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”:
In the odour of honeysuckle
And old Lincolns running rich
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.