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.

Sara Cox: Arrive

Independent girl

Sara Cox stirs the waters with Arrive

Sara Cox’s only previous solo effort, 2000’s EP Firewater, has been in heavy rotation ever since it showed up here at the Phoenix offices (rivaling only our contraband Raycharles Lamontagne disc and Spouse’s seminal Nozomi for repeated listens).

I am enthralled and engaged by Cox’s vocal range, mesmerized by her melancholy pathos, lulled by her sweet sentiment. It’s sort of pathetic, really. I find myself driving along in the car, getting all teary-eyed listening to “Fourth Child” or “No Harm,” manufacturing things for myself to feel all depressed about. There’s no doubt that music (second maybe only to smell) is a highly charged emotional trigger.

So, it should come as little surprise that I am wholly in love with Cox’s debut full-length, Arrive. I’ve even made a copy of it, so I can have it at work and at home and not have to worry about fighting over it with my wife.

Unlike the Coming Grass’s Transient, released earlier this year, almost all of the material on Arrive is being released for the first time, barring the title track, which appeared on GFAC 207, Vol. 3, and doesn’t pop up here until the very end. The material seems to have to come to Cox in a flood. I remember last winter, when she started talking about a solo effort, she said she was writing all kinds of new songs, “and some of them are even kind of happy.”

I think happy might be a relative term for her. These aren’t party songs, but they are, from time to time, upbeat; there is a pervasive feeling of impenetrable hope that keeps what are reflective and thoughtful songs from delving too far into the miasma of Nick Drake or David Gahan.

There are even likely singles here. The opening two numbers, “The Milk Song” and “Hit the Wall,” are adult-alternative radio naturals. With a full-band sound, poppy sentiment, and lyrics reminiscent of a school-girl’s diary, “Milk” sounds as if it could have come off the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack penned by Letters to Cleo. “Wall” has an ultra-catchy “ba-bah-da-da” vocal hook and the great line: “Why are you asking permission to be doing what it’s clear that you have already done.”

If the “band” sounds familiar, yes, it is largely the Coming Grass, dominated by the electric guitars of Nate Schrock and Stephan Jones, the drums of Ginger Cote, and pianos by Paul Chamberlain. The Jerks’ Carter Logan even makes appearances on the fiddle, of all things. Add backup vocals from Darien Brahms on a few songs and the line-up doesn’t look too different from a certain other female-vocalist’s recent solo album, Green Valentine. And, sure, there are similar sounds here — coming from what I guess you could consider Portland’s emerging “session musicians,” but, like Valentine, Cox’s Arrive is unmistakably driven by the lead vocalist and songwriter.

Where Brahms led with her sass and new-found bravado, melding honky-tonk with jazz and Latin flavors — and having a ton of fun — Cox leads with her money voice, sculpted to evoke a dainty girl and strong-armed woman, a nurturing mom and an independent gal.

“Look Up” is the whole package. It opens with a simple lead on the congas, a percussion instrument I’ve never really been that fond of in Western music, but here it works. Or perhaps Cox’s voice is just so good here that they could be pounding on a dumpster and I’d be happy. I remember standing next to Nate during the show at SPACE where Cox first played this live. He was entranced like a 16-year-old hippy girl seeing Trey in the flesh for the first time. We both agreed it was a phenomenal song. But think about that. By that point he’d probably heard her rehearse it a hundred times. Still, he couldn’t contain his inner fan.

When Cox reaches up for the falsetto chorus, it’s a bona fide religious experience. “And the sky still glows even though you’re looking at your feet/ Kicking down at the ground.” Darien’s singing backup here, really grounding the harmonies. And what a song of hope tempered with realism: “No one’s gonna reach in and grab you/ The world’s just going to keep spinning round.” Unless you get up off your sorry ass and do something about it. Otherwise, “One day, you’ll wake up to be 40/ 40 years of shutting down.”

Not that Cox needs a band to prop her up. “Confession #87” is stripped down and shows that she has no problem convincing with just a guitar and her remarkable voice. The lyrics are an interesting half-feminist screed: “I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but most days I can’t tie my shoes/ And most days I can hardly choose/ I confess, I do need you/ Does that make me not independent?”

An interesting question that. Being independent is this lauded trait in “strong” women. But what’s wrong with loving someone to the point that you can’t imagine life without them? Isn’t there a depth of emotion there that’s enviable?

I love the sarcasm laden in the repeated phrase, “well now girls, we’re independent.” Paired with “Devotion” and “Single Girl” (where we’re asked “have you noticed that most things come in pairs?”) there is a pattern of deep-seated familial love broadcast through a picture of what life might be like without the devoted husband and kids. Could be I’m a sucker for that sort of thing right now.

Oh, and there’s flexibility here, too. How about “Stir the Waters,” a “Watching the Detectives” rhythm paired with an “Octopus’s Garden” chord progression in the chorus. The first listen on this one is a little strange — talk about white man’s reggae — but it really grows with repeated listens. It’s super smooth, has Cox singing at some of her lowest on the record (echoed by a falsetto of herself, in impressive fashion) and all these crazy four-note electric fills.

This is where you recognize that Cox’s musicality is being repeatedly emphasized by Nate Schrock’s growing talents as producer. The levels are just completely on, and everything hovers in the background behind Sara, as though thrown into shadow by the light she casts. And there’s always an egg-rattle finish, or tossed-off cymbal, or rumbling, tuning instruments as intro keeping each song from sounding too polished. Check the effect on Chamberlain’s piano for “Paper Cup.” It’s like a ghost, fuzzy at the edges, halting, disinterested. The only choice I might argue with is the brief echoing added to lines in Cox’s fine a capella version of Richard Buckner’s “Fater,” which precedes “Arrive.” A song that aims for purity seems just that bit marred. Maybe that’s the intention.

By the time “Arrive” does come, it’s simple, familiar, climbing four chords are a fond farewell. “I hate it when you’re gone/Don’t go.” I’m not going anywhere.