Chris Wall Album Review: El Western Motel

Ten years since Driftwood, Texas’ favorite son Chris Wall released a new CD.  A decade.  That’s an eternity in today’s music world.  Think about it.  When Just Another Place dropped in 2002, iTunes didn’t exist in the sense we know it today.  People still thought about music in terms of albums.  This new marketplace for standalone singles as entertainment and not much else hadn’t materialized.

Now it’s 2012, a Jersey Shore world where The Real Housewives of Who Gives A Fuck County competes with something called a Glam Fairy for mastery of a target demographic.  News outlets are infotainment vehicles, the blogosphere and social media set the national tone, and divisiveness and rancor swirl about us like the leading edges of a tempest from the depths.  It’s easy in this current milieu to begin to believe the universe has run amok and that hope’s fled the land just ahead of salvation’s last flailing curse at the heavens.

It’s in these times that music can save a man or a woman, remind the beating heart of a battered soul that the reward in slugging away always outstrips the fatal ignominy of slinking into the night.  If that ain’t a beacon call for a new Chris Wall record, nothing is or ever will be.  And boy howdy, does the man deliver here.

Backing up a step, it’s relevant to take a look at the question of just why exactly it took ten years for Chris to put a new record out.  Theories abound, some of them based on straggling grains of truth and others on blatant falsehoods.  Because the fact is, not many people other than Wall himself are privy to the reasons behind the choices he makes.  Sometimes that doesn’t sit well with the increasing percentage of folks who reckon everydamnthing that ever happens is somehow their business.   So take this to the bank:  The reasons you think it took ten years for this record to arrive are wrong.   The things you’ve heard from people who say they know are wrong, too.  And none of that matters.  The fact is Wall was writing during all that time away.  He wasn’t ever gone, not really.  But some things of worth and quality still take time.  There’s a period of percolation required for the delivery of what used to be known as high art.  The reality that most folks these days don’t understand the concept of high art and can’t distinguish between it and a crucifix submerged in a bucket of piss is immaterial.  Art didn’t change.  Society did.

Wall changed, too.  Some of life’s demons ran him down exactly the way they do all of us.  Others maybe didn’t catch him, but they closed the gap.  You’re familiar with that race yourself if you’re honest with the man or the woman in the mirror.  Difference is that when somebody like Chris gets caught, the experience gets captured for posterity.  The nuanced devastation of pain gets explored in detail, not shoved in the cobwebbed corner of a hardened heart.  And the ordeal and its lessons get shared in hauntingly beautiful ways imbued with the power to teach and build and yes, even protect those who are open to what’s offered.

Taking all of that into account and firmly aware of the reality that art at its best is both a metaphor for and a microcosm of our workaday lives, the fact is El Western Motel starts making a whole lot of sense right out of the chute.  “Six Shiny Strings” offers a snapshot of the arc of a musician’s life, from the starry-eyed lust for the first guitar through the rise and fall of a career and the end of the line when the Martin and used wedding band get traded in for pawnshop cash.  The guitar, of course, is quickly snapped up by another bright-eyed kid.  The minstrel it used up, though, we’re left to ponder about.  There’s a double-edged lesson in there, something about the timeless truth that our triumphs and tragedies are personal but that the music we make in whatever way our talents allow carries on.  Dreams, see, aren’t just for the dreamers.   And neither is the checkout stand at the end of the road.  In one sense this cut serves as an expanded version of the young picker’s tale mentioned briefly in Wall’s old chestnut “I Feel Like Singing Along.”  In another, it’s an intriguing snapshot of a lifestyle far tougher than the glamour of the stage lets on.  And ultimately, it’s the perfect precursor for the songs that follow.  Eminently hummable, easy to sing along with, and forged in the fires of a brutal beauty that doesn’t ever really let go.

If “Six Shiny Strings” is the Cliff’s Notes for El Western Motel, the subsequent tracks bear out what your teachers told you back in the day.  It’s in your best interest to read the whole book.  Or listen to the whole record, as the case may be.  The concept of an album with a story to tell is fading away faster than Lance Armstrong’s reputation these days; everyone’s after the new single or the latest Gangnam style dance craze.  Ear candy, putty for the addled mind.  Chris Wall and artists like him, though, aren’t the candy type.  They’ve got something to say.   What Wall lays out here, as with the opening cut, consistently works on multiple levels.  His press release says the record is “equal parts mea culpa, apology, and defiant bluster.”  All true.  From one perspective it’s fairly easy to assume that the songs here are Wall’s attempt to explain for both detractors and ardent fans a career that has seen plenty of heights along with significant depths.  A more observant listener familiar with the trail Chris has blazed might sense in songs like “Cruel To You” a roundabout admission that inside the gruff exterior that’s such a part of the Wall legend lies a heart as tender as a perfectly cooked filet.  The rest of us recognize the abject heartache of love lost and unhealthy relationships that just won’t die.

