I was 27 years old the last time Daniel Amos released an album.
I was living in Tennessee at the time, and still new to buying records over the Internet. I was also a fairly new fan of the band – in fact, the extraordinary 2001 double album Mr. Buechner’s Dream was the first new Daniel Amos album I’d bought. A few years before, I’d discovered the genius of Terry Taylor and his many musical identities. The following year, I would attend my first ever Cornerstone Festival, and see Daniel Amos live for the first time.
I think Taylor might be a little upset if I call it a religious experience, but it was pretty close. I said this then, and I still believe it: I can’t figure out why Terry Taylor isn’t constantly listed among America’s very best songwriters. How someone with this much talent, imagination and love of the art has toiled in obscurity for his entire life is simply beyond me. Between Daniel Amos, the Lost Dogs, the Swirling Eddies and Taylor’s solo work, the man’s written more great songs than just about anyone you could name. He’s in the same league as Elvis Costello and Ryan Adams.
I use those particular comparisons not just because Taylor has a vast catalog of fantastic songs, but because, like Costello and Adams, he’s a musical chameleon. No two Daniel Amos albums have ever sounded the same, from the country rock of Shotgun Angel to the angular new wave of Doppelganger to the baroque pop of Motorcycle to the full-on classic rock band explosion of Mr. Buechner’s Dream. And that’s just Taylor’s main band. He’s explored every facet of Americana with the Lost Dogs, gotten funky with the Swirling Eddies and released folk records, synth-pop albums and soundtracks for video games on his own.
And still, with all that behind him, he had to turn to Kickstarter to fund a new Daniel Amos record. I say that as if it’s a bad thing, but only because I think record companies should be lining up to give Taylor money. In truth, Kickstarter is the perfect tool for a band like Daniel Amos, with a small-ish following of extremely dedicated fans. I count myself among them, and I gladly supported the campaign. The band asked for $12,000 and raised $32,276, a budget that gave them the luxury of really digging into the recording, and making something special.
And here it is. The first Daniel Amos album in 12 years is called Dig Here, Said the Angel, and it’s a sonically rich collection of first-rate tunes. Like all DA albums, it sounds like nothing else the band has done. It’s a mixture of the orchestral leanings of Motorcycle with the raw mid-tempo rock of Kalhoun, but it has a character all its own. Most importantly, despite the long gap and the advancing age of the members – Taylor is 63, the other guys slightly younger – the album is vital, powerful and important. Daniel Amos never sounds like a band pulled out of retirement. They sound like a band on a mission.
The statement for that mission is at track two. “Jesus Wept” is a rollicking number that encapsulates Taylor’s major theme this time out – facing mortality with a wry grin. “I found my masterpiece in a discount bin, I pound against the wall of my aging skin,” Taylor sings over one of the band’s most danceable grooves. Bassist Tim Chandler, easily one of my favorite players, dives and swoops all over this thing, grounded by drummer Ed McTaggart’s thunderous beat and guitarist Greg Flesch’s straight-ahead chords. “Another bad guy wins, more good guys die, they mounted up like eagles, now they’re dropping like flies, I cry ‘let me out,’ you’re saying ‘no, not yet,’ before he danced, Jesus wept…”
The title track is a genuine epic, the cry of a faithful man. “I’m dyin’, I’m dyin’,” Taylor screams over a crawling backdrop of snarling bass and backwards guitar. He talks with an angel about death, and about walking up to the big door and walking right in, but then the rug is pulled out: “‘Here’s the catch,’ said the angel, ‘you’re gonna suffer for a while, I’ll tell you straight,’ said the angel, ‘don’t plan to go out in style…” It’s a simply fantastic song about the longing of mortal life.
“We’ll All Know Soon Enough” is a standout, a slow crawl full of glorious doubt. “There may be no heaven, there may be no hell, there may be no place to go, but we’ll all know soon enough,” Taylor sings as Flesch’s thick guitar lifts things into the stratosphere. I’m particularly fond of this verse: “We were hoping for a few quick fixes, but we found ourselves still down in the hole, now we’re thinking that our prayers aren’t answered ‘cause when it came, the answer was ‘no.’” Daniel Amos has always been the antidote to the notion that faithful life is easy, and never more than here. The song’s an absolute masterpiece.
It’s followed quickly by the jarring “Waking Up Under Water.” Co-written and sung by original DA guitarist Jerry Chamberlain, the song details a series of splendid dreams, and the horror of waking from them. “A cruel sea is leaking in, this fragile boat I’m sinking in, I need to dream again…” The guitar riff is fantastic and loud, the chorus frightening, the entire song menacing in a way Daniel Amos rarely is.
