The Crooked Mouth
Chicago Arts Journal - Review of Yes Face by The Crooked Mouth
Mon, Jan 20, 2014
Once upon a time there was an album called Yes Face by the band The Crooked Mouth.
That's how I wanted to begin this review of the album called Yes Face by the band The Crooked Mouth. It's a beginning that would have paid homage to Ada Grey, a young blogger whose theater criticism is well-known to most fringe folks in Chicago. I wanted to begin the way Ada begins because I also wanted to end the way she ends: People who would like this album are people who like asses, wistfulness, losing friends, googling tsunamis, big tits, children, sins, doubt, and shirts.
I've rejected this approach. Ersatz Ada doesn't cut the mustard. Only Ada should do Ada.
Be warned: this review is deeply hued with personal feelings. My desire to channel Ada arose because Chicago's fringe arts scene, with its overlapping communities making up one great society, has grown more important to me since I left it to live in Los Angeles.
For the past half-decade I've retreated into vintage recordings of calypso and Hawai'ian music to get the sound of LA out of my ears, the sound of clamoring for attention. My own clamoring is in that noise, too. I must cower in bed with the blinds closed against the afternoon sun, listening to Lord Executor, Wilmouth Houdini, the Mighty Sparrow and Growling Tiger, or Sol Ho'opi, Sam Ku West, King Bennie Nawahi and Prince Wong to drown out all the zeitgeist-jockeying and my own complicity in it.
Nostalgia for an authenticity that perhaps never was, I guess, is what impels me.
"Authenticity" seems a peculiarly American obsession when it comes to music. It goes back to Alan Lomax's biases and persists in the notion of street cred, but now it's the artists themselves obsessed with projecting authenticity, a depressing enterprise to observe.
The Chicago artists I'm talking about don't strive to be real. Art is their reality. There's a kind of Big Shoulders or just-get-on-with-it way they go about making theater, music, literature, painting and sculpture, whether their subject is fantastical or industrial or – if those two adjectives suggest a spectrum – somewhere in between. I could contrast what they do engage in with the fashionable shtick they eschew, but that's a dissertation unto itself.
When I met Jenny Magnus and Beau O'Reilly we were all wearing black. Or maybe I'm just remembering one day we all happened to be wearing black. If that sounds pretentious, so what? If so, it was authentic pretention. It was the late 1980s. The nation had just come through the moral wood chipper of Ronald Reagan's Morning in America, and in many ways we were all in mourning for America. We were also unconsciously plumbing the depths of a lyric style of Buddhist existentialism. And black was slimming.
Beau and Jenny were a binary star around whom many and various creative projects coalesced. They were a theater company, a band, and a writing/performance core radiating multiple force fields of drama, literature and music all concatenating in spheres. When their romantic partnership came to an end their work never entirely separated. Natural cohesion bound them, like gravity, even where there was friction and agony of influence. Some of the community I still associate with Beau and Jenny's fields of force has dispersed to all parts of the world, but the pair, alone and together, keep replenishing their artistic clusters and birthing new ones. Their new record with their band The Crooked Mouth carries me back to the fertile ground they've never stopped cultivating.
Yes Face is a terrifically good record. It travels on vocal harmonies and drums while it shimmers and jangles with strings. The drumming and bass are great, tempos and sophisticated time signatures change without fanfare, but rather with ease and confidence in a way the body experiences joyfully without having to filter it through the intellect. Sophistication and complexity without over-thinking is part of what makes these songs masterful creations, as compositions and arrangements. Troy Martin, Matt Test and Vicki Walden, the other band members, do backup vocals, strings, bass, brass, piano and accordion, and rotate vocally to the foreground with excellent results.
Jenny and Beau have helped form my taste in music in their capacities as creators and practitioners as well as colony-catalysts. As colony-catalysts they affected the movement patterns of the friends I learned from the most, as those friends flowed into, around and out of Chicago. By "helped form my taste," I mean they and these friends strongly influenced the way I seek music. It's what leads me to listen to early music, my vintage island explorations, Morricone and other soundtrack works, klezmer, bluegrass, mento, Lou Harrison, Texas swing, Ukrainian lute, jump, exotica, Captain Beefheart, Uilleann pipes, New Orleans rock and roll – and it has instilled suspicion of crap that's made only as mass product in a consumer industry, and impatience with anything that bores me.
