Heart of the Midwest: Money for Guns’ 21st Century Life

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“When Pierre started this city
He set the streets just for you and me
But he never could have had all this in mind
And if you’ve got the time, I’ve got the time….”

“I’m Your Mark,” (Will Saulsbery)

From his early days in the Frustrated Bachelors, through his days doing dirty work as a substitute high school teacher, to his current work in St. Louis’ Money for Guns, Will Saulsbery, the band’s principal writer and lead singer, has never yearned to get the hell out. As a nearly lifelong Missourian (like Will), I can testify that that is, in fact, a yearning one hears frequently, particularly from artistic types. I can definitely understand such a yearning; often, particularly when my mind drifts to our state’s legislature, I feel the state name should be spelled “M-I-S-E-R-Y.” What I like about Saulsbery and his band is that, in their music and words, they capture fairly vividly what it’s like to live here, without condescending, which, for all our growing resemblance to dubious states that shall remain nameless, would be a dick move.

Paradoxically, though, part of what makes one a Missourian is the desire to escape, however temporary that desire might burn. The album begins with “Dead, Drunk, and Pretty”‘s persona lost in a dream of New Orleans (are the referenced “gutter punks” from the dream, or on St. Louis streets?), and ends with a drawn-out, dope-sprung dream of El Dorado, in which a lover uncomfortably comforts his junkie paramour with the likely-doomed idea of cutting and running from St. Louis’ radiating gateway. It’s hard not to notice, though, the telling, unifying details that evince an admirable rootedness: of interstates out of Kansas, of hawks’ eyes, of trains (three references, not sure if one is a MetroLink), of the founding father Pierre Laclede, of cold-eyed live burials, and of straight-out declarations like “I can’t wait to see St. Louis again”–without its “TV or the gunmen.” I wonder if all of this is all that Missourian, or if it’s U.S.A. circa 2015. I think it’s Missouri. “The Catholic kids drowning this town” of “I’m Your Mark”–which, by the way, lead into another suggestion of leaving–might be the tip-off.

I don’t trust labels as far as music goes. They usually sell the creators short. 21st century Missouri seems most known for Nelly, Tech9 (sp?) and, vaguely, Americana. The former two rappers couldn’t be more different, though they are underrated in how of this place they are; the latter genre has to stretch a little to incorporate The Ben Miller Band, whatever Mark Bilyeu’s up to, Kentucky Knife Fight, and this group of ne’er-do-wells–just to name a few I know well. Kansas City, St. Louis, and Columbia all have their bohemias, but, from my experience, they don’t seem rooted in this place. What feels Missourian about Money for Guns is the touches of Americana, especially Dr. Todd Jones-Farrand’s mandolin, which doesn’t always do the usual things (check out his runs and comping on the at-times-punk-jazzy “Red High Heels”!), without the abandoning of a straight-ahead Midwestern kid’s love of straight-ahead rock and roll. Epitomizing this strategy (that seems like a cynical word, and I do not mean it that way) are the album’s two lead cuts, the title track, and the flat-out beauty quoted twice already, “I’m Your Mark.” I wouldn’t call a daringly extended piano-fueled coda “Americana”; I’d call it guts and growth. And vocals are sure enough music, as well; Saulsbery’s tenor has matured considerably from American Trash, where at times he seemed to be trying to catch the elusive (but fading) tail of Conor Oberst’s hyper-emotive star. On 21st Century Life, he’s content to let the natural tears (rhymes with “bears”) in his singing convey the matters of his Midwestern heart. I find that Kyle Kelley’s baritone changes of pace need a little work, a little nuance. But I don’t remember him taking verses or leads on the debut, so perhaps all he needs is time.

I really like this album. I can tell you from three listens that “Dead, Drunk, and Pretty” (the production of which shows up the rest of the album a shade), “Red High Heels,” and, especially, “I’m Your Mark”–a definition of the heart of the Midwest if anything I’ve heard is–are worthy of your downloading if you are just wanting to tire-kick or dip your toe in the Money for Guns pool. I would lay down a Jackson that the album will grow a layer of intensity performed live, so look for them in your town. And, thinking about the band’s (and the, um, auteur‘s) future, I will also wager that the opening out of this record into the wild air of the state’s streets, highways, and rails, from American Waste‘s dank and dangerous club interiors, indicates creative minds focused on more than just the song at hand. That is the sign of artistic endurance, folks.

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First Third o’ 2015 Top Twenty Albums, in Pleasure-Order:

