Linc Le Fevre: Top Ten Alt-Country Albums
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Linc Le Fevre: Top Ten Alt-Country Albums




On a day sometime during the first years of the new millennium, I remember driving my old shitbox Corolla through Moonah, thinking about music. Post-modern indie rock and sugary pop reflected the end of the nineties, but there was a feeling; a feeling that people wanted their songs to mean something again, the kind of feeling in your bones that tells there’s a thunderhead just beyond the ridge.

There was an interview on the FM channel with some guy I’d never heard of talking like he was the king of shit about his new record. It might have been that it perfectly illuminated the point I’d been pondering, it could have been that I’d just broken up with my girlfriend that week; I suspect it was a combination of the two, but he played a track from the new album, and I started crying. It’s not that the song was even that sad. These were strange tears; tears of relief that somehow, despite everything, music could still make me feel something. The track was ‘Answering Bell’ from Ryan Adam’s 2001 album Gold, and it started me on a trail of discovery that I’m still meandering down, finding a whole range of alt-country artists that gave me an assurance that I’d lost as a songwriter - that music could still be more about story than style. I’d be lying if I said that album didn’t sneak its way into the songs I’d write for the next ten years.

Hopefully this is a good starting point if it piques your interest. I’m not claiming that these ten albums are the masterpieces of the genre; this is a just a collection of records that I think are pretty fucking good.

Uncle Tupelo – Still Feel Gone

Without delving into the history of 1980s cow-punk, Uncle Tupelo are considered by most to be the godfathers of what gets referred to as 'alt-country'. Whether that’s entirely accurate or whether it’s simply that the eminent alt-country journal No Depression was named after the Uncle Tupelo album is up for discussion, but not by me. I could have easily picked any of the band’s four albums, but Still Feel Gone has got my two favourite Tupelo tracks, in Jeff Tweedy’s Replacements-eque ‘Gun’, and ‘Still be around’, which beautifully highlight’s Jay Farrar’s throaty melancholia. Uncle Tupelo are still a standout example of a band that unapologetically takes country music songwriting and plays it with punk rock ferocity without any of the irony of the Supersuckers or the arrogance of Ryan Adams.

Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker

Even though Gold was the album that got me started, Heartbreaker is the obvious standout. There isn’t a weak track on this album. Story has it that Adams and producer/drummer Ethan Johns would start work in the morning, write a song and have it recorded by lunchtime, when Adams would sit down at a typewriter and churn out some lyrics. From an engineering perspective, I also think this is one of the most beautifully recorded albums of the past twenty years. Ethan Johns (son of legendary producer Glynn Johns) has such an ear for recording that the album didn’t need to be mixed; he just ran the tapes through a monitoring console, and that’s the finished product. Standout tracks: ‘Come pick me up’ and ‘winding wheel.’

Lucero – That Much Further West

One two three four, who’s alt-country, what’s the score? I don’t care if this is considered alt-country or southern punk or whatever, it’s a damn good record. This is the kind of record I put on when I’m not feeling great, and it will make me feel so good about feeling shit that I wouldn’t mind it if I listened to Lucero and drank gin and never left the house ever again (except to buy more gin). Sure, I could have listed Nobody’s Darlings or Tennessee as better albums, but if you want music that cradles you to sleep and tells you ‘don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s the world that’s fucked up,’ then this is it. ‘The only one’ is such a good song that you won’t be able to listen to it just once, but ‘Tears don’t matter much,’ will make you glad that you listened to the second half of the record.

Neko Case – Blacklisted

Case is like the rebellious younger sister of Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch – the one wearing Chuck Taylors, slinking off to smoke weed in the bushes behind some older dude’s place, while the sensible older sisters are out on real dates with nice boys. This album is so densely laden with atmosphere that it sits like a fog skulking through a wooded valley, at times almost like country music’s answer to Mazzy Star. Listen to ‘Deep Red Bells’ or ‘Stinging Velvet’ and tell me I’m wrong.

