Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy is the highly anticipated follow-up to his internationally acclaimed album, I Love You, Honeybear. The album was released April 7th on Deluxe 2xLP / 2xLP / CD / DL / CS in Europe through Bella Union and the rest of the world from Sub Pop. Pure Comedy highlights include the title track alongside standouts “Leaving LA,” “Total Entertainment Forever,” “Ballad of the Dying Man,” “When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay” and “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before The Revolution”.
Tillman wrote the majority of Pure Comedy throughout 2015 and recorded all the basic tracking and vocals live to tape (in no more than two takes each) at United Studios (fka the legendary Ocean Way Studios, favored by Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys) in Los Angeles March 2016.
Pure Comedy was co-produced once again by Josh Tillman and long-time producer Jonathan Wilson; mixed by Tillman, Wilson and Trevor Spencer, and mastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering Studios. The album features string, horn and choral arrangements from classical iconoclast Gavin Bryars (Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Sinking Of The Titanic), with additional contributions from Nico Muhly and Thomas Bartlett.
Since 2012, Father John Misty aka Josh Tillman has unexpectedly emerged as a singular (if not undeniably, um, idiosyncratic) voice. Whether by virtue of his lyrics, which routinely defy the presumed polarities of wit and empathy; his live performances which may perhaps be described best as “intimately berzerk,” or the infuriating line he seems to occupy between canny and total fraud online or in interviews, Father John Misty has cultivated a rare space for himself in the musical landscape – that of a real enigma. Pure Comedy sees Tillman at the height of these powers: as a lyricist, and equally so a cultural observer – at times bordering on freakishly prescient. Tillman’s bent critiques, bared humanity and gently warped classic songwriting are all here in equal measure and – at 75 minutes – there’s a veritable fuck ton of it. The album navigates themes of progress, technology, fame, the environment, politics, aging, social media, human nature, human connection and his own role in it all with his usual candor, and in terms as timely as they are timeless.
The Ghosts of Highway 20
We’ve all heard about the iconic vibe of Route 66, the neon lights on Broadway and the ocean air of the Pacific Coast Highway. But there are untold stories emanating from countless blue highways across the land – like Interstate 20, which cuts a 1500-mile swath from South Carolina to Texas, and cuts deep into the spirit of those who’ve spent their lives traversing it.
Lucinda Williams is one of those people, and with the expansive, enveloping The Ghosts of Highway 20, she brings those stories to life – and gives listeners a remarkably vivid look at how the highway has been a literal and figurative backdrop throughout her entire life. The intensely involving 14-song collection may be the most deeply felt, deeply affecting work of Lucinda Williams’ illustrious 35-plus-year career, a career that has been established on a foundation of remarkably personal songs.
“It is literally a map of my life in a lot of ways,” says Lucinda. “We were driving between shows and between cities, and I kept seeing things that brought me back to times and places in my past. Like when we played in Macon, Georgia, a place I lived when I was five or six years old, I got out of the bus and I was transported back to when I saw this street singer, Blind Pearly Brown. It was like nothing had changed. All these things started percolating in my brain, and the songs just came.”
The thread of Highway 20 connects those songs, mirroring the winding route of the road itself, a street that cleaves close to Williams’ childhood homes, the final resting place of her mother, the sites where signposts of her formative years are forever planted. The connection runs deep here, particularly on the dark and moody tones of the album’s poignant title track, on which Lucinda ponders the lives that were lived, the legacies that were left and the imprints that remain on her own soul, conveying those vignettes with a palette that’s nuanced enough to give the listener pause to ponder, but unvarnished enough that her message is impossible to miss.
She cuts closest to the bone with “Dust” (a song built around a poem written by her late father, poet laureate Miller Williams, whose “Compassion” she interpreted on 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone) and “Bitter Memory,” a bracing consideration of times gone by, one that doesn’t sugarcoat things with the usual veneer of nostalgia. Lucinda continues down that path with “Louisiana Story,” a sequel of sorts to her classic
“Baton Rouge” that captures its faded Delta setting with a wizened beauty. “I didn’t want to repeat myself, but I kept coming back to the story I was telling there,” she explains. “I wanted to describe, like a photograph of what I recall back then – the humming of the fans, the tar sticking to the bottom of my feet when I went out to play and other vivid recollections that I’ve never forgotten from that time.”
