Girlfriend or girl-fiend? There are some excellent break-up albums around at the moment. Lilly Hiatt’s gorgeously rocking ‘Trinity Lane’ is written in blood and self-recrimination and now along comes Coyote from John Calvin Abney, who offers up the tattered remnants of his broken heart. If you’re a fan of John Moreland, you will already be aware of Abney, Moreland’s dependable and extraordinary band member who plays guitar and keyboards, not to mention a gorgeous pedal-steel. They grew up together in Tulsa, Oklahoma and have each other’s backs. Abney will be in the UK in June when he will be hitting the road with John Moreland and before performing as a duo with Moreland each night, Abney will be playing a solo set.
This is Abney’s third album and listeners might be surprised by its mostly mellow style. Although Abney confesses to hanging out and being besties with “the kickers and the stompers,” and despite the fact that the album title Coyote is derived from the name Coyote Trigger, a nick-name for a shit-kicker that Moreland introduced him with, onstage one night; the bulk of the album is really laid back with a selection of songs that exemplify Abney’s sensitive, introspective side.
‘Always Enough’ is a track that wouldn’t surprise you, if found on an Andy Shauf album, or it turned out to be something Aimee Mann had written. The optimism and happy feel of the opening line “Pushing towards paradise on blacktop and tar,” has been fed through the meat-grinder by the time John reaches his sweetheart and the chorus and has received a kick to his cojones: “Prayers to ashes, promises to dust, one of these days we will learn to trust/ there’s no point in making it so tough/ can’t you see now, we were always in love?” The lachrymose vibe is saved from being too maudlin by an uplifting piano trill and captivating guitar. This is pop music carved from the hardwood of experience.
Abney’s romantic streak is suffused with the sublime on the beautiful ‘Souvenir Waltz’ when he sings “Look up at that sky/call down those stars/remember those days, in Oklahoma rain, when it was all ours?” His wistful reminiscing floats above a delightful backing with a sensitive brushed drum part from the metronomic Patrick Ryan, and Shonna Tucker on bass, who both swing wonderfully with John’s delicate guitar. It’s pure poetry in motion. Remember the awesome majesty of ‘Rebel Waltz’ by The Clash? Times that by three.
Andrea Arnold and Wim Wenders are going to love this album. It’s a road movie in music. From that album opening line “Pushing towards paradise on blacktop and tar,” it seems that Abney is always in his truck and on the move. On the elegiac ‘Sundowners’ he sings “I’d kill all these miles for you/ I’ll kill all these miles for you,”. Is Abney wishing he could still visit his ex-? As a gigging musician he covers thousands of miles every year. John says that after his break-up, like Lilly Hiatt, he had to move out and go and live in a new place, this time in another town.
Abney is like a modern day Romantic poet, Wordsworth perhaps, (or Lord Byron – mad, bad and dangerous to know?) but instead of the Lake District, Abney regales us on ‘South Yale Special’ with the glories and infinitesimal expanse of the American open road: “I left Baton Rouge for Texarkan/ Put on my hat and stepped out the van/ You were in my truck and I was in denial/ Took the long way two-lane single file/ North West whisper, South West speaks/ the North East calls and the South East peaks/ but every highway has a voice in the dust/ ain’t calling me/ mama, they’re calling for us.” One could suggest that Abney is giving us what Wordsworth called “the real language of men”. You can smell the gasoline and the oily rag from his cab that he used to wipe his windscreen, take off the radiator cap with and later to clean up the blood from his macerated heart. And is the two-lane single file line an oblique reference to James Taylor’s movie appearance in seminal road movie ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’?
This road trip also takes in Laurel Canyon on the graceful ‘Cowboys and Canyon Queens’. Frank Zappa famously declared Laurel Canyon to be a “freak sanctuary”. Abney drives us around reflecting on the artists who have lived there and whose spirit lives on in the mythology, but before he does, declares “I miss Oklahoma, that boundless, rolling land,” and after driving around the Canyon realises that for him, “LA becomes a dancer in a shroud/ it calls to me sweetly/ but the traffic is too loud,” and that only Tulsa is the place for him. “I’m going back to the country to see what all this means.” Toto, there’s no place like home. (I know – that’s Kansas!)
Abney tips his hat to Dylan on ‘Broken Bow’, which sounds a tad reminiscent of ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry. Broken Bow’, like Cowboys and Canyon Queens is resplendent with prairie imagery and John’s unsatisfied and aching desire for female company. As well as being emblazoned with some soothing pedal steel from yer man, an uplifting fiddle solo from Megan Palmer; heck, there’s even a gorge harmonica solo. There’s a definite lift when the harmonica crosses over to the fiddle. Fasten your seat belts! I wonder if John took the main guitar riff from the version of ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’ that Philip Rambow’s band, The Winkies, recorded on their magnificent Guy Stevens produced album The Winkies, from 1975? For my money, the best version of ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’ ever recorded. It’s even better than the Bob-Meister’s. The good news is that you can buy that album on CD now.
Speaking of winkies, by the pining and pleading tone of most of the songs on Coyote, it’s apparent that Mr. Abney has not been using his as much as he would like.
Boyfriend or boy-fiend? John Calvin Abney is a handsome devil. I don’t think he is going to be single for long.