The Lonesome Death (and Life) of Souled American

Dank, dark, and sad with Chicago's weird country band

The telling of party stories reminded me of a band named Souled American. As our stories mounted, we grew quiet in the conviction that what we think of as "life" was deceptive. In truth the scattered instants when we slipped through cracks, abandoned to our own devices, these were our few moments of life. ... And this then is Souled American.

-- 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.

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