If I were performing a play titled The Americans, I’d want Jim White to write the score for it as well. It just makes sense to have one of the great songwriting documentarians of the weird, wonderful, holy and sacrilegious aspects of the American South on board to document something with as broad a title as The Americans: Part 1: The Lay of the Land. The play, based on the collected works of Sam Shepherd, was performed at the Juliard Drama School in February of 2010 and White, along with Dan Nettles, composed a set of 16 songs to go along with the play. Jim White presents: Sounds of the Americans isn’t the proper follow-up to his 2007 album Transnormal Skiperoo, but it does echo the more whimsical, darkly weird and fantastic storytelling aspects of White’s oeuvre.
The album is bookended by covers, but of different varieties. It opens with White’s take on Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle,” a jangly, uptempo version that explodes in a joyous and rambunctious tone. The song’s metaphor of heart as motorcycle is appropriate for some of the themes of love that bubble up in various forms across the record. Two spoken-word pieces titled, appropriately, “Letter 1” and “Letter 2″ find a teenage girl’s diary entries as they lament over how to approach someone. “Rambler” pontificates about the excellent nature of the titular car and how it was the best one ever “made in the U.S.A.,” as it gets passed down from a father to son in a scene that recalls Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lightning 1952.” Love even surfaces in a series of pieces where newspaper articles recall odd events like the man who claims, as the victim of a rear-end collision, that his heterosexuality has been switched off in “But I Love Her” or the accidental vengeful murder in the middle of a church in “Hunters Groove.”
There are moments of more pure Americana culture as well. “Simulacrum” sounds like a technological chant of devotion to consumerism; “Suckerz Promises” takes the same embrace of the American Dream and mocks it as a mug’s game; and a forward-thinking evangelist in “Esoteric Text Found in a Religious Garbage Can” uses Biblical text to proffer that good and loving Christians take to the heavens to find and minister to their unconverted alien brethren. All of these are mixed in a hodgepodge of blues, r&b, rock, country and musique concrete that take the ‘melting pot’ metaphor to its natural conclusion as the backdrop to the diverse and devoted voices of the narrators.
The last track, and the other ‘cover,’ is a re-working of White’s “Bluebird,” originally from 2004’s Drill a Hole in that Substrate.. In a conversation with White years ago, around the time of the release of ..Substrate, he expressed a desire to have others sing his own music – to play on the tracks himself, but have others voice the words he wrote. What starts as a nearly music-less opening driven only by the female singer’s voice slowly becomes an amazing channeling of the original’s haunting examination of desperation into a much more hopeful and daring piece. As a conclusion, it loops back on the opening sentiments of love and brings about White’s own wishes from years ago and finds them actualized. As a documentation of “the Americans,” it couldn’t get much more perfect than that.
MP3: Jim White :: Rambler