The Last Town Chorus
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2007, Volume 14, #11
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Thu November 8, 2007, 02:30 PM CST
Alt-country has lost its flower. Born in the twilight of the 20th century, a freight train full of whiskey-drinkin’, pill-poppin’, rockin’-and-rollin’ musical bandits gave a shit-kicker boot-in-the-face to the corpulent husk of Garth Brooks’ brand of radio friendly pap, thereby making country music vibrant again. For a brief moment in time, Whiskeytown, Wilco, Gillian Welch, and their biofuelled, Grateful Dead-friendly collective of rogues and rounders tackled this most American of musical genres to create some of the wickedest, hurtin’-est roots music since The Band rented a pink house on the outskirts of Woodstock. The spirits of Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, and Bob Wills rode again into the consciousness of young urban listeners as pre-millennial tensions found expression in the language and ethos of the North American heartland. On the sidelines of popular culture, a new renaissance of acoustic music and confessional lyricism found a niche of fertile soil in which to tangle and grow. During these heady years, some truly great bands flourished, and many classic albums were birthed.
Unfortunately, monumental moments never last, and every creative act bears the seeds of its own dissolution. A few years ago, it became apparent that audiences and the bands themselves had reached their threshold for hearing and creating tales of loss and heartache that were couched in backdrops of fiddle and steel-string guitar. Wilco went rock ’n’ roll, and Gillian Welch added drums. Even Lucinda Williams, with the help of Hal Wilner’s atmospheric production, stretched into territory that previously was inhabited by Bill Frisell. Those who were left crossing the alt-country frontier circled their wagons as recording contracts and the public’s interest dried up.
So, what on earth would possess a fiery, red-haired woman to strap on a 1940s-era lap steel, release an album, and hit the road in 2007? Didn’t anyone on the homestead tell her that it was neither 1952 nor 1992? Bypassing Nashville for New York, Meg Hickey and The Last Town Chorus hold no "Drifting Cowboy" illusions, and their own brand of hurting leaves Hank and the boys sitting miles down the track.
To say that The Last Town Chorus’ second album Wire Waltz is a revelation — as well as one of the boldest and most aurally satisfying releases of the year — is an understatement. Although the country-music map and ethos are in evidence, the mythology serves primarily as a platform. It is a wash of color and tone that is utilized in the same way in which the desert skyline worked as a metaphor and an allusion in Wim Wenders’ cinematic opus Paris, Texas. Don’t be fooled by the dominance of the lap steel guitar. Hickey has not been receiving messages at a séance table situated in the back room of the Grand Ole Opry. The ghosts of Hazel Dickens and Patsy Cline are nowhere in evidence. There are echoes of The Trinity Sessions — the groundbreaking, late-’80s masterpiece from the Cowboy Junkies — and one also can hear traces of Gillian Welch, Jessie Sykes, and Neko Case. These, however, are not the overriding influences that are at play on Wire Waltz. If anything, the sound is more reminiscent of the disembodied poetics and ethereal delivery of Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser.
Wire Waltz works best when it is heard in sequence, as a whole. There are scarcely any breaks separating its 10 tracks. The songs flow seamlessly into each other, creating a soundscape wherein the silent spaces between the notes become just as important as the music itself. They form a kind of Rorschach blueprint into which the listener can pour and explore his or her own moods and reflections. As a reminder that the album is not simply a dreamscape of insinuated sounds, Hickey slides in a truly masterful cover of David Bowie’s 1983 hit Modern Love. Using the original as a platform, The Last Town Chorus reconfigures Bowie’s pop tune into a mournful elegy that ripples with understated power and emotion. While comparisons to the Cowboy Junkies’ take on Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane may appear obvious and necessary, Hickey never detaches herself from the lyrics or gives way to irony in the manner that Margo Timmins often chooses in her interpretations of other writers’ works.
Wire Waltz is a brave disc that unabashedly raises its middle finger, Johnny Cash-style, in the face of convention, expectation, and common sense. Big, broad, and majestic, it transcends styles and should endure well beyond alt-country’s last gleaming. One of the most rewarding releases of the year, Wire Waltz begs to be heard and experienced over and over again. ½
Wire Waltz is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box