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Album Review

keith morris
& the crooked numbers

love wounds & mars

I really wanted to start this out “Two musicians and Keith Morris walk into a bar” because Morris is without a doubt one of the funniest guys I've never met and it would be a perfect introductory line, but I can't do it. To be fair, I would have to change it to “Three musicians walk into a bar” because Morris, a guy who never claimed to be a musician until he emerged from his basement one day with an armful of cassettes of music he had been recording for who knows how long, has become one. And very noticeably so.

Not to denigrate his first album (Songs From Candyapolis) which materialized out of those aforementioned cassettes, love wounds & mars is not just a step further, it is a step in the absolute right direction. Candyapolis, as good as it was, in terms of accessibility might have been fine as a fourth or fifth album but failed to gain wide acceptance as a first. A semi-concept album which Morris has described as an adult album for children or a children's album for adults, it was as much, for the uninitiated, a brain teaser for the ears as it was not a commercial effort. Morris never intended that a contingent of fans form around it. Knowing what I know of him, he may have even laid it out as a challenge. He, as much as myself, knows how the changing listening habits of people have morphed the musical landscape. What's the line? Better one person who really listens than thousands who don't? That's kind of what he got. I mean, ideals are a good thing but it is nice to be able to eat too.

So the core of love wounds & mars is as far from Candyapolis as Morris could get without delving into genres not even remotely rock 'n' roll. No concept here unless one considers putting more than one song on an album a concept. It is merely a collection of songs written and selected for recording. Did I just say “merely”? True, they are stand-alone songs, each wrapped in its own tortilla, but Morris has plenty of them in his songwriting trunk, none of them mere. Morris, as funny as he is, takes his songwriting very seriously and these were handpicked and handcrafted specifically for love wounds & mars. You can't miss it, really. And you don't even have to listen close. Then again, what with that music listening landscape morph and all, maybe you might, so to avoid the classic musical conundrum, here is a Cliff's Notes version of the album.

Nowhere Road kicks things off and, thanks to Doug Wannamaker's organ and a light “up beat” (helped along by Wells Hanley's off-the-beat piano chording), sounds a bit Duke Jupiter-ish in structure but more Chris Berardo & The Desberardos in feel, the choral background vocals straight out of Cowboy's Boyer & Talton phase. It is a magic combination and a solid opener. From there, the album bounces around. Blind Man has a solid rhythm and an R&B feel, especially at the end when the chorus cranks out a few “shoops” behind Morris's “drill, baby, drill” ending (which probably has you thinking politics, but that would be you and not Morris, who has some serious songwriting skills). The band goes whole hog rock on Leora Brown, cranking out a wall of sound with screaming high end organ on the chorus. Matty Metcalfe gives Bordertown an official Tex-Mex flavor, Doug Sahm-style, and Morris and crew work through it with surprising ease. Jen Morris takes lead voice on the one truly Country & Western track on the album, Peaceful When You Sleep, and when you close your eyes the harmonies take you back to sixties' and early seventies' Nashville (with help from the superb pedal steel of Charlie Bell). Colorado is a semi-”Ghost Riders” journey into innerspace and sounds like The Seeds or Love might have if they'd been country and had had a pedal steel player. Like a Haze is a slow-tempo reflection of drug-induced dream, very reminiscent of a song out of my music-listening past, Write My Name In the Dust, from a 1970 Peter Bardens album (The Answer) and Morris nails the vocals, his textured voice Leon-Russell-like with a smoother texture. Mexico carries on the tempo if not the theme, a beautiful and floating song perfect for an independent movie scene involving destitution and/or aftermath (think No Country For Old Men or any noir film involving a border crossing). I used to play drums but always wanted to be a rhythm guitar player because I always thought really good lead guitarists became great when pushed hard by the rhythm. Don't Look Down is the kind of song for just that, though it doesn't really happen on this song, the rhythm a freight train on a straight track down the middle of the desert. Even the way it runs out of track at the ends says yeah.

Morris ends the album with Diamond Mask, a song written by a mysterious figure named Chris Cullhane out of Boulder, Colorado who exists and yet doesn't. Morris found the song on a cassette tape, “a really distorted off-the-cuff version--- a much shorter song--- and you could barely make out the words because they had this loud distorted harmonica over it. Something about the song hit me, so I began re-imagining it and added my own interpretation of the lyrics (I could hear and understand some of them) and I stretched it out. It was an excavation process, I would say.” Suffice it to say that the excavation was successful, the song finding its own groove and ending up with an Into the Mystic vibe to it. Very nice.

Morris himself produced this with help from Jeff Romano and it is a veritable Who's Who of Charlottesville music--- well, a small portion of C-ville. The Crooked Numbers, Morris's backup band, consists of Tom Proutt (guitar), Bud Bryant (bass), (drums) and Morris's wife, Jen, who shows major growth as a vocalist (besides background vocals, she completely nailed the country feel of Peaceful When You Sleep). Beyond that, Morris brought in Davita Jackson, Davina Jackson, and Richelle Claiborne who, alongside Jen Morris, makes for one of the best choir ensembles he could have assembled and he uses it well (Morris claims that Bordertown was written specifically with the Jackson's voices in mind). lays down guitar solos like a pro on five tracks, keyboardist Wells Hanley does his standard excellent job, Charlie Bell (who I first heard the exceptional Jim Waive & The Young Divorcees) plays pedal steel magic when called upon and Morwenna Lasko (of Lasko & Pun) is her usual fiddling wizard self. Without Matty Metcalfe's accordion, Bordertown would be a good and not a great song (I did mention I thought it so, did I not?) nor would Leora Brown without Jeff Romano's standout mouth harp. And I think Paul Curreri and Devon Sproule would plain have felt left out had Morris not asked for their contributions--- Paul adding background vocals on three tracks (his take on one section of Like a Haze is a cross between Merry Clayton on the Stones' Gimme Shelter and Clare Torry on Floyd's Great Gig In the Sky, his vocal at first buried but working its way slowly through the layers--- Devon harmonizing with Jen on Peaceful When You Sleep.

Morris almost called this album Personal Damage because “there was a lot of damage going around--- mine, Jen's, my friends'.....” These songs, evidently, were almost wrung from him. I plan to follow up in a few months time and hope to get him to tell the stories behind the songs. At this point, I get the feeling that they may be too personal, that it may be too soon. I mean, I not only want to know, I need to know. The songs are that good.

What I said earlier about Candyapolis not being an album first-timers would get? I still think that way. The thing is, you now have a starter album. love wounds & mars will give you all you need and in this case a step backward might well be a step forward. If you like love wounds, check out Candyapolis.

The name is Keith Morris. The band is The Crooked Numbers. Write that down. You could regret it if you don't.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.

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