D. Charles Speer & The Helix Leaving the Commonwealth

[Thrill Jockey; 2011]

Styles: country-rock, psychedelic, swamp rock
Others: No-Neck Blues Band, Jack Rose, Hans Chew, The Band

By this point, it’s pretty clear that instrumentalist and songwriter David Charles Shuford is a jack of all trades, playing in communal improvisation ensemble No-Neck Blues Band, supporting folkie Ed Askew, performing the short-lived Brooklyn psychedelic bar rock of The Suntanama, and recording traditional Greek music as well as forms of his own derivation. If we go back to what didn’t really work in The Suntanama — namely, its lack of clear vision — we find what does work with The Helix, despite a rather diverse range of sources. Shuford (Speer) is joined across this set by regular accomplices Hans Chew (keyboards, vocals) and Marc Orleans (pedal-steel), as well as drummer Steve McGuirl, bassist Ted Robinson, and vocalist Margot Bianca. Leaving the Commonwealth is the group’s fourth full-length to date and comprises nine originals; it’s released in parallel with Speer’s solo Thrill Jockey album Arghiledes (the aforementioned Greek-Cajun-unclassifiable hybrid).

While disparity is ultimately part of the group’s thrust — mixing front porch cascades from Big Pink, swamp pop, Gulf Shores psych, and country — Shuford and company bind this collection of songs together, granting the music not only flow, but also a largesse that stretches beyond quaint or isolated aesthetic impulses. Opener “Razorbacked” is a blazing country-rock two-stepper on the surface, but its layout has a wistful lushness that both supports and runs strange counter to the complex lyrical portrait. Following is the clear-sky Southern drift of “Days in the Kitchen,” sonically a curious reminder of Palace Music’s Florida suite (from Lost Blues and Other Songs, Drag City, 1997). “Le Grand Cochon” rides on a full tank of Cajun swamp-rock and plodding psychedelia, accordion and violin (the latter courtesy of Stephanie Rabins) skating atop trance-like bass, skirling guitar, and a shuffle-beat. Perhaps if Roky Erickson and Tommy Hall had come up in Lafayette rather than Austin, The Elevators would have produced something akin to this. Words slide between English and Patois, as Shuford whoops and hollers within the Helix’s stew.

The mood of a record like this is not easy to pinpoint; cosmic cowboy vibrations alongside Hornsby-era Dead springs to mind, but lyrically it is slightly sinister or, at the very least, turned inward. There’s an oblique sense of place or situation in how Shuford assembles his songwriter’s thoughts, economical but knotty, alien but warm — for example, the multipart “Cumberland.” Chew and his gravelly tenor take the reins on “Rust in the Bay,” a fast-clipped waltz that’s vocally anathema to Shuford’s round baritone. The keyboardist is something of a secret weapon, alongside Orleans’ pedal steel providing orchestration and motion. A lilting mixture of twang and Caribbean rhythms infuse the Civil War character study “Battle of the Wilderness,” with death and destruction granted a dusky swing before the upward-glancing fuzz reprieve of the title track. Shuford and his mates come by this music honestly, spinning yarns and images that are full yet not always resolved. Closing the set with an instrumental has a sort of programmatic point, mixing disquiet with the signifying power of open chords.

Leaving the Commonwealth is an excellently assembled record, gutsy and traditional, and certainly worthy of attention.

Links: D. Charles Speer & The Helix - Thrill Jockey

Most Read