I remember picking up American Beauty (top left in my cretinous photo) along with a batch of other Grateful Dead CD remasters and having the same kind of revelatory album experience as when I first heard The Band’s 1969 self-titled record. Something about a few guys being able to channel the ghosts of old bluesmen and their ropey guitars through the modern recording process and encapsulating what a hopeless suburban brit romanticizes as the aura of America.
It simply didn’t matter that I couldn’t hear my locked-out brother slamming on the front door over the chiming mandolins of ‘Ripple’. If you look at the cover, you’ll find that it can either say ‘American Beauty’ or ‘American Reality’. Mmm. Psychemedelic.
So began a long interest in ‘roots rock’, which led me to the other 2 albums I reccomend to you, dear reader: Ry Cooder’s ‘Paradise and Lunch’, and Randy Newman’s ’12 Songs’.
Paradise and Lunch (1974)
Ry Cooder’s cover choices for this album are seemingly illogical. Yet he makes every one sound totally natural in the context of a unified album. Whether they be blues standards from the 18th century or Burt Bacharach tracks from the 50’s, he makes each one sound weirder than ever. This presents a problem, though: Cooder’s lack of original material AND lack of any true vocal power means he has to make these obscure covers his own. He does this by modestly fingerpickin’ and bottleneckin’ his way to the great smoky barroom in heaven and ultimately the highest musical prestige in my book. Seriously; the man is a guitar genius. Check out his Old Grey Whistle Test performance of ‘Jesus on the Mainline’:
12 Songs (1970)
On most Randy Newman albums, the cynicism is dry and sarcastic and ultimately counteracted with some faith in humanity. 12 Songs doesn’t have that. It’s the grumpy uncle. Newman reaches a level of casual, humble, infectious misanthropy. He doesn’t ever sing as himself; there’s always some character he speaks through: a unreliable, flawed, stupid, racist narrator, presenting little vignettes of the worst of backwards America. This allows him to release his cynicism subtly and indirectly and, while it sets him up for perceived inhumanity, he had enough confidence in his relative anonymity and wry intellect to not give a shit.
As for the music, it’s pure understated ingeniousness (real word, trust me) and repays infite re-listenings, each accompaniement suited perfectly to the mood of the lyrics. It works both as a basic roots rock record and a piece of smartass singer-songwritery (not a real word).
Turpentine and dandelion wine
I’ve turned the corner and I’m doin’ fine
Shootin’ at the birds on the telephone line
Pickin’ em off with this gun of mine