On a remarkable new album—his fourth in two years—the Tarheel songwriter and erstwhile Snatches of Pink frontman redefines his own legacy. It wasn’t an easy journey, though.
BY FRED MILLS
The other night I dreamt of my recently-passed aunt, who was my late mom’s elder sis and the de facto matriarch of our extended family, if such a notion as a “matriarch” is even curried nowadays, in this era of scattered families and shattered domiciles. She was dressed as a debutante, and I could almost hear her gentle Southern lilt encouraging me to walk with her—and in the background, there was a kind of antebellum musical accompaniment made up of Dixie-fried fiddles, kudzu-stained mandolins, brusquely-bashed git-tars and all manner of mmm-hmmm vocalizations. Things get hazy after that; but upon awakening I realized that I must had been missing her terribly, and that realization allowed me the peace of a beautiful dream’s aftermath, including lingering whiffs of its soundtrack.
Not to get all Gone With The Wind on you. But I have to say, it left me with the proverbial sense of closure, And here’s another thing: the music in my nocturnal mind, without question, had its origin in this latest recording from my old friend Michael Rank, of whom I’ve been an admirer since his mid ‘80s Snatches Of Pink days. More recently I’ve marveled at his prolific output as Michael Rank and Stag. Those ‘tars, mandolins and fiddles densely populate his new Deadstock (Louds Hymn Records)—which makes, what, four full-lengths now (five, if you count both discs of the 2CD Kin) in two years? As I had been listening to the album on and off in the days prior to that dream, its tones must have seeped into the firmament.
With 2012’s Kin, it was eminently apparent that something had died deep within Rank. He spent the bulk of that rocking, ruminating, raging album scraping off still-festering scar tissue from the aftermath of a relationship that had gone brutally south. By the time of last year’s masterful Mermaids (in between the two was In the Weeds), he seemed to have regained his personal equilibrium, his songs and singing style reflecting a newfound sense of confidence, although lurking in the shadows of tracks like “Bound to Me” and “Stray” were ghosts and, at times, even ghosts of ghosts. It was like those lines from Springsteen’s “The River”: “Is a dream a lie/ If it don’t come true/ Or is it something worse?” Put another way, Am I doomed to relive these memories for the rest of my days?
Maybe so. A segment in Deadstock leaps out: “Last night/ I dreamt that you were leaving me again/ Nothing that I did could make that whole.” It’s from “All the Animals” and it’s a chronicle of a series of dreams Rank had not long ago about, first, a moon-lit desert, and then of a surreal ocean scene, all set against a mournful John Teer (Chatham County Line) fiddle melody plus Nathan Golub’s pedal steel and Skylar Gudasz harmony vocals, with Rank singing in a half-awake rasp, as if literally recounting the dream for the first time and we, the listeners just happen to be there in the room with him. It’s so intimate, it’s intimidating; in the same sense that we often want to cling and push away, simultaneously, a frightening dream because it’s not only lined with real memories, it has so much power over us that it threatens to leave us paralyzed.
Four albums in, Rank has no more bested the demons that taunt him that the rest of us can claim to have the answers to life itself. What he has done, though, is allowed the struggle to make him stronger, to finally summon the resolve that eluded him back around the time of Kin and draw up an uneasy peace with those demons. That peace unfolds with opener “Burn the Page,” a loping, bluesy-grass number in which the singer resolves not to take hostages anymore “’cos I’ve run out of chains… [and] ‘cos they always wanna stay” (three guesses what he means by “hostages”); through “This World On Fire,” with its hint of newfound love and the accompanying optimism it brings, not to mention the wonderfully woozy Gram Parsons/Rolling Stones vibe (there’s Gudasz again, adding an Emmylou); to the Celtic-flavored, Steve Earle-esque mountain folk of “Bounty,” a pledge of permanence—not necessarily servitude, but a pledge nonetheless, something Rank clearly does not offer lightly.
Deadstock, to be sure, takes a few spins to sink in. It helps to know its three predecessors, although they are not strict prerequisites, and even after more than a few spins the record is still revealing subtleties, like a recurring dream that unfolds and alters its folds over a succession of nights.
In “Little Late for Me,” another Rank-Gudasz duet as haunting as they come, one encounters guitars, mandolin, fiddle and pedal steel murmuring soft remembrances in the background as the two singers come together—in equal measures vain hope and regret—to ruminate upon how we always want to believe that the past can be altered:
“I been listening now
But I don’t hear a word
When your lips don’t move
And my heart don’t work
I ain’t afraid of laying down in the dirt
‘Cos the time’s gone faster
Than I thought it would
It’s too late for me…”
But as we surely know, once something’s done, it’s done. In that moment Rank along with the listener—me, you, whatever random strangers might have gathered—gain a twinned since of devastation and relief. This is why we need our songwriters, our poets, our authors; they provide for us, as Patti Smith once advised, a reliable shoulder to lean on when we find ourselves in an unsteady world, one where it’s all too often very tempting to retreat to the shadows of dreams (literal, chemical or otherwise) in order to avoid facing it.
Michael Rank, three decades in to this game, would probably be the first to admit to all the follies of youth, indulgence, arrogance and hubris. But if the mark of an artist is to survive and learn, then translate for the rest of us, well… My sense is that with Deadstock, he’s finally made the transition from student to teacher. It’s the culmination of a remarkable four-album journey, and it’s my most fervent hope that he never takes this gift for granted.