Steve Wilson. On music.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Roky Erickson at No. 9. The Top 25 for 2010 Countdown! continues

Welcome to the top 25 for 2010 Countdown! Each day we'll countdown, today we continue with number 9, culminating with our (okay, my) numero uno album of the year. When they're handy I'll borrow my earlier reviews from the KC Free Press. Such is the case with this piece on Roky Erickson. 

I welcome all comments, criticisms, questions and dialog in general.

25. Jon Langford - Old Devils (Bloodshot)
24. Vaselines - Sex with an X (Sub Pop)
23. Drive-By Truckers - The Big To-Do (ATO)
22. Magnetic Fields - Realism (Nonesuch)
21. Dum Dum Girls - I Will Be (Sub Pop)
20. Peter Case - Wig! (Yep Roc)
19. Bettye Lavette - Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook (Anti-Epitaph) 
18. Super Wild Horses - Fifteen (Hovac) 
17. Parting Gifts - Strychnine Dandelion (In the Red) 
16. No Age - Everything In Between (Sub Pop)
15. The Fall - Your Future Our Clutter (Domino) 
14. First Aid Kit - The Big Black and the Blue (Wichita Recordings) 
13. Owen Pallett - Heartland (Domino)
12. Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone (Anti-Epitaph)
10 (tie). J. Roddy Walston and the Business - s/t (Vagrant)
10 (tie). Aloe Blacc - Good Things (Stones Throw)

  9. Roky Erickson & Okkervil River - True Love Cast Out All Evil (Anti-Epitaph)

"Astonishing return from the abyss by a rock pioneer"

There’s a documentary film, directed by Keven McAlester, which shares its name with one of Roky Erickson’s classic songs, "You’re Gonna Miss Me." The film chronicles Roky Erickson’s descent into madness. It covers his lost years (hell, decades), a downward spiral precipitated by one lysergic voyage too many, the absurd barbarism of American drug laws and enforcement, the indictable cruelty of the Texas penal system, and his own family’s bizarre psycho-religious preoccupations. The story is tragic. That’s on overused word. Wide receivers pull a hamstring and miss a playoff game and it’s a “tragedy.” Roky Erickson’s story is the real deal.

A bit lost in this tragic tale is the reason, outside of simple human empathy, that anyone gives a shit. It’s the music. Roky Erickson is a remarkable figure in rock music history. His band, the 13th Floor Elevators, made three studio recordings in the sixties that influenced countless musicians (artists like R.E.M., ZZ Top, Primal Scream, Doug Sahm, T-Bone Burnett and the Jesus and Mary Chain contributed to a 1990 “tribute” record called Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye). His solo work from the seventies and eighties, forged through the fog of mental illness and depression, still adds to his myth. His “horror-rock” with the Aliens was nearly as celebrated and influential as his work with the Elevators. Shock, novelty and other such notions aside, Erickson is a wonderful, expressive singer and a remarkable songwriting talent. For ample demonstration of his depth and breadth as a writer I would steer you to a tremendous collection on Shout Factory called I Have Always Been Here Before.

In the early part of the previous decade, Erickson was rescued from the stasis of his mother’s loving, but misguided care (she had religious reasons for denying Erickson schizophrenia medications) and custody was granted to his brother Sumner. Sumner, a tuba player in the Pittsburgh Symphony, had escaped the Erickson family’s religious entrapment and despair. His intelligence and caring quite simply saved Roky’s life. As Will Sheff’s liner notes to True Love Cast Out All Evil plainly state, there are years Erickson will never get back. There was damage done to his psyche and his intellect. Thankfully, though, that’s not the end or the essence of the story.

Cool as that was, it in no way, shape or form prepared me for the triumph of True Love Cast Out All Evil. This album is a revelation, an artistic rebirth, and a joyous collaboration between Erickson and Okkervil River and Austin, Texas band with a pretty impressive resume of their own.

Cast Out’s song stack is bookended by two songs that derive (as do the recordings themselves) from Erickson’s days at The Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where Roky was sent after a pot bust to commingle with murderers and rapists. The psychedelic Biblical vision of “Devotional Number One” opens the album, the more hopeful, direct “God is Everywhere,” concludes it. The songs in between speak to the whole range of emotion and experience contained in Erickson’s remarkable story.

He pulls no punches, but these songs are amazingly free of self-pity; this is just Erickson telling it like it was, and is. “Be and Bring Me Home” finds him shouldering not his heavy load, but just his “given” load. “Bring Back the Past’ is a thrilling two minutes of 12-string folk-rock. “Please, Judge” makes poetic record of Erickson’s plea for freedom; written during his incarceration, it’ s all the more compelling for its use of third-person voice. There are few comparisons to this music when it comes to depth of expression — maybe Bob Dylan and Richard Manuel’s “I Shall Be Released.” “Please, Judge” is followed by the barely contained rage of “Johnny Lawman,” a one-line (repeated seven times) howl from the bottom of Erickson’s existential hell. Okkervil River plays like a hurricane behind him, a perfect musical representation of the lyric’s twisted portrayal of the law’s perversion. Vocally, Erickson may have lost some of the top end of his range, but he’s never sung more expressively. The impact of these performances is at once chilling and heart-rending.

Okkervil River is a marvel throughout. They project the regal authority of early Procol Harum, the massive power of Mott the Hoople, the nimble moves of the Band, and the howling distortion of early Velvet Underground. Cast Out would not be the powerful statement that it is without their committed musicianship. Guitarist and producer Will Sheff is especially central to the album’s success. It was his task to cull an album’s worth of songs from the roughly 60 songs submitted for consideration by Erickson's management. His selections not only present the diversity and depth of Erickson's talent, they tell a story. It’s a story of abject misery (“Goodbye Sweet Dreams”) to be sure, but it’s finally a tale of renewal (“Forever” — ‘One is not a style. One is not a trend’), family (“Be and Bring Me Home” — an especially dramatic and soulful vocal performance), love (the title song) and possibility (“Birds’d Crash”).

True Love Cast Out All Evil is the sound of an artist reborn. It features some of Roky Erickson’s finest, deepest singing. Okkervil River’s accompaniment is as natural, essential and empathetic as the Band’s on Dylan’s Planet Waves album; itself a statement on pain, love and the stuff of life itself. Like Dylan’s music, this music is Americana in the truest, deepest sense of the term. Rooted in blues, folk, country, gospel and rock, the sounds of True Love Cast Out All Evil dispel any latent notions of Erickson as some psychedelic freak and confirm his status as a great American artist.

Reverberating: 9.3 (original), downgraded to 9.1 (it's a tremendous record, but my early enthusiasm has been ever so slightly tempered)