Tag Archives: American Beauty

Attics of My Life – Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams, ft Amy Helm

I guess if anyone has earned the right to take on Attics of My Life, it’s Larry Campbell.

Campbell is a cornerstone of a certain kind of American roots music, the kind for whom Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are themselves cornerstone records. At 61, he’s half a generation younger than the guys who inspired him, and he’s spent a lifetime learning from them, studying them and gradually becoming a trusted lieutenant for more of them than you care to name.

Let’s name some, just so you know he’s legit: Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Phil Lesh, Levon Helm, Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, Hot Tuna, even BB King – Campbell has played guitar for all of them. That’s his bona fides.

In 2015, Campbell and actress and singer Teresa Williams (Campbell’s wife of 20-odd years) released a record together, the first time either had had their names on the front cover of any record. Their version of Attics of My Life, honed in concert over several years (they’ve performed it often with Phil Lesh, so it has the blessing of one of the masters, if that kind of thing makes a difference to you), closed the album.

Attics was the big vocal-harmony song on American Beauty, the track where the guys put everything they’d been learning about harmony singing (some of it absorbed from hanging out and jamming with David Crosby and Stephen Stills) down on record. In the Classic Albums documentary made on Anthem of the Sun and American Beauty, the pride Lesh took in their achievement on that song was clear. Jerry Garcia’s beautiful hymn-like melody and Robert Hunter’s lyric deserved no less. Still, there are rough edges, and that’s part of the recording’s power. There’s a palpable sense of self-discovery in Attics of My Life; you’re hearing the guys push themselves to a place they’ve never been before, growing and evolving even within the song’s 5-minute running time.

Attics of My Life is so perfect that a cover of it has to mean something different to be worthwhile. I think Campbell and Williams’s version of the song gets its power from a few sources. Firstly, Campbell’s adaptation of the music for one guitar is clever and flawlessly executed. Second, Campbell and Williams are substantially older than the guys in the Dead were when they cut Attics; Campbell is 61, Williams, I guess, in her fifties. Campbell’s oaky voice sounds its age. That adds another dimension to a lyric that is about the difference made over the course of a life by the grace and affirmation bestowed by another. Thirdly, whoever Hunter had in mind when he wrote those words (whether a lover, or some kind of spiritual or universal grace), when Campbell and Williams sing it, it’s impossible not to be conscious of their relationship and put out of your head the idea that they’re singing to each other.

Campbell, Williams and a guesting Amy Helm (daughter of The Band’s late Levon Helm, who recorded Tennessee Jed on his final album) sing the song beautifully, slowing the tempo, caressing each note and breathing as one. It’s cover version as holy writ. It gives me chills.

Larry Campbell Teresa Williams

Everything You Know is Wrong – The Production Club, featuring Lou Barlow

A look at Wally Gagel’s discography is instructive. Before 1999, he worked frequently with the likes of Sebadoh, Superchunk, Juliana Hatfield, and Tanya Donelly – all the Boston-area stalwarts. The relative commercial success of Belly and Folk Implosion was the closest he got to the mainstream.

After appearing on the American Beauty soundtrack through the inclusion of a Folk Implosion song, though, his work gets more and more high profile: the Eels, Muse, New Order, even the Backstreet Boys. Now he mixes Rihanna (and has mixed Jessica Simpson and Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus) records and has steady employment engineering iTunes Originals sessions for a certain internet-only music distributor, which actually sounds like quite a fun gig (working with a very wide range of artists across pretty much every conceivable musical style – most engineering types would find that kind of challenge exciting, even if they weren’t wild about the individual artists).

It’s a long way from the rough and ready early Folk Implosion and Mary Lou Lord EPs.

When Gagel parlayed his new-found industry clout into a record deal for his own project in 2003, he already had the profile that would have allowed him to reach up and out to big-name guest stars, and maybe score a few minor hit singles on the back of the star’s name recognition. It says a lot about him, then, that instead it was his old crew that Gagel asked to come in to front his songs, and Jon Doe from X, Emm Gryner, Donelly, Lou Barlow and Hafdis Huld (from 4AD band Gus Gus) duly answered the call.

The music is good, if not massively original. If you can imagine a halfway point between contemporaneous Moby and Chemical Brothers records, that’s about where the Production Club’s Follow Your Bliss sat. It frequently sounds tailor-made for soundtracking Hollywood action scenes, making his current employment very easily explicable. Its quieter, sparer moments were stronger, giving space to the vocalists to communicate their own personalities.

My favourite amongst these more vocal-led tracks was Everything You Know is Wrong, featuring Lou Barlow and Emm Gryner. It sounds, unsurprisingly, like the Folk Implosion – in fact, it most closely recalls Natural One, from the soundtrack to Larry Clark’s Kids, which had been a minor hit single in the US in the mid-1990s. Same sort of tempo and rhythmic feel, same kind of sparse, drum-led arrangement, but a more fully realised song, one enhanced by Barlow’s improved vocal abilities; over the second half of the nineties, Barlow had matured into a fine singer, most noticeably on the Folk Implosion’s One Part Lullaby and the final Sebadoh album before their 14-year hiatus (The Sebadoh). So much more confident was Barlow, in fact, that in the video for this song he stands up front at the microphone alone, smartly attired, specs-less and sans guitar, while Gagel – the primary artist and composer – sits at the back playing the drums. For old Folk Implosion fans who hadn’t got into the New Folk Implosion – with its full-band sound, Sebadoh-lite acoustic guitars and generally soporific air – this was a nice little nostalgic blast.

Image

Wally Gagel

Image

Dohnosaur Jr!. l-r Bob d’Amico, Lou Barlow, Murph, Jason Loewenstein, J Mascis. Well who’d have thought, eh?