Josh Rutner

saxophone, etc.

Episode 44: Sleep Gunner Plays the Louvin Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1 (Sleep Gunner, 2014)

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There’s a wordless documentary film about august Dutch drummer and visual artist Han Bennink and one scene from it has stuck in my mind since I first saw it: we see a close-up of a needle dropped on a record, and as the well-worn grooves play Tommy Flanagan’s introduction to the Charlie Parker song “Relaxing at Camarillo,” the camera slowly pans—past a floorful of items including the record jacket (Flanagan’s 1957 debut as a leader, called Overseas), a pair of heavy cowbells, and what appears to be a rubber ear resting on a ping-pong paddle—to Bennink, playing along—truly swinging his ass off—with brushes upon a cardboard box.

What’s so striking to my rubber ear is not the brilliance of the playing—though brilliant playing it is, both Flanagan’s pre-recorded and Bennink’s card-boarded—nor the humor of the box under the brushes played by a grown man sitting on the floor, but rather the resonance between the two. Neither, it should be noted, is faked—Bennink is well-studied in the ways of straight-ahead jazz and a practiced absurdist—and that’s important. His sincerity and clear respect and love for the style bolsters and boosts any sense of irony with which he may deploy such stylistic considerations in different contexts.

Dutch jazz has for decades embodied this tendency toward conceptual amalgamating. The cover of Kevin Whitehead’s invaluable book on the subject, New Dutch Swing—which, appropriately, features an image of Bennink at his drum set, smoke clouds rising up from his hi-hat in which he’d started a newspaper fire—contains the equation: “Jazz + Classical Music + Absurdism = New Dutch Swing.”

This week we look at a 2014 release by the Amsterdam-based guitar duo known as Sleep Gunner, called Plays the Louvin Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1, in which they swap out some elements of the New Dutch Swing equation but retain its logic. As the title suggest, the material they’ve chosen to home in on is that of the Louvin Brothers—a prolific country and gospel, guitar/mandolin close-harmony duo of the ’50s and ’60s—and laid atop and woven throughout that base are strains and strands of noise rock, conceptualist humor, “out jazz,” and more.

Like Bennink, the guitarists of Sleep Gunner—Jeroen Kimman and Mark Morse—have nothing but honest-to-goodness affection for the music that they take pride in being able to both pull off as such as well as deconstruct as wanted. (Or as needed: Kimman confesses that they were “trying to learn to play country and making up for our flaws by throwing in the noise-making weirdness we were doing anyway.” Morse echoes the sentiment when he says, “If there’s ever a comedic or ironic element, it usually comes from not being able to take our own guitar playing seriously—the comedy’s not directed at the songs, the genre, or the Louvins.”)

To be sure, these guys are no golden-leafed Nudie suit-wearing country stars, but that doesn’t stop them from playing the crap out of this music. One of the things I love most about this project is that they don’t simply play the lead-sheet versions of the songs in a so-called modern jazz style, but rather have taken the time to go deep into the bends, twists, and turns of the Louvins—to capture a feeling, rather than obscure it with a thick coat of cool, or bleach it away with abstraction. Fittingly, the pair describes their Louvin Brothers project as a “playful and plaintive attempt to break their own modern conceptualist hearts.” That said, they have clearly worked hard to get the style right.

About the song “Gonna Lay Down my Old Guitar”—the lyrics of which tell of a sick, bedridden man, alone and on the edge of death, wishing he could take his guitar with him when he goes—Kimman would say, “the arrangement had some fun ‘bending concept’ which made the skin come off my fingers. The finger-picking, which was new to us, made Mark have some serious shoulder issues.” It’s a great arrangement, theirs, featuring a final chorus that is slowed down so severely as to make one think that the first line of it is the song’s big finish, but the two lumber onward at that tempo, as if refusing to give up their old guitars, crawling all the way to the end.

The album begins a with a few seconds of string scratching, whining feedback, and fuzzy distortion—like some-sort of fucked-up transistor radio trying to tune into a station—out of which blooms a slowly strolling version of “Put Me on the Trail to Carolina,” a song by the Delmore Brothers, an early influence on the Louvins. It’s a smart tune to open the album with, particularly handling it as Sleep Gunner does, giving each verse and chorus its own feel, through orchestration and guitar effects. It might even be abstractly referred to as an overture, dipping as it does into so many sonic themes that appear through the rest of the album. The song itself is gorgeous, with a harmony line that, like harmonies on much of the Louvin Brothers’ output, is boldly inventive.