The sense memory is strong here, in Lucinda’s storytelling, and in the interplay between the musicians, notably guitarist Bill Frisell (who last joined her on Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone). His intuitive, incisive playing – especially in tandem with fellow guitarist Greg Leisz, adds sunshine and shadow, darkness and light, sometimes within the same passage. That pair underscores the heretofore unheard tenderness that Lucinda brings to the lullaby-gentle “Place in My Heart” and a palpable layer of grit to a surprising version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory” (a darkly pensive Darkness on the Edge of Town tale about “Men [who] walk through these gates with death in their eyes,” an image that fits seamlessly into the album’s hyper-real depictions of life).
“I know people throw the word around a lot, but this is one of the most organic things I’ve ever worked on,” says Greg Leisz, who co-produced and played guitar on the album. “There aren’t any overdubs, there’s no sweetening, it was the musicians getting into a headspace and bringing the songs to life. We were ecstatic to see how the whole thing came together, how [Lucinda] reacted to seeing the process unfold. It was a one-of-a-kind experience.”
Lucinda Williams has been maneuvering down a path all her own for more than three decades now, emerging from Lake Charles, Louisiana, where her iconoclastic upbringing helped her forge the stunning Lucinda Williams (aka, the Rough Trade album). Somehow, that milestone 1988 set eventually disappeared from shelves, but was reissued 25 years later, as a deluxe edition that garnered unanimous acclaim — including Jim Farber of New York’s Daily News hailing it by calling it “A perfect work. There’s not a chord, lyric, beat or inflection that doesn’t pull at the heart or make it soar.”
For much of the ‘90s, Lucinda moved around the country, turning out work that won immense respect inside the industry – as borne out by the Grammy afforded Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s interpretation of Williams’ “Passionate Kisses.” While her recorded output was sparse for a time, the work that did was invariably hailed for its indelible impressionism – like 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which notched her a second Grammy Award. Over the next decade, she crafted such classic sets as West (2007), and Blessed (2011), which the Los Angeles Times dubbed “a dynamic, human, album, one that’s easy to fall in love with.”
Lucinda credits the injection of vitality and passion that emerged in part to Tom Overby, her partner in both life and music, who’s acted as both a sounding board and collaborator, contributing production ideas and offering encouragement to forge forward in directions that she might not have otherwise explored. That creative connection has grown increasingly electric over the years, as borne out by 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, which Blurt’s Fred Mills referred to as “A snapshot—or feature-length film, take your pick – of a woman fully renewed and at the height of her creative powers.” The album won the 2015 Americana Music Association Award for Album of the Year.
The Ghosts of Highway 20, which has its roots in the sessions that produced that last outing, takes things even further. Williams stretches fearlessly here, experimenting with jazzy vocal phrasing that’s reminiscent of Van Morrison’s more adventurous offerings, and giving full voice to her literary side – which has its roots in childhood encounters with Flannery O’Connor (who her late father called his “greatest teacher”). The most dramatic example of that freewheeling spirit arrives at the close of the album – in the form of the 13-minute “Faith and Grace,” a churning groove powered by the drumming of Jamaican legend Carlton “Santa” Davis (best known for his work with the late Peter Tosh) and Jamaican hand drummer Ras Michael, whose haunting vocals add to the track’s intensity.
“That song does sum up what the album is all about for me,” says Williams. “It isn’t a jam, it’s a groove, and I just got into the room with those guys and went off. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I went with it, we all went with it, and it felt so spiritual, so real. It surpasses anything I’ve ever done, I think – and it makes me really excited about where I could take things in the future.”
With his four acclaimed solo albums and myriad records of various collaboration, Kevin Morby has become a true musical auteur. His singular vision, evocative lyrics, and aptitude for catchy, dense songwriting has placed him firmly among the ranks of modern icons like Bill Callahan, Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten, Will Oldham, and Jeff Tweedy. Each Morby record possesses its own unique persona and explores intriguing themes and fertile terrain through shifting, focused textures and dexterous, dedicated skill. And now, with the lavish, resplendent, career-best double LP Oh My God, Morby delivers a grandiose director’s cut of his biggest statement to date, epic in scope as well as sound.
Throughout his past work, Morby has noticed the ubiquity of an apparent religious theme. Though not identifying as “religious”, Morby—the globetrotting son of Kansas City who has made music while living on both coasts before recently returning to his Midwestern stomping grounds—recognizes in himself a somewhat spiritual being with a secular attitude towards the soulful. And so, in an effort to tackle that notion head-on and once-and-for-all, he sat down in his form of church—on planes and in beds—and wrote what would become his first true concept album. “This one feels full circle, my most realized record yet,” says Morby. “It’s a cohesive piece; all the songs fit under the umbrella of this weird religious theme. I was able to write and record the album I wanted to make. It’s one of those marks of a life: this is why I slept on floors for seven years. I’ve now gotten the keys to my own little kingdom, and I’m devoting so much of my life to music that I just want to keep it interesting.”
