In the Shadows (Again)
As a rule, it is probably best not to read the thoughts of others with regards to an album you are planning to review, better to wait until you have got your thoughts down to avoid contamination or plagiary. Rules are made to be broken, however, and when you spy a one-star review of that same record, the rules go out the window. The initial shock rapidly turns to disdain, bleeding into a sense of trepidation that you are wrong in esteeming the album in question. Doubt is soon replaced by indignation, once you have listened to the album again. A light thrill of anger flickers but dissipates into a peculiar mix of amusement and compassion when you remember that there is no right or wrong when it comes to these things. An unjust or unwarranted scathing review may simply be a case of the album having been given to the wrong reviewer, maybe they took an instant dislike to it and were not inclined to give it more time, or it could always be a case of not having the right tools for the job.
In the Shadows (Again) is Garrett T. Capps’s second full album, following 2016’s Y Los Lonely Hipsters and an EP, Hope & Doubt & Freeway Birds, from 2013. Both these are worth of your attention. The EP mixes elements of Texas singer-songwriter tradition, Southwestern Americana and 21st Century cowboy songs; check out the track George Dubya Jr, a song about getting caned and generally having a good time with the relatively sane 43rd POTUS and 46th Governor of Texas. Asking Capps about that song, he simply replied “I kinda stopped playing that song. But I never really got shit for it when I did it. It is pretty tongue-in-cheek”.
With the album Y Los Lonely Hipsters, Capps extended his range, wrapping up touches of punk rock and classic rock and roll with his take on Southwestern songwriting to create a spicy enchilada of an album, tasty and satisfying, keeping you coming back for more. Born in San Antone, the most prominent track on the album, sounds like the bastard lovechild of Steve Earle, Lou Reed and Iggy pop, if you dare imagine such a thing. You may have heard it used on the soundtrack to season three of TV show Billions. I asked Garrett to list his favourite Texas songwriters and I got the same names I would have given; Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Townes, James McMurtry, Robert Earl Keen, Terry Allen, Doug Sahm, Willie, Kris, Jerry Jeff Walker, Todd Snider, Alejandro Escovedo, all artists we have played at Whiskey Preachin over the years. When I asked Capps if he feels part of the Texas tradition, he answers, in typical laconic fashion, “I was born in San Antone”. It was the answer I had hoped for.
With his latest album, Capps is pushing the boundaries of that tradition even further. In the Shadows (Again) still embraces the American singer-songwriter tradition, but it takes the songs into new sonic extra-territory. Expansive soundscapes and experimentation with motoric krautrock grooves make it clear that this is not a traditional country or Americana album, but a bold and intrepid step sideways, or forwards. There is a definite spacey quality to the album and, indeed, Capps uses the phrase NASA country when describing this music. Hoping to get a better understanding of where he is coming from with this concept, I asked Capps to explain himself.
“NASA Country is a collective of musicians and artists in San Antone. It started out as a more traditional band playing my songs but has changed a bit with the incorporation of modular synthesis (Sound Artist Justin Boyd), horn players, keys, and additional guitars. I started writing and arranging In the Shadows (Again) in 2016 and wanted to try and accomplished something new for the roots/Americana/country genre, while still maintaining accessibility. We call it "NASA Country" or "Space Country" due to the soundscapes and effects that are created by Boyd. We are especially spacey and far-out live. We have started writing the next record and it will be an excellent follow up. More boundaries will be pushed. Transcendental kraut country honky tonk = Space country”. In fact, if you want to know just how spacey they can get, Boyd has just completed work on a full set of ambient space-country remixes of the album, available from Capps's Bandcamp page.
Wanting to know more, I asked Capps what bands, artists and records had influenced him to make an album like In the Shadows (Again)?
“I am heavily inspired by the great post-Dylan songwriters, and the Texas ones had a big impact on me growing up. In recent years I got really into krautrock and more experimental stuff, especially the bands that can find a way to write a really catchy but open-ended song. Stereolab are great at this. I love Can and Neu!. My goal for GTC + NASA Country is to have a live show comparable to a band like SWANS; something that is overwhelming audibly and physically, but with a Tejas twist. When I sit down to write a song, it fits in with my surroundings in San Antone. I like changing it up as the full band stuff gets arranged, and the musicians and artists that I work with have great ideas on how to do that”.
Now things are starting to make more sense. Once you hear In the Shadows (Again) with these references to hand, it becomes the experience it should be. This is not meant to be just another Americana album, and to review it as such is missing the point. From the ketamine and whiskey honky tonk of Go Home - “I woke up in the darkness, bible by my side, still had some pills in my pocket, I could almost see the light” - to the woozy zero-gravity dance of The Interstate 35 Waltz – “We were waltzing in Dallas when it all disappeared, found work in Waco and there goes five years. A phone call from Ausitn seemed like our chance, maybe leave behind Texas, find somewhere to dance” – this is an album that reveals itself slowly, with repeat listens, preferably with some sensory inducement.
If Here Right Now might be the track that showcases where Capps wants to take his music, melding his Texas traditions with the Krautrock influences he has acquired (imagine a Texas take on War on Drugs or Jane Weaver), then the closing track, Trouble’s Callin’ echoes an influence that may prove prophetic. Musically, lyrically and production-wise, this magnificent album closer is reminiscent of Gene Clark’s No Other album. Produced by the great Thomas Jefferson Kaye, No Other stands today as a bold signpost to the future, a masterpiece that has become revered by critics and musicians over the intervening four decades, but which, at the time, was trounced by critics who thought Kaye’s production style “bloated” and “pretentious”.
In the Shadows (Again) is the result of an artist refusing to tow the line, not content to make more of the same but determined to fuse the musical styles that he is influenced by. The fact that these styles are diverse and have not traditionally been bed fellows should be applauded, here is an artist pushing at the mundane constraints of expectation and breaking new ground. At the end of the one-star review of this album that so incensed me, the reviewer states that they are not even sure who would buy an album like this. Let me try to put an answer to that. In my opinion, the sort of person who might find this album of values is someone who understands that music does not have to be easy to categorise to be of interest or value, someone who likes to be challenged and rewarded in their listening, who likes to hear an artist taking risks, going where they want to go, breaking new ground rather than sticking to tried and tested formulae. If you feel you are that listener, maybe you should go and buy In the Shadows (Again). I had my copy flown in from San Antone.