One of the Louvins’ more well-known songs, “You’re Running Wild,” is a favorite for Kimman and Morse, and was the first song they recorded under the auspices of Sleep Gunner. On this album, they kick it off with some tame, tail-chasing noodling before diving headlong into the deep boom-chick two-beat groove that underpins the off-kilter song. The two relish the harmonies and smartly just play the form once, for maximum punch. Their take ends with understated humor.

Ira and Charlie Louvin

Ira and Charlie Louvin

Ira and Charlie Louvin grew up in Alabama, working in the field, picking cotton for a taskmaster father who didn’t hesitate to whip the boys—Ira, the elder troublemaker, in particular—with a hickory stick or, as Charlie remembered, if their father wasn’t calm at the time, “with whatever was at hand. A chunk of firewood, a piece of furniture, whatever.”

They learned songs from their Mother, and she didn’t hold back. One of their favorites, taught to them before they were old enough to go out in the fields, was the exceptionally tragic “Mary of the Wild Moor,” which tells of a young, unmarried girl returning home with child to seek shelter from the biting winds on the moor. Her father turns her away, only to find her the next morning dead on his doorstep, grandchild still alive, “closely grasping his dead mother’s arm.” The man realizes what he has done and tears out his grey hair in grief. The child dies soon after, the door is overgrown with willows, and the property becomes a local legend: “there Mary died, once the gay village bride / From the wind that below across the wild moor.” The Louvins’ mother also taught them the murder ballad called “Knoxville Girl,” a morbid song about a man who beats his girlfriend to death for her roving eye. They would record both songs on their 1956 debut full-length for Capital Records, the appropriately titled Tragic Songs of Life. Two other songs on that album, “Alabama” and “Kentucky”—substantially less tragic, being rather sweet odes to states the singers long to return to—appear on Sleep Gunner’s collection.  

Of course, given that this is an instrumental record, there is no extra resonance or tension that can occur when one hears the lyrics. This is not a new thing: jazz musicians have forever been playing instrumental versions of songs. But there is something to be said for knowing what the song “says,” particularly when it is at odds with the music. I think, for example, of what a bonus it is to know that the wildly leaping melody that begins the bridge of Duke Ellington’s song “Prelude to a Kiss” is sung with the lyrics, “Though it’s just a simple melody / With nothing fancy, nothing much.” Or, more apt here, how a song like “But Not For Me” by George Gershwin, set in a major key with no sign of pressure, is set with lyrics by his brother—another older brother named Ira—that detail a depressing litany of heartache. All this to say that while listening to Sleep Gunner’s versions of Louvin Brother songs will hit you hard and satisfy you, getting into the original recordings to hear the lyrics will only add to the experience.

Actually, I should mention here, there is one instance where we get to hear the lyrics and that’s in the song “New Partner Waltz,” when Sleep Gunner strapped into vocoders to tell the quaint tale of emotional betrayal at a dance.

One of my favorites on the record, and a good place to end, is the song, “Hoping that You’re Hoping,” the lyrics of which contain the R. D. Laingianly knotted phrase, “Every breath I take I’m hoping that you’re hoping that I’m hoping you’ll return to me.” It’s on this track that Morse and Kimman let loose most fully, lengthily devolving from a bouncy and bendy overdriven romp into what as well be a haywire truck engine revving in front of your ears. The extended breakdown here is to me reminiscent of the musical “viruses” employed by the ICP Orchestra (a near fifty-year-old institution of “New Dutch Swing” co-founded by pianist and composer Misha Mengelberg and the aforementioned Han Bennink), which, as Kevin Whitehead puts it, are “booby-traps designed to mess up any piece’s structure from within.”

With Sleep Gunner, though, it may be much simpler than that. In a post from 2012, introducing what they refer to as “the latest Louvin craze,” they explain that “Our goal here is to go really uptempo for a change, maintain all the romance, and try to sound like an 8-bit old computer game, since we’re modernist conceptualists, and we found ourselves with newly bought fuzzboxes so there.”

Head over to Sleep Gunner’s Bandcamp page to get yourself a copy of Plays the Loving Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1, and while you’re there, check out their two live recordings, which show off some more stretching than you hear on Vol. 1 and also introduce a few additional Louvin tunes to their book, which, if we’re lucky, we’ll get to hear on Vol. 2 some day soon.

I’m Josh Rutner and that’s your album of the week.