Music Reviews

Steven R. Smith

The Death of Last Year’s Man EP


Emperor Jones

Stark and cluttered. Spare and overflowing. Familiar and magnificent. Dignified and messy. The solo noise of Mirza member Steven R. Smith gleefully/morosely embraces all of the contradictory intricacies of a poignant sound that few have the spirit to muster. And to think that the broad, sweeping expanses of The Death of Last Year’s Man were all captured on a four-track. This EP takes the usually groan-worthy, toadying concept of a “covers album” and turns it into a vibrant Cubist painting – the source material is recognizable, but Smith presents it from a dizzying number of different angles. For instance, revered wordsmiths like Leonard Cohen and Morrissey are muted and hushed, and Smith fills the spaces by picking at the guts of the music seemingly in the middle of the desert. Artists covered are The Smiths, Leonard Cohen, Tim Rose, and Muzsikas.

Since I’ve got nil experience with the latter two, I’ll be brief. Rose’s “Morning Dew” is anchored by soft organ and electric piano while a guitar screeches and retches and shudders in the background. The Muzsikas tune is recast as a shushed space hum, with a patient and chiming guitar line playing over and over again. The real blood on the tracks of course, lies in the Cohen and Smiths tunes. What’s left, when the words are swept away? Plenty. “The Death of a Disco Dancer” is recast as a series of disparate moments. The classic creeping intro is intact, but interpreted by an army of glass crickets, followed surely by a black hole of bass guitar, that is itself replaced by the kind of acoustic guitar playing that gives you bloody fingers, and some absolutely ferocious twin-guitar abuse. And still true to the spirit of the original. Leonard Cohen’s “I Tried to Leave You” is too Appalachian dramatic to be real. Every note is pounded raw and abused, full of the thundering menace and passion of a tent revival meeting. Ten ton drums, screeing guitar, broken acoustic strings, flourishes and bells, tears and bleeding ulcers. Damn.

Somehow, full-length Tableland radiates even more glacial majesty, and it’s not just because this record was done on eight-tracks. Think about the precise finality of Joy Division’s Closer, the end time theories of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and the ragged glory of Howe Gelb and Giant Sand. Monumental sprawling stuff. Just lumping it in with Morricone and spaghetti westerns does Tableland a vast injustice; the music does more than set a mood, it communicates specific longings and urges with direct lyricism. Combine that with a Metallica-y “Black Album” sleeve and inner artwork that suggests both parched landcapes and cabins hidden deep in the hills of Virginia, and you’re dealing with a mysterious, shamanistic presence.

The record begins with “Tableland,” pretty much an all-out depressive sonic odyssey. Dense church bells ring with no chance for redemption. From there, delicate electric piano (reminds me of the soft interlude in “Riders on the Storm”), organ, steely guitar, and deep-ass dub bass dance around one another in willfully oblique yet hypnotic circles. Soft drums take their time joining in this intricate dance. Elements drop in and out, sometimes all of the participants end up passed out on the floor, staring ecstatically up at the starlit sky. Finally they martial their strength, and the song coheres into a fucking fantastic space jam, with a slow inevitable build that will have you crying with joy as it hits a series of sonic climaxes. As seems to be a habit in Smith’s work, at the very moment of greatest strength, the song recedes into the gray distance replaced by introspective atmospherics and found sound swirls.

“Blood Partridges” and “A Celebration” are like Einsturzende Neubauten if they were from deep West Virginia country, using more standard tools of the trade (guitar, organ, drums instead of drills and steel barrels) to be sure, but using them to communicate a different musical language, where the only structural and aesthetic requirements are that of the most direct and personal expression. Replace urban angst/claustrophobia with wide-open spaces and longings that could never be spoken. Plenty of dark corners and solitary nights. These two tracks are too grandiose and yearning for words, more movements than pop songs.

“Caprock And Shelf” is pretty damn near my personal favorite, building up from aimless guitar noodling into a chiming Velvet Underground strum accompanied by brush-stroked percussion and a spine-tingling basswork. As this central pattern threatens to repeat to infinity, a lonesome harmonica and random guitar scratchings and abuse swirl in the background, then overwhelm the initial lockstep. But of course, the ghost of Sterling Morrison rises from the dewy earth and takes up that wonderful rhythmic strum with his bony fingers. Just like all good things, it ends with an organ drone. “Glade” finishes the entire affair off with “Tableland”’s church bells that segue into a tinny, ringing central riff suggesting so many raw feeling, dogged at every corner by another guitar humming and buzzing like a mosquito, then quietly fading into the thick black silence of the record sleeve.

Astonishing. Don’t let either of these pass you by.

Emperor Jones Records, PO Box 49771, Austin, TX 78765

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