Monday, May 6, 2013

Saint Maybe "Things As They Are" on Fort Lowell Records

Saint Maybe could be the closest thing you can get to the sound of the American Southwest without picking up and moving to that part of the country.

The members of Saint Maybe themselves seem to have naturally gravitated to the Tucson, AZ area after nomadic years of touring to settle down with Fort Lowell Records and release their debut, Things As They Are. Lead vocalist and guitarist Oliver Ray played in Patti Smith’s band and happened to put down roots near Bob Dylan’s drummer Winston Watson who he’d met briefly when Patti was opening for Bob. Along with Oliver’s longtime friend from NY, Chris Sauer, the three ended up as the foundation for Saint Maybe. As the liner notes will attest though, their songwriting is also about bringing in impressive local talent like Fen Ikner, Michael P. Nordberg, Naïm Amor, Connor Gallaher, Chris Giambelluca, Kevin Pate, Tommy Larkins, Thøger Lund, Laura Kepner-Adney and label-mate Tracy Shedd.

This kind of collaboration might seem at odds with their loner, dusty country sound but it also allows Saint Maybe to craft an expansive tonal landscape. They take tracks from an intimate front porch to a massive wind carved canyon valley. On “Everything At Once (and more)” they quickly establish their sense of time and space. What begins with a solitary acoustic guitar opens up with organs and layered distortion. Oliver’s vocal combines Jim Reid from Jesus and Mary Chain’s low-end seriousness with the wizened persona of Tom Petty. It’s a storyteller’s voice that’s seen it all, passing time with a fellow traveler on the side of the road, sitting on a suitcase.
The epic ebbs and flows of the melody start with a crawl only to end up leaping right off the side of this cliff. There’s a real sense of a journey, from the quieter passages that capture imperceptible nuances to the multi layered orchestral arrangements with church choirs. Capturing that immense, wide-open feel is one of the goals here. It isn’t a speedy ride right through the center of the country on the interstate. Geography be damned, Saint Maybe is going to weave around a little and take the long way to get nowhere in particular in order to find those amazing monuments off the beaten path.

Reaching into the depths of country folk, they make full use of the instrument synonymous with solitude, the acoustic guitar, for tried and true blues-rock. A verse, a chorus...a little prayer and a little heartbreak; those elements are at the center of every track. “She’s Alright” begins with a patient acoustic melody and is joined by a tinkling piano in a honky tonk bobbing rhythm. Oliver never strains in delivering his vocal, he isn’t wasting emotion vying for the spotlight, instead he narrates tales in an understated Dylan or Jonathan Richman matter-of-fact style. Tracy Shedd becomes a stand in for the character he’s singing about, giving a voice to the object of his affection.

Saint Maybe is conscious of a heavy narrative direction along with their driving, gritty blues, complete with epic solo’s trailing off into supersonic space. “Everything That Rises” on the B-side continues in a naturalistic style, and like that landscape there isn’t room for unnecessary showiness. The craft is in its straightforward subtlety, the slow instrumental melodies and haunting guitar tone reminiscent of Neil Young’s chilling Deadman soundtrack. The mood turns from a prairie sunset into a peyote vision quest with twisting distortions and echoes, and the title lyric leads the cresting waves of layers. Saint Maybe follows the religion of a darkening sky that suddenly becomes a towering dust storm. Resisting alt-country they find time for psych experimentation in skittery metal reverb and angelic choir singing behind Oliver’s heavy vocal delay.

“Take It Easy (But Take It)” saddles the electric with cowboy reverb and an Ennio Morricone crisp delay. They go to impressive lengths in the shockingly perfect capture of a single snare hit or sliding fingers on metal strings in the next room. They appreciate there’s nothing sadder than the use of a slide guitar but the feeling lies in the storytelling, the melody is only the supporting cast. There’s no need for vocal howling or raspy blues torment, these songs are tortured in a more subtle, self destructive way. It’s a sea shanty morality tale of Man’s injustices and attempts to restrain the track only hold off the inevitable tide of wriggling, slippery notes. It becomes a swirling psych again about the sun going down and fighting the tension of chaos.

“Things As They Are” is a powerful narrative about what should be an all too ordinary subject. Wishing on a star becomes the futile thing that it is; a pointless, impossible act of hope. It’s a sentiment that's better when delivered by Saint Maybe of course, and ultimately that’s where this record succeeds, in examining everyday emotions with a familiar musical language. The record isn’t going out of its way to impress, but just to exist as that favorite found piece of furniture. It’s more about the history you’ve given it and the things you couldn’t live without.

Get this grey marble 12" vinyl from Fort Lowell Records.

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