First Third o’ 2015 Top Twenty Albums, in Pleasure-Order:
  1. Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie: December Day (Legacy) – Still picks, sings, and writes better than professionals a quarter of his age. Nails down a concept album second only in 2015 to the next item–wait, maybe it is better. I can’t remember….
  2. Kendrick Lamar: to pimp a butterfly (Aftermath) Sprawling, manic depressive, multi-masked masterpiece seems to include voices of a whole city, plus 2Pac’s (from beyond the grave). Also, offers cautious consolation to the despairing and a quiet, level warning to the rest. What we were wanting from D’Angelo on Black Messiah, in a way, but didn’t really get. Bonus: Best employment of Robert Glaspar than even on Robert Glaspar albums.
  3. Jack DeJohnette: Made in Chicago (ECM) – Never count an old jazzman out–never. Jack and Muhal Richard Abrams keep a loose lasso around reedmen Threadgill and Mitchell.
  4. Kate Tempest: Everybody Down (Big Dada) – Skeptical about poetry with music? Me, too. Very. BIG exception that proves the rule.  
  5. 79rs Gang: Fiyo on the Bayou (Sinking City) – 7th and 9th Ward NOLA Injuns join forces for one of the best Injun albums in years? Wait: there’s that many of them? YES. Also: support this label!
  6. Low-Cut Connie: Hi Honey (Ardent) – Very weird, frequently funny indie roots band powered by sly boogie piano and an odd UK/US duo who always sport at least a Hollywood loaf.
  7. The Close Readers: The Lines are Open (Austin) – New Zealand novelist-led band needs you only to do this to be hooked: click the link and follow along. “Hardcore” – Husker Du’s so loud…
    I can’t hear the engine failing
    Driving to your house
    Got a sense of trepidation/You tell me Bob Mould’s gay
    You read it in the paper
    But you say it in such a way
    Trying to cause me aggravation/I say I don’t care who he’s with
    Or if he does it upside down
    Zen Arcade’s still a gift
    it’s the record of our generation/So put on some Little Red Rooster
    Get some words from Thus Spake Zarathustra
    We’ll make another killer tape loop
    Our group is good
    Our group is strong
    Our group’s the greatest
    Group to come along/When you sat on the edge of my bed
    Leaned back against the wall
    Then you put your hand on my leg
    I said, Boy is that all?
    Boy, are you hard
    Are you really hardcore?
    Hardcore, hardcore, hardcore/Let’s put on some Minutemen
    Cos we need a change of pace
    You like Mike Watt’s laugh, George Hurley’s hair
    And D. Boon’s surprising, lovely,
    D Boon’s inviting, lovely
    D Boon’s kind, inviting face
  8. Nots: We Are Nots (Goner) – Mean-mama punks from Memphis. I do mean “punk.”
  9. Heems: Eat Pray Thug (Megaforce) – My favorite half of Das Rascist waxes a record that’s been needing to be made for 14 years.
  10. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love (Sub Pop) – They’re a bit too much of a sober, hectoring machine for me, but they give the drummer some, and does she give back.
  11. Pop Staples: Don’t Lose This (Anti-) – They didn’t. Pops’ last session, and, yes, they got some shake on his guitar.
  12. Ornette Coleman and New Vocabulary: New Vocabulary (System Dialing) – “New” means 2009, but we may not hear this certified genius again, and he’s in fine form bouncing off youngsters’ constructions, electronic and otherwise.
  13. Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night (Sony) – He’s my hero, but he’s a hustler. And this is a hustle. A very seductive one–and it ain’t no joke. Pick to click from Bizarro Ol’ Blue Eyes: “The Night We Called It A Day.”
  14. The Paranoid Style: Rock and Roll Just Can’t Recall (self-released) – If you know who Wide Right was (Buffalo’s finest!) and Sally Timms is, and you’d like to hear a great song called “Master Jack,” step right up.
  15. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom & Pop) – Clicked play gritting my teeth, came out of the last track charmed, delighted, satisfied. A smart, funny, and ebullient one from Oz.
  16. Dead Moon: Live at Satyricon (Voodoo Doughnut) – It is not fair for me to review a Record Store Day exclusive, but maybe you can still get it. It’s only a well-recorded, intense live show from 1993 from the ultimate “family values” garage rockers of all-time–who happen to be playing some reunion dates. Long live the Coles and their drummers Andrew (Dead Moon) and Kelly (The Pierced Arrows).
  17. Bob Marley & The Wailers: Easy Skankin’ in Boston, 1978 (Tuff Gong) – Do you need another live Marley record from this period, especially since the estate’s gonna release a bunch more? YES, when the times are like they are now, and when this concert opens with six intense calls to revolution that’d make 25,000 hackey sacks hit the ground and a legion of stoned frat boys turn tail.
  18. Obnox: Know America (Ever/Never) – The hardest-working man in midwestern punk rock backs up his title command with nasty noise, wry imprecations, and music that’s seldom made like this by spades. His other (other?) 2015 album, Boogalou Reed (on 12XU), is only 1/119th less excellent. Don’t fight the raver who needs you (click here)!
  19. Various Artists: Burn, Rubber City, Burn (Soul Jazz) – Akron: Future home of The Punk Rock Hall of Fame. Copies of this will be handed out at the grand opening. Yes, I know I have used the word punk several times in these descriptions–it’s deliberate and, as Roger Sterling would say about his mustache, “IT’S REAL!!!!” And it ain’t going away anytime soon.
  20. Barry Hannah: i have no idea what tradition i’m in. don’t care. (The End of All Music) – It’s not a reading from one of Hannah’s many great stories. But his ramblings on sundry topics here are definitely rock and roll.

Note: I have been very inattentive to this blog. I do work two real jobs, but I have also been suffering from a lack of inspiration and the sneaking suspicion that it’s just not possible for me to capture the essence of a record as I would like. However, for some reason, I awakened this morning ready to peck and quip. I hope you see something you’re moved to hear.