But it’s not the most aggressive thing here. That crown belongs to “Now That I’ve Died,” on which Taylor crosses over to the great beyond, and loves it. Up there, he says, he never has to ask what’s truth and what’s a lie, and the rich serve the poor and the poor are the rich. (“It’s kind of hard to describe.”) He nearly throws out his voice screaming the refrain: “I’ve never been more alive now that I’ve died!” (Perhaps the most telling line: “I sell records worldwide, now that I’ve died…”)
Yes, death is on Taylor’s mind. But first, you have to get through life, and that’s never easy. “The Uses of Adversity” is a sweet piece about accepting the struggle: “Don’t send me certainty if somehow it’s best for me to doubt,” he sings. He works at finding “grace disguised as adversity,” and yearns to hear God’s voice above “The Ruthless Hum of Dread,” a truly experimental piece that sways forward on a rolling bass figure, before evaporating into piano and vocal.
This all sounds pretty grim, but it’s not – the songs are catchy and enjoyable throughout. And there are strong shafts of light. In “Love, Grace and Mercy,” Taylor rejoices in forgiveness: “Love, grace and mercy, now if you’ll just say the word, I will get exactly what I don’t deserve.” In “Our New Testament Best,” he embraces that forgiveness as a lifestyle, rejecting the judgment and violence of old. And in the radiant closer, “The Sun Shines on Everyone,” he extends that grace to the entire planet: “Love comes to everyone, saints and sinners everyone, it’s nothing new under the sun…” Yeah, there’s a choir at the end, and yeah, it slips into power ballad territory, but after an album of whistling past the graveyard, it’s a welcome burst of hope and joy, and a fine way to go out.
It’s hard to say whether Dig Here, Said the Angel is better or worse than anything the band has done. It’s phenomenally different, and yet still Daniel Amos at its core. The richness of sound is extraordinary, proving that they did pump that Kickstarter money into the album, and the songs are among their best, capturing Taylor at a crossroads. He knows that every album he makes these days could be his last, and we fans know it too. Just having a new Daniel Amos album is a miracle. Having one this good, this important, is even better. I dearly hope it’s not the last, but if it is, Dig Here, Said the Angel makes for a fine capper to a brilliant, brilliant career.
Buy it here.
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Also returning after a fairly long absence is Seattle’s Robert Deeble.
I discovered Deeble only a couple short weeks ago, at the first AudioFeed Festival, and I feel silly for not finding his work before. Deeble has been making records since 1997, playing in an ambient folk-pop style that often reminds me of Bruce Cockburn. I saw him playing acoustic guitar with Choir drummer Steve Hindalong backing him up, and the set was mesmerizing. Deeble played only the notes needed to keep the song moving forward, and no more, letting the spaces around those notes do the heavy lifting.
That style carries over to his albums. I bought Deeble’s entire discography at AudioFeed, and haven’t regretted it for a second. He’s made some good ones, most notably 1998’s Earthside Down and 2003’s diverse Thirteen Stories (which contains one of my favorites, “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson”). But for my money, he hasn’t made one as compelling, as powerful, as enjoyable as his latest, Heart Like Feathers.
Released last year after a nine-year gap, Heart Like Feathers is a full-on headphone record. The depth of sound here is astonishing – Deeble is still leaving wide open spaces around his notes, but this time there are beautiful strings and atmospheric guitar noises gently nudging those spaces like clouds. It’s a gorgeous sounding thing, and the songs are equally beautiful, the most consistent set that Deeble has delivered.
Just take the opener, “Hearing Voices Seeing Ghosts.” It opens with a lengthy ambient instrumental section, but when it kicks in, it builds convincingly to that heart-stopper of a chorus. “And she goes out through the window like a crow, flying clipped-winged and haunted,” Deeble sings as the violins augment the lovely guitar work. (Deeble’s voice is high and wavery – it’s effective, especially when paired with other singers, but it’s his weakest attribute.) The song sets the tone for the album – slow, floaty, beautiful.
Deeble gets deeper on “Eucharist,” a song of separation, both from a lover and from God. “A lover’s quarrel all in duress, I fold my arms for Eucharist, we fell in love, we got enmeshed, bless me father, I’m a mess,” Deeble sings, repeating the sad refrain “We get so close we get estranged.” At times on this song, there’s barely any music playing – the ringing guitar tones brush up against the minimal bass lines, leaving swaths of empty canvas. It works beautifully.
There are other highlights – the piano ballad “Undertow,” the dark and lovely “The Colors of Dying,” the memorable “Exhale” – but the entire record is of a piece. It sounds like the full flowering of Deeble’s particular style, like the album he’s been aiming for since he started this journey. I would never discourage you from buying his other works, or even springing for his complete box set. But if you can only hear one, hear this one. Heart Like Feathers is an absolute treat, one that keeps revealing new layers the more you listen. And you’re going to want to keep listening.
Buy it here.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.