-- from Make Me Laugh, Make Me Cry,edited by Camden Joy
Unsuccessful, obscure, quiet: Souled American is what it is not. Preceding alternative country by at least five years, the 11-year-old Chicago-based quartet plays quiet, measured country rock that draws heavily from roots music and traditional songwriting. The band, which rarely tours and has not performed here for eight years, is making a special trip to San Francisco this week for three shows.
Beginning with Fe in 1987, Souled American produced three elusive, unconventional albums for the American arm of Rough Trade records in a blurry 18-month period. It was the height of the college-rock movement in America; the band members knew their combination of country and rural rock, and covers of songs by idiosyncratic blues folkie John Fahey or Little Feat songwriter Lowell George, would never win mass audiences of country or rock fans. Nevertheless, the band had its proponents in the English music papers, Chicago's local press, and the alternative weekly corps.
The group peaked with stateside and European tours with Camper Van Beethoven, among the first of the college-rock bands to get a major label deal. Then came the crash. In 1991, drummer Joey Barnard quit to work on art and become a family man. And then Rough Trade tanked. The celebrated London-based label was then the home to a handful of smallish (and presumably unprofitable) American acts, Galaxie 500, Mazzy Star, and Lucinda Williams among them. American labels big and small picked up some of the bands; Capitol got Mazzy Star, Mercury Rev went to Columbia. But others, like Galaxie 500 and Souled American, disappeared. Worse, their back catalogs became unavailable. The U.K. half of the label, still solvent, released Souled American's next record, Sonny, in 1992, but only in Europe. Eventually the band ended up on a small German label called Moll, which released two more records, the devastatingly sad Frozen and the bleak Notes Campfire, in 1994 and 1997, respectively.
On the phone from his home in Chicago, bassist Joe Adducci says the collapse frustrated the band, but that he never begrudged Rough Trade. "As far as we were concerned they were really damn good to us. They let us put three albums out in 18 months," he says.
After the failure of their record label, Adducci and his partner, guitarist/songwriter Chris Grigoroff, withdrew to their home studio, where they imploded the sound of the earlier records. Today, Adducci scrapes by without a steady job, spending his hours meticulously crafting records. The nine songs on the most recent album took two years to mold. Adducci says at least one member worked on it every single day. For Souled American, the scattered instants of life go on for years at a time.
The sound of fingers sliding on strings, strings buzzing on frets, on wooden necks of wooden instruments. You can hear the wood. The grain of the voice. You can hear the size of the room, the distance of the microphones from the amplifiers. (I'm not being poetic here. I'm reporting.)
-- Make Me Laugh, Make Me Cry
Record by record, Souled American stripped skin, tendons, and muscle away from already skeletal songs. On Fe (the title is short for "feel") Adducci's buoyant bass lines float on top of the mix, out front almost like bouncy reggae. Both Adducci and Grigoroff sing lyrics about loss, sadness, and death in thick, twangy drawls. Grigoroff strums his acoustic guitar; Scott Tuma uses a slide and heavy effects to create something that sounds like pedal steel. Working on their own time are Barnard's swampy drums.
Recorded so close together, the following two records maintained a similar sound, but by the time Sonny -- a slow cycle of cover songs that includes traditionals, the Louvin Brothers, and even one of Souled American's own tunes -- came out, the group had begun a shift from melody and rhythm to odd harmonies and a focus on the sound between sounds. The next records complete the transition: Both Frozen and Notes Campfire sound almost as if recorded underwater. With hardly any drums, the pace is lugubrious, frustratingly slow. The two singers either whine out of key or warble like they're trying to gargle with raw honey.
"We're showing less rhythm and more of the swing, the groove of the song," says Adducci of the later records. "It would be like you were tapping out the tempo and playing on top of that, then strumming a guitar to that." The subversive part of the process is that Souled American nearly take out the drums altogether. In other words, "The first building block, the drums, is all in the musicians' heads," says Adducci.
Likewise, singers harmonize to parts that aren't there; a guitar sits out in front of the mix and instruments swirl around it. Where the bass once popped, it now blubbers as if separated from the rest of the music by five fathoms of river water.
"Country" and "lonely" go together like "iced" and "tea." The cumulative space on Souled American records -- really the absence of music -- reaffirms a loneliness that's implied, associative, and, according to Adducci, real. "The last one took two years," says Adducci. "Some of that desperation, how hard it is to record, what your song matter is about, and how your life is going -- there is just more time for all of that to rise to the surface. ... I don't want to say that they are lonely albums, but they are definitely lonelier."
"Folk music is the only music where it isn't simple. It's never been simple. It's weird."
