Merry Airbrakes: An Americana Gem Informed by the Horrors of Conflict

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The story behind Merry Airbrakes, the eponymous 1973 album by a group under the leadership of American roots artist Watermelon Slim (aka. Bill Homans), is one of the most interesting in underground music history. To appreciate it fully, one first needs to know Bill Homans’ story.

Born in 1949 and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, he first became aware of blues music in 1954 and recalls having had various small instruments during his youth, including a blues harmonica. In the late sixties, he was enrolled to fight in the Vietnam war, but upon arriving in Vietnam he fell ill. It was there, during his recovery, that he encountered the guitar for the first time. He negotiated the purchase of a cheap balsa wood acoustic from a French-speaking commissary worker, repurposed a cigarette lighter as a bottleneck slide and began teaching himself to play. Fast forward to 1972 and the Vietnam veteran has become an active anti-war protestor, fraternising with musicians also in opposition of the war and increasingly becoming involved in American roots music. It is from that position that Merry Airbrakes, a privately-pressed album soon to be reissued by Scissor Tail records, came to be.

It is described by Bill, the chief songwriter and vocalist, as “an anti-capitalistic, anti-imperialistic album,” and features songs about conscription and the horrors of war, written from both North American and Vietnamese perspectives. A fascinating mix of psychedelic folk, blues and Americana music, it begins with a cover of Woody Guthrie’s Vigilante Man and contains nine original songs thereafter. If you’re a fan of Captain Beefheart, Country Joe McDonald and Homans’ idol: the late Mississippi Fred McDowell, you’re certain to appreciate its contents and the unique story that is a Vietnam war veteran, blues aficionado and general outsider channeling his first hand accounts into fascinating American roots compositions. The re-release arrives on 11th April and you can find out more about it and Homans’ remarkable life here.

The Repeat Listen: Bill Laurance – Cables

Tasting Notes: Nils Frahm – All Melody, Gigi Masin – Talk to the Sea, Tigran Hamasyan – For Gyumri, Goldmund ‎– Sometimes, Andrea Belfi ‎– Ore

The exponential growth of technology that humankind has witnessed in the last 60 years is an idea integral to Bill Laurance’s fourth studio album. It is the pianist’s first bona fide concept record, an album upon which technology is a creative stimulus, an ominous presence and a tool for discovery that humankind can celebrate.

While Cables deals with modern day ideas and responds to the cold issues they can generate, it is also littered with warm references to historical milestones in art and technology. Take its cover, a minimal and refined Op art piece entitled Multiple. The work could’ve been created yesterday, yet it was the cutting edge 1965 creation of Bill’s great-uncle, Michael Kidner. Used in this context, it makes a neat visual reference to sound waves, the vibrational patterns of stringed instruments and the idea that the ties that bind us are being flexed and warped by advancements in technology.

The album’s second track and first single HAL, is dedicated to one of the most relatable and understood examples of sentient technology in all of modern art: the clinical character of the HAL computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The computer’s ostensible development of free will ties in with the themes of the documentary Transcendent Man, focussed on Ray Kurzweil’s ideas around Singularity: a point in time when technology has developed so rapidly, that humans themselves resort to technological enhancement to keep up. Further technological exploration informs closing track Cassini, which draws inspiration from the 20-year journey of the Cassini–Huygens space probe.

Bill’s thorough exploration of technological growth leads inevitably to a strong technological presence in the sound and structure of the music. There are classic synths like the Roland Juno-106 and Sequential Prophet 6 in use, as well as modern music tech items like the ROLI Seaboard Roland VP-03. These meld beautifully with acoustic piano, guzheng and celeste, enchanting acoustic instruments all, that Bill demonstrates a great understanding of, within these arrangements.

Despite the album being an entirely solo effort with Bill playing every instrument, co-producer and engineer Nic Hard was integral to Bill’s creative process. He not only encouraged him to watch the aforementioned documentary, he also introduced field recordings and samples to the sonic palette, helping to achieve the conceptual depth that the album required. He and Bill have clearly experimented throughout the process, creating pads from the reverberation of acoustic instruments, recording and processing the acoustic piano in such a way that it rarely sounds the same twice yet never feels out of place. On Cassini, the soft clicks of the piano’s mechanics are audible, adding gorgeous depth to an arrangement where beautifully-crafted synth sounds fill the sonic spectrum. The track is one of the most emotive, cinematic and creative that Bill has ever produced.

While compositions that groove are less prevalent than on his previous albums, infectious rhythms are still there to be found. The mid passage of Singularity for example, swings with an electro-funk swagger with vocoder vocals and samples, synth bass swells, a squelchy synth lead, hand claps and hi-hats all feeding into the rich and vibrant groove. While the subject matter has resulted in some more sombre and contemplative compositions, Bill’s ability to craft a memorable melodic hook, to develop a motif into a sprawling, fully-realised composition and to explore harmony and interesting phrasing is still very much present, giving each and every composition on the album an emotional weight.

Laurance’s new record is a deep listening experience, an album to hear with headphones, to give time and consideration to.

Cables lands Friday 29th March on Flint Music.

New Sounds and Visuals

Chicago-born vocalist and poet Jamila Woods released her new single EARTHA this week. Its lyrics draw parallels to Eartha Kitt’s famous documentary interview about love, compromise and sincerity, while its blending beats, bubbling synths and layered vocals recall classic neo-soul and contemporary RnB production alike.

London-based RnB artist Etta Bond released her new video for No More Love ft. Shaé this week. Graded in deep, mellow tones, the Tarique Kareem Al-Shabazz-directed visual sees Etta and Shaé sharing the attentions of the same man, doubting his loyalty and together, finding their doubts to be justified. The video reflects the lyrical themes of mistrust and heartache in the track with both artists resolutely channeling their own experiences into the track.

Based in Wiesbaden, Germany, four-piece Radare draw upon elements of noir jazz, ambient music and post-rock to define their enrapturing, slow-tempo sound. New song LOUP DE MER is a fine example it, with quivering saxophone lines, synth drones, reverb-drenched guitar and a deadly two-note bass motif. Directed by Henrik Eichmann, the new video plays out like a frightening anxiety dream with a central character becoming enchanted by their Guzmania calypso plant, which results in their teeth falling out, forcing them to set the plant alight. The visual is cut with textured shots of plants and forestry, red hue imagery reflecting the characters perilous circumstances. Radare’s new album is streaming in full via Arctic Drones.

Photo credits: Merry Airbrakes via Scissor Tail records, Bill Laurance and Etta Bond via artist, Radare by Leonard Bendix.