Tuesday, February 1, 2011

David Lowery - The Palace Guards - 5 Stars

David Lowery has had a long and successful career as songwriter/vocalist/visionary for two well loved bands, Cracker, and Camper Van Beethoven. He's done a hell of a job at it, without question. But let's forget that for now. Act as if it never happened. Maybe just a dream we had. Let's instead focus on his debut solo album, The Palace Guards.

The Palace Guards is the second great record I've heard in 2011, and it is the best set of songs I've heard in some time. It sounds as if Lowery has shaken off the shackles of compromise, and chosen to follow the path of his own personal muse. This record sounds like a direct line to the artist's intentions; as if his will were pipelined straight onto the disc. All the considerations of record companies, band mates, and concessions to industry have been left alone, cast aside. And perhaps it may well be that all these things that get between a songwriter and his records are precisely what must be removed for an artist to reach full maturity, his full majesty.

Lest you think that this means that this is an album stripped bare, I do not mean to imply that. It is filled with tasty backing by a bunch of obviously experienced musicians who listen intently, and add their parts with great empathy and skill. The Palace Guards is a great sounding record from beginning to end, filled with subtle twists, surprising changes, and great playing throughout. There's a wealth of strange textures, unusual instrument choices, and an overall sound that harkens back to the best records coming out of Britain in the 60s. But, for all the soundscaping that goes on, Lowery's songs and voice are always the main attraction, and he's at the top of his considerable game.

The album kicks off with the title cut, a great piece of endearing pop sophistry reminiscent of the best British psychedelic/folk music. Far be it from me to tell you exactly what Lowery is getting at lyrically on this album, but if I were guessing, I'd say that at 50 he's looking upon not just himself, but the world at large and coming away disappointed, yet hopeful. He seems to have his teeth bared, but with a healthy dose of sympathy, and understanding. The Palace Guards are revealed as somewhat malevolent, but perhaps that was not their intention - maybe the responsibility of making all the decisions for so long just slowly, and imperceptibly corrupted them. Sonically, this one is pure ear candy, driven by Lowery's always excellent acoustic guitar work. Take notice incipient band leaders: it all starts with a solid accompaniment, and Lowery has long been a master. There are a bunch of great sounds, and an abundance of great playing going on, but it all serves the song, and decorates Lowery's words and guitar with taste and distinction.

Raise 'Em Up On Honey is a rollicking, toe-tapper of a hoedown, kicked off by a nice melodic harmonica that is joined by a subtle banjo, before some gorgeous pedal steel guitar rings in the first verse. This is Lowery singing in his best everyman twang, a voice that is friendly, familiar, and trustworthy. Lyrically, this one serves as a wonderful description of the plans brought on by the disgruntlement that drives both the green lifers, and the militant militias back up into the mountains. Coming in the footsteps of the title track's beautiful pop tapestry, it is amazing that this jump to Appalachian folk should be so easy to swallow, but this bunch makes it sound completely natural.

Deep Oblivion is well worth whatever the cost of this album may be. This song reminds me of the Hindu story of the husband of Maitreyi, who at a certain age, tells his wife, "I have decided that I have had enough of this world. Everything that we have, I will give it to you and I am going into the forest to find myself." Then, Maitreyi, his wife asks, "What makes you feel that I will settle for mundane things? When you go for the real treasure, what makes you think I will go for the petty things? Will I settle for trinkets?" They then both go to the forest, and live as realized beings. If Lowery goes into the wilderness, he's not going alone. It's a family affair.

Poetically, Lowery seems again to be considering stepping away from his world while simultaneously weighing the risks. Musically, this is a great travelogue. Why do rockers make such better use of steel guitars than do their country counterpoints? This has me thinking back to George Harrison's All Things Must Pass and Lennon's Mind Games, both so filled with mental musings and beautiful sounds. The sound of this track will have you hitting repeat to absorb Lowery's lyrical travails. Gorgeous.

The next track, Ah, You Left Me, has Lowery covering a song that sounds as if it were written by a fan of Lowery's. Yet another tasty dollop of production wizardry - this one is cinematic in its tones and textures. A great stew of guitar tracks; from haunting arpeggios, lilting tremolo pads, to a deliciously double tracked guitar solo. If there were still real hit singles, this would be one.

Rock and roll rears its ugly head, loudly and proudly on the droll Baby, All Those Girls, a tongue in cheek confession that has been intoned by many a guilty road rocker. This is a, "Just a way to pass the days until I return to you, done you wrong, love song." By far the record's rockingest cut, filled with chainsaw rhythm guitars and cool synth underpinnings.

I Sold the Arabs the Moon has Lowery wondering what you do after you've sold everyone everything they desired. It is a  despotic view reflecting upon what's come before, and what it may all mean. Laconic violins accompany the storyteller with great sympathy, disarming any sense that perhaps it all meant nothing at all.

David Lowery plays Houdini on the next track, Marigold. Out of whole cloth he creates a song that's not really there - a dream, or an imagining - or perhaps they are just a bunch of lines that sound good when sang, at least he'd like to have you think that. I think that once again this has Lowery singing (unconsciously?) about his journeys through his past, those that lead an artist to finally going it alone. Looking back over travels, tales, hits, and misses, maybe in a few years this one will be easier to comprehend. Or, maybe it is just that - a bunch of lines that sound good when sung....another beautiful track at any rate. If it means this, that, or nothing at all, it sounds wonderful.

This album features some of the most organic, well placed keyboards that I have heard since the days of Garth Hudson, and the track Big Life has them in spades. The introduction is a minute of sonic bliss, with a compelling melody being driven by a very Keltner-esque drum track that propels the tune perfectly. If you don't know who Jim Keltner is, then it's time you Googled him and got schooled - he may be the best session drummer ever. But, I digress. This whole record has me going back and forth, one moment focusing on the great musical arrangements, then being reeled back in by Lowery's engaging vocals and words. A fun record to listen to, and get lost in. "It worked out alright, 'cause it's a Big Life."

David Lowery doesn't want you to know just how autobiographical this record is, hell, he may not even realize it himself. He reminds me of my old friend Robert Pollard, another master of obfuscation, and melody. They are two of the best songwriters of the last half century, and it pains them both considerably, it would seem, to consider this notion. However, this fact is immutable - David Lowery has made the best record of his career, and he did it under his own power.

Submarine closes out the album beautifully. This is another tale that could be interpreted as this or that, or maybe nothing, but I'm guessing it's as straight ahead a love song as we'll get. I may well be wrong, but this whole record sounds like a very well written if somewhat disguised love letter, wrapped in some historical and political dissatisfaction. Lowery may be a little pissed, a little disgruntled, and somewhat belligerent, but he can't hide a root optimism, and love of his life and art. If nothing more, he's made an incredibly listenable disc that will spend a lot of time in your player. Like I said, it's the second great album I've heard this year, which gives me some much needed optimism as well, so thanks, Dave.

This is another record that you should buy - spend your money on - pay the artist. Most new music is free because that is what it is worth. This is a piece of cool art, created by a working artist. The world needs to support the good stuff, and here you vote with your dollars. Sorry to go on, but I feel that when someone does something that pleases you, you owe it to them to respond appropriately, and in this case it means buying the artist's art.

For some great background and good reading, check out David Lowery's excellent blog:


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