Magazine cover discs come and cover discs go, sometimes there’s a track or two that sparks an interest – I first encountered The Decemberists via a disc from Word magazine, that was a good find. Just a few, though, are quite literally life-changing. That may sound like terrible hyperbole but in the case of Uncut’s ‘Americana 2004‘ disc it is quite true. Mainstream popular music in the Nineties had pretty much been a washout for me and I was doing little more than keeping up with the likes of Dylan and Neil Young with the occasional other breakthrough album or artist, but mostly I was back exploring the richer world of folk which was generally finding far more imaginative paths. And this was ok, but I needed some new directions, some new bands, some new voices. And then on a long journey North I picked up at a motorway service station, almost on a whim, the latest issue of Uncut – I can’t really say why, certainly the front cover of The Cure’s Robert Smith was not a big selling point. As the journey went on and the traffic got slower I decided to switch from the radio to the ‘Americana 2004‘ cover disc. And everything changed.
It’s not simply that this collection was an introduction to several bands that would go on to be favourites, it was also that it was a very broad genre definition. It includes some pretty straight ahead rock, that might appeal to those who already like Springsteen, but there’s also a good serving of singer-songwriters who are not afraid to present the kind of word rich and
metaphor heavy lyrics that border on the poetical. If you like Dylan then you’re unlikely to reject Josh Ritter. And alongside both of these are a number of country-ish songs that couldn’t be further removed from the big hat country of the day with its obsession with pickups, dogs, beer and long-legged best gals. And to top it all there were instrumentals that showed a musically exploring spirit that took rock in new directions. And then there was Richmond Fontaine. This fifteen track compilation was a roadmap to a whole new direction in good music, and it called this multifaceted genre by the all encompassing name of Americana. I’d go on to buy albums (a lot of albums) by twelve of the featured artists; I’d found three new favourite bands who not only had new material but, glory be, back catalogue as well. Six of the bands – and it would or could have been more if the stars had aligned better – I’d go on to see live, some several times, with Explosions in the Sky being particularly memorable at The Astoria, The National were awesome at Shepherds Bush, and Josh Ritter was so good at Bloomsbury Ballroom that I followed him up the road a couple of days later to the Alban Arena. That’s life changing.
There’s a track listing below, but to pick out a few songs for special mentions – Jim White’s ‘Static on the Radio‘ and Iron & Wine’s ‘Free Until They Cut Me Down‘ mapped out a different take on country and American folk which incorporated that Southern Gothic feel with the Jim White song eliciting a spectral haunted vibe with smells and noises invoking all kinds of memories, whilst Iron & Wine’s loping ‘Free Until They Cut Me Down‘ tells an alternative cowboy tale of crimes and misdemeanours leading to strange and unusual punishments. That strange and unusual punishment feel took on a self-harming, self-punishing perspective on ‘Prisoner of‘, a superb song from Carl Johns’s short-lived side-project Charlemagne.
That straight-ahead rock was there in the form of the punkish Jesse Malin’s ‘Mona Lisa‘ which tongue trippingly documents a circle of acquaintance that is spiralling out of control – whether they’re aware of it or not; and by the heavy, and heavily textured, ‘Feed Kill Chain‘ from the post-Uncle Tupelo Jay Farrar. What a sound, what a vocal. This was, without a doubt, the exciting new direction I’d subconsciously been looking for. Throw in Giant Sand that offered an almost Zappa-esque – in attitude if not sound – free form wilful strangeness.
And then there’s the three bands – so different from each other – who were to become constant companions for the next few years. Explosions in the Sky took the rock band format – this is, after all, just guitars, bass and drums – and painted the hugest canvass imaginable on ‘First Breath After Coma‘, taking loud-quiet into the realm of false ending and new beginning.
The National’s ‘About Today‘ is jaw dropping in its intensity, the doubt that Matt Berninger communicated singing “Tonight…..you just close your eyes / And I just watch you / Slip away / How close am I, to losing you ?” over the most aching of violin accompaniment and an insistent, and persistent, drum pattern. And this was a band that, on a little investigation, had been perfect from day one, album one.
And finally the standout track of them all, ‘Western Skyline‘ by Richmond Fontaine. How could a song be so audacious? The fatal aftermath of an undescribed car crash, a series of consoling lies and Paul Brainard’s complex beyond belief pedal steel. A landmark song of the decade, not just the year and certainly one of the signposts perfectly defining the genre of Americana – it doesn’t have to sound like this, but if it does then it is Americana. Of course not many songs do sound like ‘Western Skyline‘ – the heightened emotions, the pedal steel, the military drumming that turns on a dime as the guitar really kicks in to lift the song to the heights of, well, odd as it may seem Pink Floyd at the very heights of their powers around the time of ‘Wish You Were Here‘. That long coda could have been extended for another five minutes and the ear would not have tired of it.
The cover disc is, in many ways, just an audio advert for a range of artists – but in a couple of decades of piling up these things no such disc has ever had such an impact again. Some have come close – but ‘Americana 2004‘ is the, so far, unassailable benchmark for success in delivering the new in great handfuls.
UNCUT Presents – Americana 2004
1 American Music Club Another Morning
2 Josh Ritter Wings
3 Jesse Malin Mona Lisa
4 Jim White Static On The Radio
5 Richmond Fontaine Western Skyline
6 Giant Sand Flying Around The Sun With Remarkable Speed
7 The National About Today
8 Iron & Wine Free Until They Cut Me Down
9 Jesse Sykes The Dreaming Dead
& The Sweet Hereafter
10 Papa M Wedding Song No. 3
11 Sun Kil Moon Carry Me Ohio
12 Ben Weaver Voice In The Wilderness
13 Charlemagne Prisoner Of
14 Jay Farrar Feed Kill Chain
15 Explosions In The Sky First Breath After Coma