When something’s over

It should end

You don’t want me for a lover

I can’t bear to be your friend

Won’t you let this wounded heart alone

And let the poor thing mend

When something’s over

It should end

The tables get flipped, though, in “I Should Have Called.”  This one’s all about self-recrimination that leads either to absolution or dissolution depending on how one plays the hand.  Some of it feels biographical (Oh the old man and I/We never really got along/Didn’t see eye to eye/About the worth of some old song), some of it bitterly introspective yet defiantly accountable:

Offered the blacktop

I chose the gravel

Man it sure got crowded on this road less traveled

Put the blame on me

I own all my mistakes

While trying to dodge my destiny

I ran smack into my fate

If that ain’t the story of you and me, pardner, I know one thing for sure.  You’re a damn liar.  Maybe it’s Chris’s story put to song, but it’s also without question the story of every last sad sack one of us.   On the cuts like this the record’s sparse instrumentation packs a punch Joe Louis would’ve sold his soul for.  And here, as on three other tracks, Austin songstress Sarah Pierce adds a harmony vocal haunted by the detritus of mistakes made in pride and cemented in eternal loss.  It’s genuinely powerful stuff, the sort of song that will draw a tear from your soul when you think no one’s around.   Perhaps it’s here that the confession and apology the press release notes are most apparent.  Or perhaps Wall and company are just providing a metaphor for all of our lives.  In either case, this track is but one example of the culmination of talent and experience and grit Chris always brings to the table.  Credit Lloyd Maines here for making the perfect call on how the record should be produced, and for providing lead guitar work that fully supports the lyrics without overshadowing Wall’s vocal or lyrics.  Credit Merel Bregante and his Cribworks studio for capturing the essence of what the songs offered.  Sarah and Merel, one of the most dynamic husband-wife duos going, are longtime friends and frequent musical partners of Wall’s.  The depth of that relationship, coupled with the similarly textured friendship Chris and Lloyd share, likely are the critical dynamics that made this record possible.  It’s impossible to truly emote songs like these outside of the clichéd circle of trust.  But clichés are clichés because they’re true, and if your cynical side ever seeks proof, pop in El Western Motel.  The only other player on the record was Cody Braun, another old friend (Chris knew the Braun boys’ dad Muzzie quite well, and played a pivotal role in the original move to Austin by the boys and the birth of Reckless Kelly).  Cody stopped by one day to say howdy, and while listening along in the studio to some tracks everyone thought were finished, picked up Sarah’s new mandolin and started improvising.  It worked and Chris, Lloyd and Merel quickly realized that finished was definitely not the case, so Braun became a part of the project.  Fate works like that sometimes, and here, it’s mesmerizing.

So much here to write about, so little space in which to do it and still be cognizant of a reader’s time.  But you’ve stuck with me this far, and there are a few more things I need to point out.  Rest assured that no matter how long I type, I can’t do this record justice.  It is jaw dropping in its austere beauty and in the depth and clarity of its crackling, sparking lyrics.  Here, try these on for size:

I don’t think you ever really liked me

But you sure loved the man

That you thought I could be

Something wild you could tame

Now you act so ashamed

And so disappointed in me

And it’s so long, I love you

But I can’t stand what I have become

Gonna search for my soul

On a highway I know

Out West where the wheel meets the road

But it’s not all lovelorn and heartsick.  We discussed early on here the importance of art as a metaphor and the power of song in the arc of a life.  Since it ain’t a Chris Wall record without some cowboy songs, let’s look for a quick second at the title track.  It’s a life spent on the range, upended in moments by lawyers and the wretched outriders of progress.

Forty-odd years he rode for the brand

Ridin’ and ropin’, a top hired hand

Paid off with a handshake from a smug lawyer man

Thanks for forty-odd years that you rode for the brand

They gave him a week to pack up and go

In twenty-two minutes he was off down the road

Everything that he owned in an old flatbed Ford

Shades of Tully Mars trailering Mr. Twain and heading for the salt, but here there’s no Cleopatra Highbourne or schooner Lucretia at the end of the trail.  No happy endings at El Western Motel, yet nonetheless, in the final tally, there are tokens and remembrances of a life well lived and torpedoes fully damned.  It’s another ingenious track, effective both as Western story song and reminder that we all blaze our own trails.  Among other things.

We haven’t even scratched the surface here.  Haven’t talked about old drunks quoting Josey Wales, hats full of trouble, silver-haired troubadours singing “Silver Wings” to empty rooms and wondering where it all went wrong, or the bona fide and masterfully layered complexity of “Hello, I’m An Old Country Song.”  But I’m done with the yapping.  You need to ride this trail for yourself.

I am not in the habit of ranking records.  Don’t do the Top 10 lists at year-end, don’t get into the maze of attempting to correlate apples and fuckin’ squirrels and somehow try to assert there’s a valid comparison between the work of disparate artists.  But I will stand on Red Dirt music’s tombstone in my cowboy boots and say this with a finality I’ll stake my reputation on:  You will not hear a better record this year.  You have never heard better work from Chris Wall.  It’s as if he sat on the front porch in the gloaming of the evening with a few genuine friends and some ghosts.  Ghosts of heroes and friends gone before, and perhaps a few ghosts of himself.  Then somehow managed to capture that perspective, the one you and I and all of us have had but could not hang onto, and recorded it for posterity.  Gifted it to us as a signpost for use along the way, or maybe just did it for himself.  No matter.  It’ll move your spirit.

There’s a genius in the pathos, a trail to heaven in the anguish and the loss.  It takes a stout heart to ride that path, and it takes balls to saddle up again after the falls that trail always provides.  Nobody does that better than Wall.  And if you’re of a mind to live your life rather than let the damned thing live you, El Western Motel is the soundtrack your own beaten down soul has been humming to your heart for years.  Turn it up, and let the horses run.

El Western Motel drops November 15th  at www.chriswallmusic.com and www.theconnextion.com.

~ Dave Pilot

Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs.  When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline.  When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.

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