Dave Van Ronk is a guy I've been listening to in preparation to see the new Coen Bros movie, and I'm struck by similarities between Van Ronk and Beau O'Reilly. Aesthetically, there's an ease in their vocals, which I could call "timbre-forward" in the way Napa cabernets are "fruit-forward," though the vocals are dominated by earth, leather and coffee, which makes them far more pleasant and intriguing than those fruit-bomb wines. The wine analogy is lousy, in fact. I just wanted to say "timbre-forward" because it's accurate and fun.
It's really the only way Beau's and Van Ronk's vocals are similar. Van Ronk was a researched stylist, albeit natural about it. Beau is consistently Beau, having perhaps more thoroughly digested his influences, not separating them one from another into discrete spotlights. He splays high note syllables like Anthony Newley, curls his mid-range around his fingers like a more skillful Allen Ginsberg (whom he once played onstage), and in his lower range can threaten somewhat like fellow Chicagoan Michael Shannon's General Zod. But socially, like Van Ronk, Beau is a mentor, survivor, institution, master craftsman, scholarly artist, and elder statesman. Like Genghis Khan, he is a progenitor. Every couple of years, it seems, I meet someone who claims to be his kid or grandchild, and I take their word for it.
His lyrics are odes and stories in which simple things are attempted and succeed, or fail, or turn out well just because, or succeed despite the tendency of people to fail to be as good as their intentions, or despite their tendency to even fail to have good intentions. He sings with placidity even when cutting loose full-voiced, giving his interpretations detached bemusement interspersed with avuncular admonitions.
The failure of humans to be all they can ideally be, and what's funny and sad about that, and what's fun about the ways they attempt to overcome that failure, is what I enjoy most about Yes Face. It may not be its dominant feature, but it's what I hear most. Listening for it helps me feel the way the music isn't just a medium in which the lyrics flow, but a character against which the lyrics play. Beau and Jenny have always lent themselves to listening this way, even when doing covers.
Where Beau explains methodically, Jenny demonstrates dramatically. Here's a story I made up about Jenny Magnus: I imagine someone at some time told her she thinks too much, and she decided that was a stupid thing for that someone to say, but she's self-critical enough to every once in a while wonder if it's true, and then the fact she has to even wonder that pisses her off. I love that. I know I only made it up, but it feels like Jenny to me. In songs, Jenny lets stuff get to her and then gets to why it gets to her, then reflects on the process with cutting critique that is insightful and often very funny.
Jenny sounds like no other singer, male or female, with a clear, strong voice usually supported with a conviction belying the vulnerability in her lyrics. This Jenny voice has a wisdom that fades till forgotten, then is later rediscovered. It's like a character who never quite learns her lesson because of a mischievous, ill-advised, compulsive curiosity. Her lyrics and singing revel in locating her lost wisdom each time in its new disguise, calling it out and unmasking it. On Yes Face, ornamental glottal stops and yodels are used more sparingly than in her earlier work. It's a purer, less ornamented Jenny, well-set amid ukulele and banjo in the economical ensemble.
Jenny betrays a suspicion that joy, due to its transience, is not to be trusted. Her wit is self-deprecating as it travels toward realization that the world is beautiful despite intellectual protests. She mocks pettiness, rage, shallowness, cowardice, loneliness and shadenfreude even as she, in a certain way, confesses to them. All the while her voice is gathering strength and joy in the act of creating and performing, till at last Jenny enacts a climactic, straight-faced, courageous conquest over the embarrassment of being caught in the act of celebrating passions both admirable and less so.
Vicki Waldman's vocals achieve a similar ouroboros loop when fronting the track "Wah Wah Wah," not with conviction undercut by uncertainty, as in Jenny's case, but with an optimistic sincerity undercut by mocking lyrics that can border on the sardonic. In songs where she's called upon to blend, she fleshes harmonies out beautifully, balancing Jenny's no-bullshit delivery and Beau's clean storytelling with something like hope that maybe a little sweetness might be tolerated if only to make the trip down the rough road of self-recognition a little easier.
What is this music? One felt Kurt Weill's influence in Jenny and Beau's previous, protean and long-lived ensemble, Maestro Subgum and the Whole (whose complete box set came out this past year), or maybe the influence was Brecht himself. Maestro wandered around stylistically in folk, rock and – being theater-makers as well as musician/songwriters – cabaret. Back then I called their music "art song," a term I learned at KlezKamp, which was a kind of klezmer boot-camp and Jeebus there's really no room to explain what any of that is right now.
Maestro's arrangements were always brilliant. The Crooked Mouth's are, too. Divergent styles and the contributions of varying songwriters doing many musical duties somehow don't mess up the coherence. This band is a thing far less elaborate than Maestro at the height of its layered complexity. The Crooked Mouth cuts its own groove. Maybe it's a shorter distance between two points. Where Maestro was a beast, the Crooked Mouth is its own critter, albeit with Beau and Jenny's genes clearly evident.
