

  7. Mike Ostrov Mike Ostrov
    June 1, 2014    

    I think the mix is great. I can hear the vocals fine. It’s on Subpop, it’s supposed to be fucking gnarly guitar rock. I think the loud guitars represent the sweltering atmosphere of violence that prevents voices like those the lyrics represent from being heard. Or something. It’s great. I love how the two records are different.

    • Mike Ostrov Mike Ostrov
      June 1, 2014    

      some of the new songs are on a Daytrotter from last December if y’all want different mixes

  8. June 2, 2014    

    I think the music is important to the tone of the album as much as the lyrics. I enjoy the music but I think that more than my enjoyment it says that the band isn’t trying to start a polite discussion about these topics that this album is an argument, one that’s in your face and impossible to ignore. I can appreciate folks comparing it to There Is A Bomb In Gilead but it’s not the same and was never supposed to be. There have been plenty of comparisons to other bands who talked about the south as well and some are valid but I think this album is full on righteous indignation, for the most part, as far as Lee and boys are concerned.

    I personally don’t have a problem making out the lyrics at all. I guess my years of gutter punk trained my brain to find the words. I think that this might be the best album so far this year and that’s a pretty high bar all things considered. I think the production matches the sentiment and honestly it sounds about as close to a live show as you can get without being live. There’s definitely something to this one, whether it’s the outrage, the sadness, or the in your face nature of everything I won’t be taking this one out of the rotation at any point in the foreseeable future.

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