I Love Tractors

Flatlanders - Now AgainStrange week; strange weather still. We really didn’t have that usual part of winter where it’s too cold to live and you want to kill everyone at all this year, and it has sort of thrown off my annual schedule of complaints and harassments; I know I meant to dislike something this week, but I can’t remember what.

Or, more to the point, I know what I meant to dislike, but then I liked it by accident. Which is no good, for a critic. I’m expected -and depended on -to hate a certain number of things per year, and strangely enough, this year so far I’m way under quota.

I did hate quite a number of things last week, so I am starting to catch up; but I still really need to find a whole bunch of other things I don’t like at all, quick. And when I’m looking for things I’d really not like to be involved with (and I don’t have the energy for rap and heavy metal), I’ve found I can usually count on modern country music to bore me witless.

Thus it is with great confusion and disappointment that I must report to you that this week I actually quite liked an album by the Flatlanders, a trio comprised of the veteran Texan singer/songwriters Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Actually, the album isn’t modern country at all (I lied); it’s more Texas trad, and I’ve never been a big Texas singer-songwriter guy, either. I’ve heard all these guys before a bit, and liked ‘em OK, but not enough to bother with, and never really heard what all the critics were yappin’ about. I like Bob Wills and Doug Sahm, maybe a little Willie Nelson, but I don’t like cowboy hats and I don’t like songs about tractors.

And this damn Flatlanders album -which, by the way, is called “Now Again” (New West) -actually features a picture of a tractor (or possibly a part of a tractor, or something that goes with a tractor) right on the front cover. However, the weather in the photo is so interesting (featuring, as luck apparently had it, simultaneously a rainbow and a flash of lightning) that it made the tractor almost interesting itself. By golly, I might be able to get a nice, fat metaphor out of this! Let’s see…

Sometimes these old tractors use their lyrics as a sort of lightning that illuminates the human condition (represented in the picture by the hay which the tractor/songwriter is bailing) by the sensitivity of its rainbow-like, uh, thing; or something. Phew!

Bailing aside, what I’m trying to say is, some of these songs have wonderful lyrics. There’s a particularly strong stretch in the middle that includes this from “I Thought the Wreck was Over”: “They’ll tell you to expect the unexpected / But nobody ever tells you where it’s hid”; and this, from “Yesterday Was Judgement Day”: “Yesterday was judgment day -how’d you do? / Did you lay down in heaven? Did you wake up in hell? / I’ll bet you never guessed that it would be so hard to tell”; and who could not love a song called “My Wildest Dreams Get Wilder Every Day”?

The performances are relaxed, varied (each vocalist has his distinctive sound), and charming. It’s a little like the last Dylan album, in that there’s no new ingredients at all, but the result somehow ends up being quite remarkable. There seems to be a certain magic afoot: there’s only one other Flatlanders album, and that was released thirty years ago on eight track tape format only (!!) (though Rounder has since re-issued it.) These guys were young then, and lived together and played together and eventually all went off on their own; but you get the feeling they’re truly glad to see each other again (for one thing, all but two of the songs are credited to all three of them, so it must’ve been a cheerful collaboration.)

The trio format really works here, too, because on their solo albums, these guys really only have a couple of tricks each, which get old after twelve songs; but for four songs each, it’s fine! You really only need about a half a trick per song, tops, technically. Six tricks is actually a lot for one album -you probably wouldn’t even want more than that. Nowadays, you’re lucky if you get more than three or four tricks per record -six is huge!!

Like I say, liking this album so much worried me -I thought maybe I was losing it -so I did further testing, and happily managed to hate a couple of other new country albums, including Porter Hall Tennessee’s “Welcome to Porter Hall, Tennessee” (Slewfoot), which did have one great cut (“Middle Tennessee”) and some good singing (by Molly Conley), but ten other bad ones and much wretched singing (by Gary Roardarmel); and Remy Shand’s “The Way I Feel” (Motown), which, again, isn’t a country album at all (I am truly the soul of deceit!), but which once again teaches us the valuable lesson, “Beware white people on Motown!” (No matter what his promo says, this is not the boy version of India.Arie.) So I am glad to report that my bastard-like qualities have not completely deserted me, and that I will be savaging more unsuspecting up-and-comers next week. Ta!

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