Written by: Dave Cantrell
My goodness, some things take a good half a forever to finally come together. We hear stories now and again of musicians taking ten, fifteen years since their initial, potentially fruitful meeting to get together but it’s rare. Sparks either fly and bands get formed in that original moment of fiery intent or the opportunity’s lost, never to be reclaimed as the principals drift at their own given speed toward distantly separate climes, both musically and geographically. Consider then the strange case of the Emperors of Wyoming, coming together an unthinkable thirty years after the quartet’s first mutual stirring in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 70’s.
Madison, like Minneapolis, is a relative artistic hotbed kind of a place and it was no different then. All four Emperors (Phil Davis, Butch Vig, the brothers Anderson, Frank and Peter) knocked about together way back when but did so in different bands. Whatever was in the cards – and there was a lot – becoming a foursome wasn’t part of it and all four members split into separate successes. Vig and Davis formed Fire Town (two LPs on Atlantic) with Vig of course going on to significant renown in the producer’s chair with Nirvana, L7, and his own outfit Garbage, while the Anderson boys were out in San Francisco creating local live legends Call Me Bwana. Years go by, as they do, situations rise and change, and before anyone quite notices it’s 2009 and Davis is talking to Frank Anderson who’s back in Wisconsin and says ‘Hey man, let’s make a folk-rock record.’ Frank says ‘Cool,’ Pete jumps in on bass and once Bruce gets wind of it, well, he doesn’t wanna be left out (“You’re gonna need a drummer, right?”) and the Emperors of Wyoming ride again for the first time.
The result, a 10-track eponymous album of resplendent country-rock gems and jams, lands in the UK under the auspices of Proper Records in the fall of 2012 to considerable praise and bother from critic and fan alike and now, thanks to Liaison Music, those of us over here in the Colonies are finally invited to the (barn) dance. Only it being the big ol’ US of A (and perhaps in deference to the fact that, y’know, there wouldn’t be any ‘americana’ without America), we get the newer, fresher, and, most notably, bigger edition, with three extra tracks and a couple of remixes tossed into the bargain for added value. I’d say it’s a good deal and you should take it.
Here’s what you get: three impeccable, inspired covers – a banjo-, slide- and pedal steel-enhanced take on “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” (and who’d have ever pictured Guy Chadwick on the outskirts of Nashville?); the sultry regret of Afghan Whigs’ “Rebirth of Cool” given a haunting layer of beer-cried-into poignancy, moving the seedy motel room setting a couple hundred miles down the interstate; a fairly faithful rendition of John Martyn’s “Bless This Weather,” its aching fatalism given full-throated homage by Phil Davis’s world-weary, regret-soaked vocal; a respectfully updated and rocky adaptation of 19th C. Wisconsin River ballad “The Pinery Boy” (here called “My Sweet Pinery Boy” and a gem), and nine originals that stand to both give forceful context to the borrowed material and provide the Emperors their own sawdust-strewn stage, to which they take with gusto and nuance.
With their collective pedigree, with the innate knowledge of historic form musicians of this stripe possess, we’re rather guaranteed an authentic, boot-heeled trawl through the Great Plains and dirtback territories that precurse this record and indeed that ticket is summarily punched no matter which direction it takes us. Running the map from Guy Clarksville (“Bittersweet Sound of Goodbye,” Dylan and Neil duking it out to a draw) to the rural outskirts of Minneapolis settin’ their brand of bar band rollick down on various and colorful scattered beer ‘Mats (“Avalanche Girl,” which adds a Chiltonesque churn, and “Cornfield Palace,” swinging with a good time state fair vibe) to the dry blues singing inside the churchy saloons of some Townes down South (“Drinking Man’s Town,” all resigned joy and exultant sadness, the clatter of glasses and smatter of applause), we’re treated to some fine spins across the county-rock road atlas all the while transcending simulacrum. These are real deal tracks fairly bursting with their own organic chemistry.
And it isn’t reflected in musicianship alone, crack as it is. The lachrymal beauty of “Never Got Over You,” drowning in minor chord sorrow and a lap steel worth of Sneaky Pete, abetted by an electric solo reminiscent of Kortch or Lindley in those prime session days of yore, all melded together in a mesh of plaintive regret, points to the sheer production bliss this record revels in. Regardless of the presence in their midst of the 90’s name producer, Vig is only one component of a cumulative effort, engineering with Frank, Phil, and Matt Pedri, then handing the reins over to ex-Churchills man Alex Smolinski for final mixing. The result is a gorgeous-sounding record, its various moods shining genuine on the palette, whether it be the shadowed gleam of yearning on “Sweep Away,” its broken hope cossetted in acoustics and nuance harmonies, the similarly appointed “I’m Your Man” – romantically resilient against all odds – or the Poco pop glisten of “Cruel Love Ways.” Meticulous, buoyant, the modern tinged with a patina of the vintage like a modern chrome-fitted studio reflected in an old silver-clouded saloon mirror, Emperors of Wyoming is the perfect summer accompaniment to that trip that starts out in the shining city but soon runs through the ghost towns and mining claims deep in the heart of the great American nowhere. “Let’s make a folk-rock record.” Done.