National Carpet Is a Band

Do you ever hear a bad band and think there’s more to the story?

Shortly after moving to Easthampton, MA in 2005, a friend called me to tell me he was seeing a show at the Iron Horse in Northampton.  The band was The Damnwells, a Brooklyn-based group fronted by singer-songwriter Alex Dezen and backed by a top-notch group of musicians including Steven Terry, was the original drummer of Whiskeytown.  That was all I needed to hear.

They put on a really good show.  Dezen’s writing is beautiful, well crafted, and the band was tight as a drum.  They were good-looking guys and looked as comfortable in a power ballad as a grip-n-rip it barn-burner.  They had a major label deal and seemed to have all the makings of rock n’ roll success story.

The Damnwells later became victim of the ever-tightening major label squeeze.  Having released a single called “Golden Days” which was beginning to receive air play and favorable critical attention, they were summarily dropped by Epic and their newly-finished album was shelved.  An excellent documentary was shot about the band entitled “Golden Days” and the tagline tells the story far more eloquently than I ever could, “They’ve toured the country, opened for rock legends, and you can’t find their album anywhere.”

But this post isn’t about the Damnwells; this post is about the band that opened for them.   (more…)

Collin Herring

Collin Herring

Collin Herring

Given this day & age of total saturation and near-constant “tweets” from our favorite navel-contemplating musicians, information on this young man is surprisingly difficult to come by.  From what I can tell, Herring gets his act together every couple years to create hair-raising, intensely personal, no-bullshit alternative country (“whatever that is…”).  These efforts are typically met with great enthusiasm from the NPR & No Depression crowd, which lands him a few bucks and then right back in rehab.

This is by no means authoritative since, as I mentioned before, information is scant.  But, it’s the best I got.

One story that does crop up routinely about this guy is how he came by his pedal steel player.  Apparently, his father is a piano tuner by trade and Collin had grown up hearing him play.  When Collin started getting serious about his musical aspirations he offered his father a spot in the line-up under one condition; he learn to play pedal steel.

For those of you who’ve never seen the inside of one of these things, let me show you:

Pedal Steel

Black Magic

Look like an instrument you could pick up on a whim? No?  Because it isn’t!

The best explaination I’ve heard for how pedal steel works is from my dear friend, Dean Ellerton, “…black magic.”

Ben Roi Herring

Ben Roi Herring

So, Herring’s dad picked up the instrument and was reasonably proficient in time to record some memorable licks on Collin’s debut album, Avoiding the Circus.  This story may well be hypocryphal, but it’s certainly plausible and the kind of tasty tale that musicians love to pass along.

At any rate, after hearing Herring on Pandora radio, I picked up his sophomore album, The Other Side of Kindness, and his third album, Past Life Crashing, on Amazon.com and proceeded to play on repeat for a year.  About a month ago, after much searching, I finally found a used copy of his first album, Avoiding the Circus.

The Other Side of Kindness is by far my favorite.  This thing is raw.  Like, really raw.  You can hear all kinds of hisses and hums as Herrings whiskey-soaked voice croaks out achingly revealing lyrics like,

Somewhere over Southwest Kansas, the sky skirts low over me,
Left me alone with all of my bad intentions,
In close encounters with out-of-towners and foggy recollections of shame,
As I pulled right over and took my hat off to the funeral train.

Motorcade slowly passes to that plot just North of town.
Sadly I found a correlation to that poor soul going down as I drove around.

Man, if that doesn’t bring you right down, I don’t know what will.  His music seems to wrench memories loose, some of bored days driving around and getting into all kinds of trouble while waiting listlessly for adulthood to arrive, and others of the painful realization that adulthood isn’t going to be as much fun as you’d thought.  Like I said before, the sound is very raw, but it is also very melodic and bleeding Americana.  The term “tortured” gets thrown around a lot about artists, but you can really sense the ache in this guy.  He sounds injured.

Several of my compatriots can’t get past the sound quality of these recordings, which I get.  His first album was recorded entirely live and his second almost so.  They definitely sound as if the band set up in a room, threw some microphones up and let ‘er rip, which is probably exactly what happened.  But, I also think they’re sonically better than a lot of Beatles recordings that we listen to daily and, more importantly, that the rough production actually adds more than it detracts.  The Other Side of Kindness’s fidelity would probably drive Don Fagen to drink, but it is clearly a better album than Past Life Crashing, which is much cleaner, and I don’t think the sound quality factors into that judgement much, if at all.  I don’t mean to say that this stuff sounds like an AM radio, it’s just that there is a hazy quality to the recordings, and particularly his voice, which some people find difficult to warm up to.

These disks are now some of my most prized possessions, in no small part because I’m not entirely sure I could replace all of them.  I think that this guy, at his best, is cranking out some of the best damn American music this side of the drink.  So do yourself a favor, find a copy while they’re still in print and do not, I repeat do not, loan this to a music-loving friend: you will not get it back.

Here are some samples:

Fair To Middlin’ – Avoiding the Circus

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Means Good – Avoiding the Circus

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Aphorism – The Other Side of Kindness

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Headliner – The Other Side of Kindness

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Cellophane – Past Life Crashing

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