Whiskeytown – Faithless Street

I put this record on to think about what I could say about it, opened a stout, and then half an hour later I was lost in the record, imagining myself in the back of a dusty country hall listening to the fiddle at the opening of the title track. This debut album is better than anything either Whiskeytown or Ryan Adams has done since, and has so many standout tracks I can’t list them all. ‘If he can’t have you’ is a cracker of a song that would be as equally at home on an early Lucero album, and ‘Drank like a river’ is simple songwriting at its best.

Johnny Cash – American Recordings III – Solitary Man

Technically, it might be considered impertinent to put Cash in a list of alt-country artists, but his American Recordings series - with producer Rick Rubin at the helm - portray Cash in a hazy half-light, the recording stripped back to the bare bones which show Cash in all his darkness and frailty. What inclines me to put anything from this series into the alt-country basket is Cash’s ability to transform a variety of modern tracks into something new – a hybrid product of Cash’s pedigree, the modern history of rock and roll, and a true troubadour’s tenderness. It wasn’t until I heard Cash’s version that I really got Nick Cave’s ‘The Mercy Seat,’ and his take on Will Oldham’s ‘I See A Darkness’ is more than good enough to forgive the U2 cover that made its way on to the record.

Wilco – Being There

While A.M. shows a clearer continuation of Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting from Uncle Tupelo to Wilco, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Summerteeth met with a better critical reception, Being There is the best example of Tweedy’s songwriting before it lost any recognisable trace of his country roots, but still gave a hint to the more experimental line he would take in subsequent albums. Apart from the almost saccharine pop sensibilities of ‘Monday’ and ‘Outtasite', the rest of Being There is a collection of quiet achievers – from the beautiful understatement of ‘What’s The World Got In Store,’ to the more Gram Parsons reminiscent ‘Forget The Flowers’.

Son Volt – Wide String Tremolo

The other half of Uncle Tupelo’s songwriting machine, Jay Farrar might not have the same melodic sensibilities as Tweedy, but his voice has a sombre warmth missing from Tweedy’s sometimes schmaltzy pop, and his Marxist yearnings seem to carry the weight of the dead. Many fans of the genre would probably place this album before other records, and certainly Trace gets its fair share of kudos, but you know what? People that say that have probably heard that album, and I haven’t. [Update: I’ve since heard Trace, and it’s really fucking good.]

Gillian Welch – Hell Among the Yearlings

If Gillian Welch’s music is reminiscent of others in the genre, it’s hardly surprising, given her influence and appearance on so many other records - from Ryan Adams, Jay Farrar to Emmylou Harris - and that her musical partner David Rawlings has produced many more. Welch’s second album is a dark, sultry, acoustic record of character storytelling. While Welch may have been raised a quiet city girl, her characters have deeply woven histories, and she borrows from them a heavy heart to sing with.

Cory Branan – Mutt

This is the most recent addition to the list, being released just last month. Branan’s third album since 2002’s debut The Hell You Say is a raw, whiskey-soaked offering, equal parts kiss on the cheek and face in the dirt. At times Mutt is reminiscent of friend and collaborator Drag The River’s Jon Snodgrass (Snodgrass appears on backing vocals throughout the record), but with the moodiness of
Jay Farrar, and the on-the-edge energy of early Whiskeytown. Branan’s heavy touring schedule seems to work in his favour, as these well-crafted stories are ingrained with a deep respect for his audience.

LINCOLN LE FEVRE

Lincoln le Fevre is a songwriter, appearing epynomously, as well as with punk rock octoped Ride the Tiger. He teaches songwriting, music business and audio design, and has produced albums for Jamie Hay, Luca Brasi and Enola Fall. Fevre's sophomore album is due out in October. He'll be touring October through until December with Jamie Hay:

Republic Bar, Hobart, October 24
Royal Oak Boatshed, Launceston, October 26
Red Hot Music, Devonport, October 27
Venue TBA, Adelaide, November 2
The Reverence Hotel, Melbourne, November 10
X&Y Bar, Brisbane, November 22
O’Dowds, Rockhampton, November 23
The Shed, Byron Bay, November 24
Lass O’ Gowrie Hotel, Newcastle, December 1
Blackwire Records, Sydney, December 2
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