Resonance and Clever Desperation – Amy Rigby’s “The Old Guys” and Wreckless Eric’s “Construction Time & Demolition” [A Stereo Embers Double-Feature Album Review]

Amy Rigby / Wreckless Eric
The Old Guys / Construction Time & Demolition
both Southern Domestic

Written by:

[feature photo: The Coston Chronicles]

Resonance. Distilled down to a not-so-fine gist, that is, in a word, what Amy Rigby specializes in. Doesn’t really matter what theme or topic she zeroes in on – Nobel envy, the sneaky pernicious woes of middle aging, rock’n’roll fame on the half shell – she has the dazzlingly humble knack of being able to drill down through the multiple extraneous layers to the humming heart of a thing, where, in response, regardless of how fanciful or, indeed, deeply personal the subject at hand, we all go ‘Ahh, yes, that. I recognize that.’ Granted, hers can be a pithy universality – this (often country-tinged) pop might prick your finger at times with its jaggedy honest edges – but then again it is rather impossible to gain the full measure of anything without acknowledging the catalog of sins and contradictions inherent. That’s life, that’s pop, and that’s Amy Rigby.

On The Old Guys, her first solo outing in over a dozen years (there have been three LPs in the interim with husband – and The Old Guys producer – Wreckless Eric), Ms Rigby dips her toes in just about every stylistic pool in which she’s swum since both before and after jumping head first into a solo career in 1996 (at the age of thirty-seven, no less) with the almost casually masterful debut Diary of a Mod Housewife. While that highly well-received album has served as a serviceable template for the discography that has followed it and that’s no less true here, it pays to keep in mind that that breakout record itself drew at least modestly from her time in the Shams, the early-90’s all-female trio that had a Lenny Kaye-produced LP issued on Matador and limned a line between the Roches and Annette Peacock in a Go-Go’s-gone-solo mood. Add in a kind of bar band insouciance that can at times sound like pub rock with a Byrdsian chime (consult this record’s “On the Barricade”), toss it all in to a pop rock Cuisinart and poof!, The Old Guys comes pouring out of the chipped pitcher like a carefully blended smoothie on the slightly acerbic side.

 

So, take sustenance from the thick bass thud on 12-string wry of “From philliproth@gmail to rzimmerman@aol.com,” an invincible slice of comedic poignancy made no less biting or sad from the fact that Dylan never actually did “step out on to that Nobel stage;” the rich acoustic intimacies of “Back from Amarillo” – think “Gentle on My Mind” minus the breezy drifter vibe but with the added taste of acceptable regret that comes with the “50-something blues” – or the loving, artist-to-artist questionnaire that is “Robert Altman;” the 90’s heyday-flavored “Are We Still There Yet” that transcends its purposely-sourced origin material with a clear-eyed incisiveness that hauls it into current-day Kristen Hersh territory (not to mention containing the immortal line “If you’re  not dead take a bow and turn the radio on“); the agile popsike swirl of the title track or album closer the corking “One Off,” a rousing driving tribute of a rocker dedicated to an undisclosed dear departed – “There’ll never be another you” – carried along by a crafty if no-nonsense nous that could’ve come from the classicist pen of her husband’s brief one-time labelmate Nick Lowe.

Pretty much exactly exacting as we could ask for, the subtly sumptuous glow of Rigby’s songwriting voice has developed a polished amber as she’s aged, and while it’s maybe more that we could have reasonably expected, it also means there’s never been a better time to be her fan.

There’s always been that tinge of desperation, hasn’t there? I mean, ‘desperation’ might be a tad strong but really there’s no need to quibble, is there? We’ve all heard it, even if we’ve not noticed it, exactly, that quavery edge in the timbre of Wreckless Eric’s voice. For over forty years, since his “Whole Wide World”-conquering debut on the Stiff Record compilation and straight through to the fraught world of now, that voice has never varied. It may have gained a slight husk with age – though, if so, it’s a challenge picking it up – but the trace of vulnerability it conveys, of a steadfast, no bullshit sort of fragility, remains. That he’s never shed nor modified an iota of his reedy English accent somehow further underscores both this impression of inherent caution and that here we have, in Wreckless Eric Goulden, the Robyn Hitchcock of sustained British doubt.

And that’s a good thing. In fact, a very good thing. Just that very quality in Mr Goulden’s singing voice brings with it suggestions that keep us gently wary, and here today, thinking about it, it would seem that all along it’s been sounding an alarm by implication that something’s at least naggingly – if not seriously – awry and now here we are, the awry as awry as it’s been in our lifetime. And in ways we can barely decipher and would rather not acknowledge, this woe that’s been foist upon the collective us is seeping inexorably into each on of us individually, shaping itself – and attaching – to our own unique set of fears. Even as, materially, the songs on Construction Time & Demolition don’t overtly apply themselves to the absurdity of our modern headline condition – opener “Gateway to Europe” with its wistful regret and horns a la Bitter Springs and pop churner “Unnatural Acts” (“hey, look at you…can’t seem to separate the facts from the facts“) and especially the pointed, trumpets-a-blazin’ “They Don’t Mean No Harm” make the most direct hits – there’s nevertheless something in the man’s dogged persistence that gives the pretty solid impression that he’s inveighing against precisely that madness we open our screens to every morning.

 

Whether it’s the cracked chirpy pop of “Flash” with its electric piano fills falling merrily down the stairs, the withering, back(of his)hand bash and charm of rockstar takedown “Wow & Flutter,” the ostensibly gentle “Forget Who You Are” wherein the kiss of its psychedelic patina leaves a suitably sour taste, or ‘The Two of Us”‘s sweet Sonic Youthified mayhem that’s akin to a mash note written on the back of a declaration of disaster (one imagines him walking hand in hand with Amy as they stroll, lovebird style, through the dust and rubble of the album’s titular demolition), intonations fairly crackle between the lines, behind the cheek of the lyrics and deep inside the deft pop literacy of the arrangements: Rome is indeed burning and the emperors are lacking more than just their clothes.

In the end here it’s hard to know if this is desperate pop for confident people or confident pop for the desperate but in the end that hardly matters compared to the very fact of his continued existence. Now into his fifth decade of service, this Wreckless Eric fellow with his gem-like songs is sharp as ever as he – somehow – makes us forget our troubles by holding them entertainingly up in front of us. Like a soothing balm that stings, his is both the medicine we want and the medicine we need.