D. Charles Speer & The Helix - "Freddie's Lapels" (Leaving the Commonwealth)
Alt before alt country was cool, for those not weaned on the sweet teet of Uncle Tupelo’s pedigree, D. Charles Speer is actually Dave Shuford from New York’s long-running outre outfit No-Neck Blues Band. And like other avant gon’ Appalachian guitarists John Fahey and Jack Rose before him, goin’ up to the country has been a pretty easy and prettily scenic haul. To be sure, Speers’ notion of Nashville is more Robert Altman or Mordicai Jones than Brooks and/or Dunn. And a lot of that, I think, comes from his rearing in Atlanta. The New York of the South, post-Sherman’s scars and bars anyways, the two-sided Shuford grew up in this Janus city herself, engaging whichever face he wanted, whenever he wanted to. And here on his third outing with the nimble and quick band The Helix, Speers continues his panoramic study of, as Greil Marcus put it, “America within the America,” all the while expanding the scope of what Americana is, was and forever shall be.
The first thing we hear is the sound of crickets, suggesting that we’re listening in on something intimate that we probably shouldn’t be — Creedence’s backwater revived for Thrill Jockey seekers. What follows on “Razorback,” however, sure sounds like some down home, southern fried pickin’ care of Slick Willie’s alma mater. Truth be told, it’s a murder ballad, albeit a shuffling, upbeat one where justice gets served as fine as swine on a smoker. At times, Speers’ bellow hulks nearly identical to that of Silver Jew David Berman. And just like Berman, Speers can get cranky and agitated. When that happens though, Speers ends up sounding more like Orange Juice-era Edywn Collins, only drawlier and less broguey. This baritone patois c’est parfait, of course, for the ersatz Creole number “Le Grand Cochon.”
Of particularly note here are the slide guitar and piano squiggles from the sunburned hands of Marc Orleans and Shuford’s childhood friend Hans Chew, respectively. A man is only as good as he allows his band to be, and as far as The Helix go on this track, Speers’ laissez-faire approach really does let for a good, rolling time. Equally rewarding, if perhaps a bit more sentimental, is the skiffle-cum-stride of “Cumberland.” A sort of subtle tribute to Jack Rose himself (“still can’t believe Dr. Ragtime’s gone / he should be right over there booing this lousy song”), it errs on the other side of poignant, and is thus the better for it. Segued perfectly into the short, solo guitar with crickets etude “Alamoosook Echoes,” one assumes Rose would have wanted it that way.
If the record falters, it’d be on the late cut, “Rust in the Bay.” It’s a fine enough ditty, itself, but the production is markedly different than anything else on the album. And honestly, I’m not sure why. So, on that fact alone, a few points are gone for cohesion. But what really causes a stink is the pit band nature of the arrangement. There are moments where the track sounds not unlike a cast tune from Godspell or any of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock-meets-42nd Street schlock from the ‘70s. But hey, maybe that was the intention. If ever there were a need for a spoiler alert in a record review, consider yourself warned henceforth.
The closing track here is also the title one, and suffice it to say, there’s one hell of a reason for the wait. It has nothing to do with the commonwealths of Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania or Virginia, and absolutely everything to do with how you listen. And short of telling you that Della cut her hair and James sold his watch, or that Dil is really a dude, I feel compelled to leave it at that. A yank by choice, Southern only by the grace of the singer-songwriter’s god, be it No-Neck or No Depression, there’s certainly no problem for D. Charles Speer and his no-nonsense stories here. Here’s hoping he comes back soon.