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Ok, this record isn’t officially out for another month yet, but I can’t wait that long to say just how great this is. I missed out on the splash John Murry made last time out with World Without End, an album of murder ballads that he made with Memphis folk singer Bob Frank. It may not have sold big, but it made a huge impression on those who got to hear it. This new album has apparently been four years in the making (career development not exactly a priority for this man) as Murry shuttled between his old home in the south and San Francisco, where American Music Club member Tim Mooney helped him pull the threads together that make for this extraordinary musical tapestry. Chuck Prophet, who plays on the album and clearly helped his friend get through the process, says this: “John made a record. What’s amazing is that he did it in spite of himself”. And that explains neatly what you hear on The Graceless Age.
I couldn’t find a lyric crib sheet to help me out, so most of these songs are only partially worked out for me. However, large themes about the mystery of life, of our existence, come through strongly, coloured by a sense of belonging to a particular place (North Mississippi in John Murry’s case), of the strong shadow that religion/faith can cast over life and of the very dark realities of addiction. “What keeps me alive/ Is going to kill me in the end” are lines that appear at one point, and they seem to pretty much sum up the feel of this entire trip to the dark side of awareness.
Musically, this is first cousin to the wonderful country noir sound developed by Willard Grant Conspiracy some years ago. John Murry’s voice is not unlike Robert Fisher’s; the rich baritone speaks of fundamental truths, brought to enlighten mere mortals, either down from the mountain or from beyond the grave. There is a story that John Murry was brought back from the dead by the prompt action of a First Responder team. It could well be true and I don’t suppose that such an incident affected the voice that nature gave him, but certainly he sounds like a man who’s witnessed the very edge of oblivion. The instrumentation is built up from simple, sparse lines on piano or acoustic guitar; in a similar manner to that achieved by WGC these core elements seem to convey some fundamental, sombre truths, just occasionally lightening up enough to sound something like a pop song. The difference with John Murry is that he doesn’t feel the need to throw you off balance with some harsh dissonance. Rather, no matter what direction he takes the music in, there is a beauty – the beauty of pain survived – in all of these songs. The sound is often hugely expansive and lush with string orchestration, dramatic female supporting vocals (presumably Jana Misener, though the credit is not specific) and all the tricks of the recording studio that can make for atmosphere. It’s not immediately obvious, but the combination of the existential debate in the lyrics and the dramatic richness of the production eventually had me thinking of this record as John Murry’s very own Dark Side of the Moon. The slight echo of Knocking on Heaven’s Door on album opener The Ballad of the Pajama Kid and several bouts of instrumentation that is distinctly 1970s also contribute to a slight throwback vibe – to a time, it has to be said, when rock musicians had ambition to make something grander than a three minute pop song. Many would snigger at that comment, but there’s nothing remotely overblown or pretentious about this album, it’s just the sound of a man reaching for some truth.
There are so many moments of beauty, delicacy and thoughtfulness throughout this album that I can hardly begin to pick them out. Frequently the instruments seem to offer different threads in a conversation, reflecting the complexity of emotion that can be experienced in any given moment. Hope wrestles with despair, pain with ecstasy, and nothing is pat or easy. Rarely are we indulged with a return to the beautiful little moments that pop music teaches us to expect to be “repeated to fade”. On Thorn Tree in the Garden, a Bobby Whitlock song that is the one cover here, the performance reaches a peak with a high, plaintive phrase sung by Murry that you can’t help but crave he would give you one more time. Restraint is a powerful tool, and he uses it well in the midst of so much careful layering of sound. “Songwriter and noisemaker” I think he calls himself, and all sorts of found sounds, snippets of broadcasts and other stuff, find themselves inserted between songs and underneath songs. It’s all just part of the astonishingly complex sounds woven together here that will take a long time to reveal all the secrets of their making.
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