Morby admits he has viewed the world through a skewed spiritual lens his entire life. As a kid he was told by his working-class parents that he was a Methodist, though the family rarely if ever made good on that claim come Sunday, and he saw fire-and-brimstone billboards on Kansas roadways with the aim of scaring heathens straight. Despite his ignorance and indifference, religion seemed to be everywhere, and as Morby grew as a musician—playing bass for Woods, fronting The Babies, and with his solo career—he embraced its influence with his work. In 2016, on the heels of a trio of critically-acclaimed albums, he wrote the protest song “Beautiful Strangers” about the devastating world events of that year, and in it he inserted multiple “oh my god”s as pleas of desperation. The song became his most celebrated work to date and the phrase became a mantra for Morby, inspiring him to weave the exclamation conceptually into the fabric of an entire album. In effect, he sought to highlight how that immortal turn of phrase embodies so much of our relationship with the sacred and profane—how religion is all around us, always, and that by simply uttering an OMG we enforce its ubiquity and ability to endure while humanizing its reach.
“Religion is around all of us,” Morby says. “It’s a universal language and there is profound beauty in it. I’ve found it a useful tool within songwriting, as it’s something everyone can relate to on some level. There are religious themes or imagery in a lot of what I’ve done, so I wanted to get all of that out and speak only that language for a whole record. It’s not a born-again thing; it’s more that ‘oh my god’ is such a profound statement we all use multiple times a day and means so many different things. It’s not about an actual god but a perceived one, and it’s an outsider’s view of the human experience in terms of religion.”
In January 2017, preceding the release of his fourth solo record City Music, Morby went into producer Sam Cohen’s Brooklyn studio for four days to record a handful of material written with his usual folk-meets-lo-fi-electric-guitar sound in mind. Cohen, with whom Morby made his 2016 breakthrough Singing Saw, had started recording the new songs with a business-as-usual mentality when on the third day he was struck with an idea: Rather than create what was becoming Singing Saw: Part 2, what if they stripped everything back and instead of the entire Morby rock palette used only a few colors at a time, focusing on Morby as hyper-literate singer instead of guitar-slinging troubadour?
“Sam suggested that we make songs that sound like sonic pop-art that only have a few colors, like a Keith Haring piece,” Morby says. “My other records had tons of colors, so we decided to keep this stark, like a painting that’s black-and-white with one vibrant blue. We went back to the drawing board and thought about what we wanted to do conceptually across an entire piece. And for the first time I could do exactly what I wanted, as I had time and the ability to get everything precise. Sam encouraged me to let my lyrics sit on top of everything else, and that discovery and the confidence that came with making my fifth record helped me realize the new direction was exactly where we needed to be. We opened it up completely and set out to make something in its own universe.”
Over the remaining day-and-a-half, Morby and Cohen recorded new versions of four songs—“Oh My God,” “No Halo,” “Savannah,” and “Nothing Sacred/All Things Wild,” the latter becoming a mission statement for the new sound and featuring Morby singing, Cohen playing a subtle organ part, and Morby’s drummer Nick Kinsey on congas. Breaking the songs down into their separate parts served Morby’s religious theme perfectly, as did the blueprint of “Beautiful Strangers,” a song that would serve as a skeleton key of sorts for everything that was to come. Over the course of 2017, he wrote an album’s worth of songs modeled after “Strangers” while on tour.
As Morby jetted around the world playing shows, he came to realize that all that air travel was making its way into his music, too. He had always used his time in the sky to work on songs and listen to demos he had recorded, but he began noticing an aero-dynamic emerging in his lyrics as well. “Flying can be something of a religious experience for many people, myself included,” he says. “It’s unnatural, and it can be so scary being that high up—a few big bumps can even make an atheist pray. You’re anxious as you take off and thinking about death, then you level off and suddenly you’re in this kingdom above the clouds. There’s a holy feeling, and a big part of the record’s theme is being above the weather. The first song, ‘Oh My God,’ starts with chaotic hammering on a piano and then smooths out with a choir singing; it’s meant to mimic how I feel on an airplane.”
