North of Nashville: North of Nashville

Enter the Working Man

The outlaw country of North of Nashville

I know: Why do you need a North of Nashville album when they’re probably playing nearby as you read this? There is unquestionably no paucity of North of Nashville. But if frontman Jay Basiner hasn’t won you over by the end of a four-set gig on the back porch of Brian Boru or in the bar at the Rack after a day of skiing, then you’re probably something of a grumpy dick. And if Basiner has, indeed, worked his charm, taking home the duo’s debut, self-titled full-length is an appropriate way to say thanks.

Nor will you regret the purchase. These are easy songs to like and if you throw them into a mix of tracks from Highwaymen like Willing, Merle, Kris, and Johnny they’ll filter comfortably in and provide a few new songs from a genre that’s mostly petered out. Whatever might still be left of “outlaw country” has mostly become the kind of overproduced pap that manages to find Tim McGraw pumpin Lil Wayne on his iPod and guys with open shirts and shaved chests playing brand-new acoustic guitars in front of spotless pick-up trucks.

That sure as hell isn’t Basiner and partner-in-crime and mostly fiddle player Andrew Martelle. Basiner has just about worn his guitar out, a la Willie, and Martelle is a top-drawer fiddle player, leaning on this record more toward Charlie Daniels than Vassar Clements. Most of all, though, they make their stories of blue collar work and simple pleasures both believable and endearing.

It’s hard not to think of outlaw countryman and Maine icon Dick Curless when you come across “The Working Man.” It appears seventh on this crisp 10-song album, but is clearly the band’s anthem. “I have no reservations about getting my hands dirty, night and day,” Basiner announces from the open, and the brand of country that follows – with bass drum and high hat alternating beats to emphasize the boom-chick rhythm (Basiner plays with his feet while strumming the acoustic guitar) and Martelle trading fiddle riffs with Basiner’s harmonica – is as literally workingman as it gets.

[This is their live album. Can’t find an embed of their full-length. It’s on the homepage of their site.]

The chorus lets you know why all that on-stage sweating is worth it: “While they’re running ‘round in circles, this working man will cross the finish line/ And I’ll be eatin’ good come supper time.”

Certainly, it’s true that Basiner has made more of his particular reservoir of talent than many of his contemporaries locally. He has been determined for the better part of a decade to make a career out of music, and he has steadily progressed from doing covers as J. Biddy through the transformation of This Way from blues rockers to alt-country jam band. With Martelle, though, who first joined him in This Way, the pair have managed to turn what was mostly a side project to earn extra cash into a legitimate touring band, leaving This Way, as notable Nashville resident Gillian Welch might say, by the wayside.

Maybe his voice doesn’t deserve a ton of credit for his progress, but Basiner has managed to wrangle it into something serviceable (that sounds worse than I mean it), really reaching down in places like the middle of the chorus of “Eyes for Me” for a Cash-like bass delivery where you can just about hear every vocal chord vibration distinctly. He hits his sweet spot with “One Night of Pretending,” earnest and mid-range, and not so strained that you can virtually see his face turning red, as happens a bit on other tunes.

No, if not hard work, it’s Basiner’s songwriting that deserves the most credit for the warm receptions North of Nashville has lately enjoyed. Obviously, he’s made a study of the Bakersfield sound, early ’70s Nashville, Graham Parsons, the cowboy poets, and the long tradition of acoustic Americana, and it shows up in spot-on choruses, pick-me-up bridges, and narratives that smartly progress and make use of the choruses in differing ways. “Hooked on Me” and “Best of What’s Around” are goofy without being silly or corny; “Dreams Come True (For Awhile)” is heartfelt, with a Jimmy Buffett kind of singalong; and you’ll forgive him for the “a capella” rhyme in “Isabella.”

Plus, their arranging – making smart use of Cartwright Thompson on pedal steel, adding in mandolin parts from Martelle to freshen things up – and the sound capture from Jonathan Wyman combine to create a record with virtually no artifice. It’s easily accessible and does well to capture their on-stage energy without being limited by what they could pull off as a two-man operation. The bass parts tracked in are necessary to fill out the low end, especially in the headphones, and it’s nice sometimes to hear the mando and fiddle together, even if you have to imagine mirrored Martelles.

So go out and see them. It’s not hard to find an opportunity, and you just might come home with a souvenir.

Darien Brahms: Dogwood

Love always, Darien

Brahms’ fifth is a big red flag

Why does a person spend 20 years in Portland making music, releasing records, and playing shows? Ask Darien Brahms. Her fifth album, Dogwood, celebrated the 20th anniversary of Hello, Hello to the People, a disc (available on iTunes, by the way) that doesn’t sound altogether different from what we’re hearing today (sometimes. She doesn’t play out much anymore): brassy vocals that can punch you in the gut, vampy strut, a little bit of twang and blues amongst the rock, and maybe a ballad to make things girly every once in a while.

Ultimately, most artists keep on keeping on because they don’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter. They need that combination of release and response that making music for other people creates, that feedback cycle that can ultimately be both euphoric and heartbreaking. A lot like love.

So it’s no surprise that Brahms, here on Dogwood, is like a fickle lover, toying with her audience. Out of the gate, she’s “Queen of Porn,” aggressive over driving horns (Brian Graham, Lucas Desmond, Dave Noyes), a persistent wood block, and a rocking strut: “Sooner or later, we all fall like Rome.” But by the following “Big Red Flag” she’s got a bluesy come on that’s hard not to get on board with: “Oh, take me please, and don’t send me back again.”

It’s that push and pull, that “Jekyll and Hyde” experience of sunshiney guitar in the open, but diving toward melancholy in a hurry. Of a bullfighter prepping for a bout in the ring, but having second thoughts: “you taste like a flower / You smell like a chocolate.”

There’s a little of that cow-punk some people know Brahms for, and she’s brought along Cartwright Thompson for some pedal steel. There’s a throwback reggae-flavored track in “Veni Vidi Vici” that’s like a modern-day turning of “Sandy” from the Grease soundtrack on its head. “If I neglected to mention,” Brahms croons, “I’m the empress of all.”

Without doubt. There are any number of us who’d hand her the keys to the city, elect her mayor, and get out of the way. Which makes the whispered, repeating “I fucking love you” in the middle of the just-plain-filthy “Black Eye” so utterly delicious. We fucking love you right back, Darien. Just keep putting an album out every five years so we remember just how much.