RHYTHM & ROOTS
BY CHRIS BOURKE
The 1980s weren’t all big hair and bad drum sounds. In the States there was a solid underground movement in roots music that occasionally surfaced and mingled in record stores alongside the Van Halen and Bon Jovi albums. Musicians such as T-Bone Burnett, the Replacements, Marshall Crenshaw, the Blasters, Alex Chilton, the Bo-Deans, and the Long Ryders were part of a “roots rock” sound that wasn’t quite country – which had its own alternative flag-bearers – but was too earthy for mainstream rock.
“Lost in the 80s” could have been the epitaphs of two bit-players in this genre. David Baerwald was singer and songwriter of the El Lay duo David + David (big hit: ‘Welcome to the Boomtown’). Baerwald was a critic’s idea of a rock musician, like a West Coast Yo La Tengo: he’d been a critic and producer so his songs were literate, melodic, with crafted arrangements, a sense of history but also a passionate delivery. He made two solo albums in the early 1990s (Bedtime Stories and Triage) but since then he’s only been known as a footnote, for his work on Sheryl Crow’s breakthrough Tuesday Night Music Club and for writing ‘Come What May’ for Moulin Rouge.
A move to Austin, Texas has been good for his music: after nine years’ silence comes Here Comes the New Folk Underground (Lost Highway), and the title is like a mission statement. It’s smart and soulful – both attributes of Boomtown – without that album’s pretensions. His songs are almost like short stories, and he has the lived-in voice to put them across. The varied settings keep the interest up: sparse alt.country (‘Why’), the ‘Boomtown’-ish ‘Nothing's Gonna Bring Me Down’, the gently danceable groove of ‘Bozo Weirdo Wacko Creep’, and especially the Tom Waits-ish ballad ‘Love #29’. He knows how to write pop choruses and hooks, and craft arrangements that are evocative (of Highway 61 Revisited, Amazing Rhythm Aces, even Dexy’s Midnight Runners) and timeless.
It’s a rare month that the mailbox brings two almost-perfect mature rock albums. Warren Zanes was a key member – with his older brother Dan – of the young Boston roots-rock band the Del Fuegos, who burnt out in the late ’80s through sibling rivalry, major-label aspirations and general excess. Warren escaped into academia; he now has a doctorate in media studies (and a forthcoming book on Dusty in Memphis). Somehow he found time to write and produce his first solo album, Memory Girls (Dualtone), which is more consistent – and more creative – than any of the Del Fuegos’ efforts. This is singer-songwriter pop that reaches outside the bedroom; it’s chock-full of hooks that could only come from a student of Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello. Thanks to the acoustic instruments and garage-pop guitar, the production is deceptively lo-fi: actually the arrangements are rich but the amount of space gives it a feeling of relaxed craft. Zanes has a great pop ear, understands simplicity, the benefit of a soaring chorus (‘Sidewalk Sale’, ‘Scrapbook’) and sitting on a groove (‘Main Street’). ‘Hey Girl’ is a sublime Stax ballad (a theremin stops it from being a pastiche), while the woodwinds and slinky piano of ‘First On the Moon’ recalls the chamber-pop of Costello’s Imperial Bedroom. Zanes has an endearing boy-next-door personality, humble but observant. But there’s nothing ordinary about this exceptional album.
Bettye Lavette was a soul second-stringer from the 1960s who got a second chance recording Tell Me a Lie for Motown in 1981. It was a Southern soul gem with a minor hit in ‘Right in the Middle (of Falling in Love)’ but sadly either too late for its era, or two soon to be retro.
The titles tell the stories, but Millie Jackson said it with more variety on the cheatin’ classic Caught Up.