All that flying also meant Morby was sleeping in a new place each night, a situation he also learned to embrace creatively—most of Oh My God’s songs were written from beds. Morby typically starts and ends each day by playing guitar or writing songs while under the covers, a practice that mimics prayer in myriad ways. “There’s something sacred about working from bed,” he says. “It’s where you make love and where you dream. I always write just before I go to sleep and right when I wake up. It’s where I can access that feeling of dreams. Any bed is always a sanctuary, but my bed at home is the Holy Grail.”
Morby sought to represent these sentiments visually for the release of Oh My God. In addition to using a portrait of him reclining in his own fluffy-white bed at home in Kansas City on the album cover, he also worked with the filmmaker Chris Good on a short film to accompany the release. The film stars Morby as he wanders through a dream-like series of encounters—on planes, in cars, in a diner, at home in his back yard—and presents a Gondry-esque vision of the album and its holy mood.
Meanwhile, in January of 2018, a full year after their initial session, Morby and Cohen returned to the studio together to complete the album’s recording. They fine-tuned the rollicking opening trio—starting with the title track, then first single “No Halo,” and “Nothing Sacred/All is Wild”— and played with various styles and techniques throughout. The ethereal “Congratulations” was written in a dream, a first for Morby. (“Someone had been singing the chorus to me over and over, and I woke up in the morning and walked to my piano and wrote it then and there.”) “Seven Devils” features a ripping guitar solo by Morby’s bandmate Meg Duffy that evokes a distorted hellfire, and “Piss River” is a stream-of-consciousness, poetic and profound tune featuring harp played by Morby’s friend Mary Lattimore while the singer has a call-and-response conversation with himself. Saxophone duties throughout the record were handled largely by Cochemea Gastelum, and a seven-member choir appears as well. Morby directed Cohen in the creation of a track called “Storm (Beneath the Weather),” a 90-second ambient instrumental piece made with synthesizers to mimic what it can feel like under the clouds. “Above the weather, you’re safe and nothing can get to you; it’s heavenly, like you achieved peace,” Morby says. “Below that you’re subject to the insanity of humanity, or Mother Nature. I wanted a weird, atonal sound on the record to represent a storm, which feels in-line with the pop-art idea.”
Hail Mary” may be the album’s grandest moment and is recognizable as one of the few guitar-driven songs that hearkens back to his previous work. Its heavy scope is still apparent despite the fact that Morby and Cohen edited it down from its original 15-minute-long, multiple-verse version into a concise five minutes and three verses. And as the final song, “O Behold,” makes a familiar, just-in-case farewell from an airplane seat (“If the plane’s on fire/know I love you”), the listener can sense the credits rolling as the clouds begin to break, grips loosen, and the kingdom comes into view. At 14 tracks and four sides, Oh My God is an actualized concept album with a contemporary feel that is sure to find itself on the shelf next to classic double-LPs like Blonde on Blonde, Exile on Main St, London Calling, and Zen Arcade with its maker planted firmly in a window seat at the front of the plane. Morby has graduated from the DIY beginnings and warehouse shows of his early days to become an admired, impassioned auteur who retains firm control of his vision as his stages only continue to grow. “At the end of the day,” says Morby, “the only thing I don’t want is to be bored. If someone wants to get in my face about writing a non-religious religious record? Thank god. That’s all I gotta say.”
As the founding member and leader of the American rock band Wilco and before that the co-founder of the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy is one of contemporary American music’s most accomplished songwriters, musicians and performers. Since starting Wilco in 1994 Tweedy has written original songs for ten Wilco albums and collaborated with folk singer Billy Bragg to bring musical life to three albums-full of Woody Guthrie-penned lyrics in the Mermaid Avenue series. In 2014 he released Sukierae, a musical collaboration with his son and drummer Spencer Tweedy. Wilco's latest releases, 2015's Star Wars and 2016's Schmilco were born from the same recording sessions before veering into decidedly different directions: Star Wars, a boisterous, glam-rocking showcase of Wilco's variable styles, Schmilco it's quieter mirror counterpart, executed in modest arrangements and instrumentation. Jeff Tweedy is also an accomplished producer, working with from his Chicago recording studio with artists like Richard Thompson, White Denim, Low and more. He produced a pair of albums for iconic soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples including the 2011 Grammy-award winning album You Are Not Alone.
Jeff Tweedy is “one of the most daring songwriters of his generation” and his band Wilco is “vital, adventurous … breaking new stylistic ground with each ambitious and creatively restless album.” Salon.com