wes tirey - the midwest book of the dead

it seems like each new album that comes out from the general corner of the underground musical world i have my ears turned towards is increasingly abstract and amorphous. it's as if there is a sense that it's pointless to try to meet this moment, that, eschewing any determinations here, at least feels completely fucked, with anything but longform blasts or oozes of music, found sounds, and decontextualized words; if any words at all. that last sentence will let you know i'm rusty with words too, they seem to be sapped out of us, the instinct to bathe in drones and explore the outer reaches of improvisation makes sense to me. but it doesn't have to be that way. on his epic (in the sense of homer) new album 'midwest book of the dead' (on dear life records), wes tirey goes the opposite direction, working people and stories into songs and positioning them as literature.

wes tirey probably could have made one of those abstract albums, you can hear hints of it in instrumental pieces like 'red corn raga', but it's clear he wanted to build a world here out of images and emotions expressed in lyrics as much as in melodies. the "midwest" he paints is big, sparse and tinged with dread and the tragic flotsam left behind by capitalism, inviting of course a comparison to 'nebraska by bruce springsteen. however, where springsteen was familiar with american doom, on 'nebraska' he was writing about an imagined place, and for tirey this is home, and the people in his songs feel like people he laid eyes on. apparently he is a fanatic for raymond carver, also a favorite of mine, and this shows in the devastating economy of the things he chooses to show us about the folks in his songs. the phrase 'book of the dead' in the title is more poignant to me now (the album was written/recorded in 2019) as we have seen that the bumbling neo-fascist state governments of many of those states have led to the region being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. perhaps this isn't evergreen, but for me it gives even more weight to the proceedings, as that book is much fuller now than it would've been after a normal year. the production on this album reminds me of what is for my money the greatest alt-country record ever made, gillian welch's "soul journey". it's stark and unobtrusive but gives you that stray gators-derived rhythm section action; or a lead, a slide, or a harmony when you need it. what more could you ask for. 


when i said these songs were positioned as literature, i wasn't kidding. you can get "midwest book of the dead" with an accompanying book or audiobook, in various formats. it's all at dear life records.

amina shareef ali - in the dark (awake of course)

oakland, california based singer/songwriter amina shareef ali writes deeply personal songs that walk the line between pop, country and folk punk. I covered her last album 'a place to remember the dead' here in 2014, which featured alt-country arrangements of her bittersweet ballads and sometimes just bitter rock songs. the follow-up album, 'in the dark (awake of course)' due out on march 29th, has shed some of the production, favoring a stripped down sound, with mostly just acoustic guitar and a voice or two. the mid-album track 'ready 2 love U' (the stylization of the title seems to be a prince shout-out) is a gritty exception, featuring drums and some crunchy electric guitar. this sparse style allows the caustic and often darkly funny lyrics to take center stage, and they are worth listening to. i love a line in the aforementioned 'ready 2 love U' : "i'm ready to hang my leather jacket next to yours, and i'm ready to love you". a wonderful and relatable romantic image, punks in love. 

my favorite track on the album is 'dog', which features fingerpicked guitar with notes that seem to bend and contort to match the angry/sad energy of the vocals. overall, the songwriting here reminds me a bit of paul simon, or carly simon (haha) though without the slick production and astronomical budgets. the atmosphere is DIY, but these are songs that create an emotional landscape through evocative physical details and wry descriptions of those kinds of feelings that are hard to shake without writing about them.


pre-order the album here.

elkhorn - southern star

to celebrate their 9th year as a label, charlottesville, VA based warhen records is releasing a limited edition tape of live elkhorn jams from their travels in early 2020...right before the pandemic took live music temporarily off the map. the collection, 'southern star', is a great reminder of what we have to look forward to once shows are finally safe again. 


with previous live releases, elkhorn has shown their strength as improvisors and their ability to incorporate other musicians into the framework of mutating side-long jams. 'southern star' takes this a step farther by highlighting performances with a diverse range of collaborators, from electric droners to old-time pickers, and a cameo by philly underground legend harmonica dan. my two favorite results from these live experiments are the meditative soundscape they produced with guitarist jordan perry and the uncharacteristically folksy stomp they recorded at rhizome in washington DC with old-time group eight point star. on the former, dueling, mellow-toned melodic runs from perry and elkhorn's electric guitarist drew gardner cascade over the acoustic bedrock provided by jesse shephard's droney fingerstyle. on the latter they summon up a lively hoe-down with electric riffs and fiddle runs bouncing on a chugging rhythm churned up by the guitar and drums. i love this one most because it seems like uncharted territory for the band that they were more than willing to dance into. the interplay between an established, intuitive duo like elkhorn and this stacked group of extra players makes this a classic live album, one that captured some magic as it occurred. hopefully soon it will be safe to gather together and witness this kind of thing go down in person.


'southern star' drops 3/5. check out a preview track here, buy it digital/order a cassette starting 3/5.