-- Bob Dylan, quoted in Greil Marcus'Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes
Old American music, laced with creepy disease, devastating poverty, and gruesome morality tales, is, like Dylan says, weird, complex music. Listening to the Carter Family, the Louvin Brothers, or pretty much any of the recordings rereleased this year on Harry Smith's Anthology of Folk Music or Rounder Records' first set of discs by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax is an eerie experience for anyone who grew up thinking that all country is glitz and sap perpetuated by Nashville or that all folk is nothing more than drippy protest songs written by white hippies. Instead, the songs of sin and temptation are jarringly frank; the sound of the recordings is distant, scratchy, and, at times, unearthly. Weird.
Souled American's two principals understand their influences well enough to transcend them. Sonny is a bizarre record not only for knowing song choices (three traditional cuts plus a Merle Travis and the Louvin Brothers), but with the way the group hears them. On Travis' "Dark as a Dungeon," bass notes drop one or four at a time and an electric guitar hums in the background; the vocalist sings, "Like a fiend with his dope, and a drunkard his wine/ A man will have lust for the lure of the mine." Like so much great old music, the song -- and Souled American's treatment -- raises more questions than it answers. Why exactly would a man lust for a place "dark as a dungeon, damp as the dew"? Moreover, beneath the dirge, why do Souled American let a field of metallic locusts swoop in and out of the mix seemingly without regard to the structure of the song? Confusing, eerie, weird? You bet.
Both Adducci and Grigoroff grew up in Charleston, a small college town of 20,000 in central Illinois. Adducci says the radio dial was glued to country stations and his mother wrote and sang country throughout his childhood. ("Hank Williams was Number 1 in my house.") Despite a penchant for technical rockers Rush, during high school Adducci played Rickenbacker with a group of oldsters who performed country in VFWs. Grigoroff was even more immersed, blowing harmonica with a group of virtuosos who played old-time string music at bluegrass festivals.
"When we met up, it was a great thing because I didn't know too many people that were really into [old music]. We really shared that love. Playing music now, we cultivate that between us. That's where a lot of the country side came from, growing up with it, embracing it."
But that embrace is measured by distance. Adducci says when Grigoroff brings old songs to Souled American, the rest of the band don't listen to the original song. Instead, they try to make it their own, applying their essential creep factor. "I think consciously trying to be weird, definitely from day one, is something that we've all tried to work on," says Adducci. "We're trying to play something different and personalized."
Who killed Souled American/ Why, who'd do such a thing?!
-- Make Me Laugh, Make Me Cry
Rough Trade's flop created a cult of Souled American fans who cluster around the obscurity that the label wrought. SA's first two records now float through cutout bins and a few Bay Area record stores; Aquarius Records in the Mission claims to be the only store in the United States that stocks the last two. Around the Horn and Sonny are near impossible finds.
Geeky rock fans -- like fine art collectors -- love failure, inaccessibility. In biographies of legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, the fact that he appeared in only two photographs usually is mentioned long before his impossible guitar playing. Nick Drake seems more precious and sad because he had to die for anyone to listen to his records. So too with Souled American.
For people who really care about music, smaller, rarer bands are often the most endearing. Out-of-print records gain additional value in keeping with the pervasive economic rule of scarcity, which (predictably) forces its way into music.
In San Francisco, Souled American are one of the most significant of the insignificants; the city may be the center of Souled Americana. Twanger/songwriter Richard Buckner is a reverent fan who's said that he'd love to work with the band. (Adducci says the adoration is reciprocal: "We just think he's fantastic. I mean, he is just awesome.") U.S. Saucer, the adjunct band formed by members of Thinking Fellers, offered special thanks in the liner notes of their debut. Live, plaintive rockers Fuck play "Soldier's Joy," a traditional cut off Fe, but say they'd never release their own version; Souled American already perfected it.
But the band has its outside adherents as well. The reverence springs beyond San Francisco and bands also. Souled American's songs impassioned music critic Camden Joy, a guerrilla-music scribe in New York City who's made a small name for himself by writing deeply personal and passionate treatises on his favorite bands and posting them around Manhattan. For the Souled American project, Joy took 50 short essays about the group and made each into huge public posters. He then gathered all the work into a small book named after a Souled American song, "Make Me Laugh, Make Me Cry."
Adducci says the band was touched by the gesture. "You're locked in your shell; you're not playing out a whole lot; you're coming up with material and making albums. To see the effect that some of those have on people. ... We were quite moved by that."
Obscurity has paradoxically benefited Souled American; but Adducci says the band would risk a greater exposure, if only to have the old albums in stores. "That's kind of the goal when you make records: I don't know what it's going to sell, this or that, but just as long as it's available for the future -- for someone to get into it."
For now however, they're absent.