Naming a record Modern Country could seem a bit too on the nose coming from a guitarist who cut his teeth as a member of both Lambchop and the Silver Jews. Known for sophisticated, R&B-flavored ambient country (Lambchop) and well-read, rustic indie rock (the Joos), both groups were able to utilize William Tyler’s nimble, Kottke-meets-Frisell fretwork. More, his trio of solo albums displayed an ever increasing individuality within the “old weird America,” moving from Fahey’s American Primitivism to vocal-less, sunbaked Laurel Canyon splendor. With Modern Country, Tyler further refines his lush fingerpicking and incorporates a pastoral, hypnotic and electrified melodicism that acts as more of a travelogue, exposing a fully-formed narrative on a rapidly changing American landscape.
Written away from his home base in Nashville, Tyler travelled to Oxford, Mississippi to, as his PR kit explains, document “the vanishing America that still exists on back roads, in small towns, on AM radio stations.” This “vanishing America” concept is apparent on the album’s cover (Tyler, translucent, psychedelic, standing in a vast desert landscape) and reinforced by several of Modern Country‘s song titles (“Kingdom of Jones” references Jones County, Mississippi, which seceded from the Confederacy during the Civil War, “The Great Unwind” borrows its title from George Packer’s 2013 book on American inequality, while “Albion Moonlight” takes its name from a character in Kenneth Patchen’s “Man has been corrupted by his symbols,” The Journals of Albion Moonlight.). Unlike most alt-country, and especially its instrumental strains, Tyler can push old-timey structures against electric rock & roll, while also incorporating Steve Reich’s dancing minimalism, Brian Wilson’s yearning melodies and Krautrock’s blissful road trip ambience into the neon kuduz-covered mix.
From the record’s first track, the shimmering and stately “Highway Anxiety,” Tyler abandons his knotty, solo acoustic guitar folk for a piece radiating with electric guitar, pedal steel, organ, synths and supple percussion. Structurally, this track, and album closer, “The Great Unwind,” form nice conceptual bookends to the record’s song cycle, and sonically, marry the warm, slow-moving Americana of recent Earth releases, with the driving, yet tranquil, Kosmic Kosmische Musik of Neu or Cluster. Featuring an all-star ensemble (Darin Grey: bass, Glenn Kotche: drums and percussion, Luke Schneider: pedal steel, Phil Cook: piano, keys, organ and dobro, and Brad Cook’s production and synths), these songs explicitly lay the groundwork for the album’s thesis of awe-inspiring natural beauty undercut by modern claustrophobia. Without a word sung, Tyler and his group welcome us to the seemingly endless possibilities of America’s backroads, while also hinting that our highways and skyscrapers are squeezing many of our cultures to extinction.
While Tyler brings many new moods and textures into his wooly stew, his signature style remains, and with a song like “I’m Gonna Live Forever (If It Kills Me),” he pairs his agile, closely-mic’d fingerpicking against buzzing synths and the sunbaked bounciness of classic-era Meat Puppets. Further, tunes like “I’m Gonna Live Forever” and “Gone Clear” highlight that Tyler and company have far more adventurous ideas than most in the roots music scene, letting loose a heady brew of psychedelic minimalism, ECM jazz and twangy prog. Outside of the classic monolith that is Jim O’Rourke’s Bad Timing, I’m hard pressed to think of another instrumental album that so casually (and successfully) combines folk and drone with the fussed-over pop of Van Dyke Parks, as Modern Country does. (It’s also worth noting that Kotche and Grey also served as the rhythm section on Bad Timing.) This conglomeration of American Primitivism cast in a circular pattern of sophisticated pop and minimalism not only speaks to the beautiful clash between “high” and “low” art, it also positions the unhurried openness of the “old weird America” with the bustling busyness of modern composition.
In a recent interview on Vish Khanna’s podcast Kreative Kontrol, Tyler spoke a great length about the challenges inherent instrumental music–how it’s processed and interpreted, how we grapple with intent. Although the guitarist is uncertain that Modern Country‘s politics and POV are obvious on it’s surface, he’s nonetheless gone out of his way to make the record’s moods and textures as tangible as those of a singer/songwriter. In fact, prior to the record’s release, Merge posted a trailer for the album, featuring scenes of highways and byways, trains and skyscrapers, unfettered nature and busy amusement parks. “We stand at the precipice of the twilight of empire,” Tyler says in voiceover, “the decline of so many national institutions and the vanishing of certainties.” He continues, that the slow fade of our cultural geography “still live, even as the highways and high-rises push it to the fringes of the countryside or the static of the airwaves.” Captivating and hypnotically inviting, “Modern Country is a love letter to what we are losing in America–to what we’ve already lost.”
On first pass it could be easy to see Tyler’s concept as bleak, or even bitter, but this ideal summer road trip record is so full of hopeful wonder that the sadness for things lost is overruled by celebration and tribute. With Modern Country, Tyler has constructed a vast playground, where the listener is encouraged to look around and examine where we’ve been and where we are going.