The Crooked Mouth, although its fiber is country/folk, still bears the influence of theater. However, their country and folk, whatever those categories have come to mean or not mean, don't sound like musical theater people doing country and folk, imitating tropes and making sure to hit hallmarks as if ticking them off on a laundry list. Troy Martin and Matt Test pluck and strum their stringed boxes in accordance with the nature of the instruments, not according to a Way They're Supposed To Be Used In This Genre. Troy's vocals on a song like "Ghost Cat" are earnest and in the moment, and if the lyrics happen to be particularly good, they don't come off as clever in that musical-theater-composer-aping-a-genre way. They're just really good lyrics. Though far more typical in alt country than the radio-ready garbage coming out of Nashville, really good lyrics are allowed in country music.
But this isn't alt country. This isn't alt folk. This is art song in that the songs are works of art. Contemporary folk? That makes sense, if we need a genre name to make sense out of music. And I guess we do. Genres have become micro-exact these days. There are people who can tell the difference between reggaeton and dancehall, or brostep and dubstep. Apparently thousands, even millions. God bless those scientists of musical taxonomy. So let The Crooked Mouth be contemporary folk. They're contemporary and they're folks.
It's astounding how little fuss The Crooked Mouth make about their influences. They may quote, they may make the odd pop-culture reference here and there, but not in a grandstanding way. I call this astounding because they seem to draw from an endless well of sources, yet their songs are untainted by the dystopian shopping mall pressing in on us from our ever-more-interactive communication screens. If anything, Beau and Jenny seem to have grown more effortlessly independent of the self-validating spectacle.
These are music-makers with the natural bent to realize good songs. Melody and lyric come together in beautiful, often unusual ways without clutter or extraneous decor. The focus here is on the craft of making interesting melodies and writing lyrics that are well-written simply because that's how a good writer approaches a lyric. Contrast this with so much of pop and even indie rock music where the goal seems to be to have things happen four times.
Where everything on the record comes together for me – remember my warning at the top about deeply hued with personal et cetera – is in The Crooked Mouth's rendition of "Venice" by Diane Izzo, from her first record, One. Diane was a friend of ours, a brilliant singer/songwriter we lost to cancer in early 2011. She was one in that orbit of concatenating colonies, whose career was nurtured by Beau and Jenny and their collaborators at the wonderful, wonderfully ambitious folk/jazz club they ran for a while, the Lunar Cabaret.
Diane's version of "Venice" is Diane's, and I'm not reviewing her album, though I urge you to buy it.
Crooked Mouth's "Venice" begins with ukey, mandoliny-sounding strumming reminiscent of the intro to Led Zeppelin's "Going to California." I don't know if the Venice Diane wrote about was Venice, California, but that's how I read it in Crooked Mouth's version. She did have her issues with Los Angeles when she came out to make a career, so she set a more independent path after that.
The anthemic treatment "Venice" gets from the Crooked Mouth ensemble, then, resonates powerfully with me. Beau's vocals lead, with Jenny featured and harmonizing crisply, and the other lovely voices fleshing out the majestic melody. It's one of the most gorgeous things I've ever heard. Everything I've written above about the virtues of their musicianship and the play of vocal against lyric manifests in this song, while yet a further complexity weaves through. The song is about memory and youth and camaraderie and loss. It's about realizing later you weren't as wise as you'd thought, yet mourning the loss of that naïve approach, whatever trouble it might have led you into.
So they're singing about a great deal when they're singing Diane's song. It's an anthem and an ode.
In Los Angeles and New York, the pop music establishment, like the movie industry, is trying to hold the same territory even as the tectonic plates of progress are slipping the old foundations out from under its feet. It seems odd that our mass-media Cult of Youth, begun in the 1950s, persists despite the passage of the Baby Boomers into middle age. It would be nice if we could drag the culture some distance into maturity in our wake, rather than wallow with it in the stagnant infantilization of taste.
Fortunately in the rest of the world most music reaches its audience onstage and through the web, and that audience is looking beyond the parochial horizons of yesterday's corporate command economy. Listening habits continue to broaden despite the waning Giant Label industry's attempts to shrink our horizons with an increasingly homogenous commercial radio spectrum. Music creation has become decentralized, as it was for most of human history, I guess. The Crooked Mouth's Yes Face is a good example of how, when artists fully inhabit the world outside corporate circumscription and take as a given the freedom to do so, the art they make can be mature yet still startle with fresh discoveries.
review by Jeffrey Dorchen