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Music

Questions of Faith

The Silos and Jon Dee Graham Mine Life’s Too Few Highs and Too Frequent Lows on New Albums

See the Light: The Silos (with Walter Salas-Humara, center) offer glimmers of transcendence on their new album.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 9/15/2004

The Silos play the Mojo Lounge Sept. 16 and at the Iota Café in Arlington, Va., Sept.17. Jon Dee Graham splits the bill with the Silos at the Iota Café Sept. 17 and opens for John Hiatt at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., October 13-15.

When the Silos came to the Roots Café a year ago, Walter Salas-Humara wore all 43 years of his life, most of it spent in rock ’n’ roll’s margins, in his long, creased face. Backed up against a Charles Village church window, he played a battered acoustic guitar, but it generated an unholy racket. It was the sound of things falling apart, and in his New York’s Lower East Side nasal wail he sang, “You feel hungry and lost, but you can’t sit still.”

 

The Silos
When the Telephone Rings
Dualtone

Jon Dee Graham
The Great Battle
New West

Various Artists
Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo
Or

Various Artists
13 Ways To Live
Red House

Salas-Humara may have a longtime New Yorker’s skepticism, but he was raised in Florida’s Cuban-American community and he retains a Latin, Catholic faith, even if his music takes a secular form. When the choppy chords of the verse ascended into the anthemic chorus melody, he cried out, “Only love can send you to the sky.” It’s the kind of line that can be sickeningly sweet in the wrong setting, but Salas-Humara had earned the right to sing it. He acknowledges just how cruel and empty the world can be, reflecting it in his lyrics and music, and the glimmer of transcendence in the chorus from “The Only Love” proved absolutely thrilling.

After all, singing about a world that’s nothing but gloom and doom is as easy and dishonest as singing about a world that’s nothing but love and flowers. The challenge is to evoke the world as it really is—a mixture of injustice and small victories. That’s just what the Silos do on their magnificent new album, When the Telephone Rings. It opens with the studio version of “The Only Love,” this time with Television’s Richard Lloyd playing a spiraling lead guitar part that stokes the song’s climb to an exhilarating climax.

Bassist Drew Glackin switches to weeping lap-steel guitar for the title track, a country lament that declares you can miss your hometown even when you’re still there. “Holding on to Life,” built atop a Neil Young-ish country-rock two-step, finds reasons to keep going, even in the wake of a grisly car wreck. Salas-Humara uses strings to frame “The First Move” in much the same way his ex-band mate Alejandro Escovedo (in the Setters) might. The song argues that there’s no point in “standing in a puddle of water waiting for a shock”; you’ve got to make the first move even if you might lose.

In the same vein is “Innocent,” another highlight of last year’s Roots Café show. It begins with a shouted challenge, “The world doesn’t owe you a thing,” and a stabbing bass line that implies an impatience exhausted with whining. But just when the song feels ready to sink into a despairing answer to the question “Is there ever any end in sight?”, a glorious guitar figure emerges. It releases Salas-Humara’s throaty yowl, “Keep your heart innocent of your world.”

ýike Salas-Humara, Jon Dee Graham is an ex-band mate of Escovedo (in the late, great True Believers) with a Latin, Catholic background that he mixes with a brittle, Velvets-like rock ’n’ roll. Graham grew up Mexican -American in Quemado, Texas, but he found that his gravelly, Tom Waits baritone worked best in roots rock. Over four steadily improving solo albums, he captured the struggle between life’s defeats and lingering hopes as well as anyone in English-language pop. That struggle inspired the title of The Great Battle, his new album and masterpiece.

“Twilight” leads off the new album, with Graham backed by bassist Andrew DuPlantis, lap-steel guitarist Michael Hardwick, drummer Jason White, and producer/guitarist Charlie Sexton, fresh from Bob Dylan’s band. They summon a troubling atmosphere but also hold out hope for redemption. “It’s as close as your left hand,” Graham sings, “it’s as far as the promised land/ Do you believe it’s right where you stand? Well, I do.” The lyrics’ promise is backed by music that roils in the darkened verses before clearing into the sunshine of the chorus melody.

Graham often sounds as if he’s singing with a mouth full of broken glass, and his efforts to wring a fetching melody from such an instrument mirrors his lyrics’ attempt to find a reason to believe amid life’s disappointments. Angel-voiced Patty Griffin assists that effort on two key songs. Over the lilting country bounce of “Something to Look Forward To,” Griffin harmonizes as Graham describes a life where you fall asleep watching the cops fighting poor people on television and wake up in last night’s clothes. “It ain’t that the dream is dead,” he sings, “but it ain’t feeling very well/ Let’s prop it up in a corner and hope no one can tell.”

Battle includes 10 Graham originals plus Neil Young’s hymnlike “Harvest” and the traditional, “Lonesome Valley.” It’s a collection of secular prayers and it ends with the best one of all, “World so Full,” a country ballad that celebrates life not for being perfect but for being imperfect. “I know it’s hard, but I know it’s sweet,” he sings in a weary sigh, “complicated and incomplete, but I’m still in love with the world so full.”

Salas-Humara and Graham aren’t the only singer/songwriters who have been inspired by Alejandro Escovedo’s example. When Escovedo collapsed and was hospitalized due to hepatitis C last year, a tribute/fund-raising album was planned, and so many folks volunteered that it expanded into a two-CD, 32-song set. Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo features interpretations of Escovedo’s songs from the likes of Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Charlie Sexton, Los Lonely Boys, Son Volt, Ian Hunter, Charlie Musselwhite, the Jayhawks, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, the Mekons’ Jon Langford and Sally Timms, the Faces’ Ian McLagan, and the Velvet Underground’s John Cale.

Some work better than others, but most of them reveal that Escovedo’s songs don’t depend as much on his distinctive sonic signature—that mix of Velvets punk, chamber strings, and Mexican folk music—as everyone thought. Loud or soft, with or without strings, grungy or rootsy, these melodies and stories still work. Graham transforms “Helpless” into a grinning, growling stomper, and Escovedo himself unveils a new track, “Break This Time,” a Stones/ Stooges rocker about seeing trouble coming his way, as it always has before. This time, though, he resolves not to break under the pressure.

Cellist Brian Standefer, the linchpin of Escovedo’s chamber-rock sound, has now joined pianist Bukka Allen and guitarist Robbie Gjersoe to become Screen Door Music, an Austin, Texas, production team. Their new project is 13 Ways to Live, 13 new recordings of 13 new songs by 13 different artists in response to the Iraq War.

The songs range from the pointed topical commentary of Eliza Gilkyson’s country number about Iraq’s “Highway 9” to the jagged-edged surrealism of Escovedo’s “Notes on Air,” from Butch Hancock’s Woody Guthrie-like attack on George W. Bush in “The Damage Done” to Patty Griffin’s ballad eulogy for a “Dear Old Friend.” The album is far more cohesive than you might suspect, for the Screen Door musicians arranged and played on every track, and each singer tries to find some glimmer of hope in the bleakness that is America in 2004.

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