First Look: New Kevin Gordon LP

 

An
astonishing, and altogether memorable, Americana
entry this week, the self-released Gloryland marks Southern singer-songwriter
Gordon as a major new talent.

 

By Steve Pick

It was the 1970s, growing up in Louisiana. Civil rights had progressed to
the point that an almost all-white junior high could have an African-American
band teacher. But the Ku Klux Klan was ever-present, setting up pickets when
that band performed, or remaining a family member’s secret, connected to the
ownership of a gun that saved a friend’s life. Almost everybody has lived in
this town their whole lives, and figures they will die in this town sometime in
the future, which will always come after the past. As they do everywhere and
everytime, parents wonder when their children will abandon the dream of a
creative life, and figure out how they’re going to make a living. There is
love, raw, sexual, connected in all aspects of life; there is adultery,
betrayal, loss. This is the world of Kevin Gordon’s Gloryland (www.kevingordon.net).

 

Except that the
title track and “Side of the Road” are taking place in the present day, and
scan the globe for their settings. And it would not be fair to dismiss these
songs. “Gloryland” lets Gordon’s guitar rage against the matter-of-fact tone of
his vocals, here clearly modeled after Bob Dylan’s cadence on “You’ve Gotta
Serve Somebody.” Comparing the manipulations of a self-serving preacher to the
political decisions to carry war to the Middle East
and the thought processes which lead to suicide bombings as a reaction, Gordon
sets up the expectation that this new record, his first since 2006, is going to
comment explicitly on contemporary problems. Drums, guitar, and vocals explode
on the chorus of this song, as his anger and his judgment come down hard on the
side of finding truth in a world filled with lies. But only “Side of the Road,”
with a verse about American soldiers in Basra,
touches again on anything like this, and there he is more interested in
spiritual matters than political.

 

 

 

 

Still, there is a connection between these songs and the bulk
of the album set in times past. Presumably autobiographical, “Colfax / Step in
Time,” tells the tale of Gordon’s 7th grade marching band and the
KKK passing out leaflets opposed to his African-American teacher. Gordon gives
this song 10 and one half minutes to unfold, weaving constantly shifting
musical details underneath his poetically intoned vocals. He reels off specific
names of fellow students and the teacher, 
erotic daydreams of a 12-year-old boy, the songs which formed the band’s
repertoire, and pitch-perfect descriptions of
the KKK in their “white dunce caps / And robes with red crosses / Embroidered
on / Like gilded leaves on an automatic rifle.” Somehow, all this leads to a
simple and irrevocable triumph of truth over lies, through simple perseverance.
It’s one way to get past the dreams of an imaginary Gloryland, and achieve at
least something good enough for one day in the long path to a better world for
all.

 

Kevin Gordon’s music exists somewhere in between the raw
guitar-filled storytelling of James McMurtry and the more skewed and
melodically subtle approach of Joe Henry. He knows exactly how to build and
sustain interest in a song, even the ones that don’t hit you over the head with
obvious hooks. Gordon’s guitar and vocals are compelling themselves. The guitar
crackles with electricity, the voice manipulates supple rhythmic shifts to make
the words fit the spaces they are given. Here we are reminded that Gordon went
to graduate school as a poet. He’s learned a lot from other singers, but his
poetry skills are stronger than most in the songwriting game.

 

Gloryland twists
and turns through tales of Gordon’s childhood, the people he knew and saw, the
loves he’s had and lost, the ties that bind both good and bad. But the album
may just center on “Trying to Get to Memphis,”
a quiet, formally elastic little song about a man answering his door to a
another man begging for money. It hinges on truth and lies and the question of
what is owed to our fellow humans vs. how much we can possibly do in the face
of so many who need help. It is far removed from Gloryland, from an imaginary
Heaven where every competing faction can get along swimmingly. Instead, it is
the ache in the heart of a well-meaning human being who can’t quite do the
helpful thing in a situation where the truth is not as certain as some would
like it to be. This is the world in which we move, taking steps in time towards
something else, which may turn out to be better, but probably not for
everybody.

 

[Photo Credit: Jim
Herrington)
]

 

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