Roy Davis: We Are a Lightning Bolt

Lightning strikes

Weather the storm with Roy Davis’ third LP

When Hank Williams sang a song like “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy” he could sell it because he’d been down low: born with spina bifida, father with a paralyzed face thanks to a stroke, brother he never knew because he was already dead. And when Williams died at 29 no one was over-much surprised, since he’d been drunk most of the time he’d been alive anyway.

It can be fun to sing country songs about lives busted-up and broken, but unless you’ve got the empathy to feel those hurts, the songs just become the clichéd joke mainstream country music has often found itself.

So whatever it is that Roy Davis experienced in his travels over the past year down [this was early 2010] to Nashville and over to Wyoming and back, you’ll be thankful after you hear We Are a Lightning Bolt, his third full-length release and the record on which something important seems to have clicked. The twang and the lilt of alt-country were always there, but somewhere in the country’s small towns and wide open spaces Davis put his hands in the country’s dirt, too, and his always-smart songs have never been so fully realized, so full of real people, as they are here.

Recording down in Portsmouth with Jon Nolan — himself no stranger to great alt-country sounds, but never as dark as Davis is here — and helped out with “Dregs” like Kerry Ryan (Jeremiah Freed) on drums, Travis Kline (an up-and-coming solo artist in his own right) on guitar and backing vocals, Bernie Nye (Pete Kilpatrick) on banjo and bass, and Justin Maxwell (the Coming Grass/Sara Cox/Cindy Bullens) on bass, Davis seems to have needed to get out of his comfort zone, feel what it’s like to truly be uncomfortable, in order to make the record he’s been trying to make all along.

I still listen to those first two records—Grey Town and Deadweight. They’re good. And I like that Ryan Adams/Jayhawks/Uncle Tupelo sandbox in which Davis plays. But on the first listen, I heard something different in Lightning Bolt. Right around “Barbara Lang,” it struck me that Davis had discovered a pipeline to pathos, where chimes of piano match his tentative reaches into a squeaky falsetto like Townes van Zandt, and “he sits at a bar by the Super 8/ She cooks him food, but she waits.” Ryan’s shuffling drumline gives the song texture like sandpaper while “we get up, go get coffee/ Walk around like a couple of darlings/ Just as sweet as the sun.”

Nolan captures vocals especially well, as when you hear Davis close the “k” on “boardwalk,” part of a naked vocal part over cello and indie-rock-flavored alternating notes, before the song charges up with a heavy acoustic strum and a wood-block beat into an alt-country orchestra, staying all-instrumental through the finish where a pair of laconic electric guitars harmonize. And on “Stranger’s House” every instrument is so terrifically crisp that the pedal steel in the song’s second half is like liquid amber pouring over dry, brittle sticks.

In that song, as on album-opener “You Don’t Have to Fall in Love,” Davis explores the nuances of relationships, the degree expressed by a line like “I’m not going to fight you in a stranger’s house/ I’m not gonna give you what you want right now,” in that voice-crack of knowing that can come through with a simple “oh, honey.” The implied plea in “you don’t have to fall in love” he can make heart-breaking.

By the album’s end, Davis seems almost stripped of emotional charge. The songs become more and more bare, as presaged by the 2:02-long “Sweet Release,” where a father does his best to crush the life out of his son: “By now you’re old enough to know your mother’s dead/ And everything’s a lie … maybe you’ll fix cars, or drink yourself to death.” And so, with the finishing track, the falsetto is ever more warbly, the guitar most ghostly, the lyrics more plaintive: “I need a fix/ I need to be fixed/ For ten dollars I’ll sell all my things/ And there’s nothing that I won’t admit.”

Maybe Davis does have a secret or two. He sings with the depth of a man who’s got a few skeletons in the closet. For a songwriter, that can never be a bad thing.

Aleric Nez: Aleric Nez

Ramblin’ Man

Aleric Nez needs no accompaniment

In this age of increasingly affordable technology [this originally ran in fall 2010], anybody can have a band. That’s no secret. For any songwriter, the urge can be great to add in that string section, that trumpet piece, that bit of backing vocal that’s so easy to hear right at the edge of consciousness.

And so it is interesting when a guy like Vince Nez, who plays all kinds of instruments, chooses to record an album like his debut Aleric Nez (also the name he’s performing under) that uses virtually none of today’s recording techniques. Much of the nine songs over 33 minutes seems like nothing more than Nez singing and playing his resonator guitar in front of your standard Sure SM-58.

Nez manages to evince passion at its most base level, laying it all out on the line. The recording is as naked as the emotion — often there isn’t even a touch of reverb to warm the guitar and vocals. It hard not to sound horrible when you’re recorded in such a raw fashion, with only the room and the floor and the atmosphere to act as a buffer between you and the diaphragm that makes up the microphone, but Nez sounds anything but.

It shouldn’t be surprising that it was recorded at Dave Noyes and Pat Corrigan’s Apohadion, which is just as unadorned with pretension.

When Nez opens the disc with Neville Livingston’s “Dreamland,” it is almost impossibly pretty, the resonator’s sweet finger-picked melody like a too bright light, like bells that ring to break glass. His voice is wobbly, elegant in its not-quite-rightness. And the tape hiss makes it all seem 50 years old: “We’ll count the stars in the sky/ And surely will never die.”

Like a Nick Drake album, there is a timelessness to this, surely, replacing that Drake dreamlike quality with an abrasive smirk, Drake’s crystalline falsetto with something more like a cry of pain. “She said you can’t run from me,” he sings in “Witch,” “She said you cannot fight.”

Nez definitely shares an aesthetic with Micah Blue Smaldone, as well, though he doesn’t here get into any of the real fast-paced fingerpicking that Smaldone can bust out. Nor is his voice quite so imbued with wobble and lurch. Same kind of vibe, though, like he’s playing anywhere but in modern-day civilization.

Except that the crooning “Daydreamin’” stands up with anything Bon Iver’s doing, just without all the layers; and “My Yuselda,” done electric like a pedal steel, is not dissimilar to M. Ward’s “Roller Coaster,” just more stripped down — more stripped down than anyone really. Very few solo artists go quite this solo. It’s like Jack Johnson for kids who can’t surf and wear cut-off jeans and who burn pretty easily.

Nez also sounds at times just a little bit crazy, which adds to the album’s allure.

Probably the best track is the short catchy almost-rocker “Butter,” where Nez is like a circus ringleader: “Take the edge from your voice, my dear/ There’s no reason to use it here … save it for someone who actually threatens you.”

Just as he sings on the Hank Williams cover the closes the disc, Nez is a “Ramblin’ Man,” a loner, but you sure hope he takes a swing through your town.