The Crabs, a remarkable Anacortes, Washington-based twosome (Jonn Lunsford and Lisa Jackson) that produced four fine, full-length albums plus a few singles in the mid- to late-1990s and ceased activity in 1999 with “Sand and Sea” (K Records), seems to have both arrived and left the scene so quietly that today it’s hard to find much written about them. Even when they were active, they seem to have worked in a kind of shadow.
From their beginning, with “Jackpot” (K Records, 1995), The Crabs had a power and presence and lyric style that should have hooked the press as much as it did their fans, searching as everyone was then for a way to explain the DIY “low-fi” thing exploding from the Pacific Northwest. There’s always been rebellion and rebels in this river country of rain and fog and introspection, and the aesthetic of The Crabs fit the landscape and culture perfectly. But then, with the release of “Sand and Sea” in 1999 they stopped.
What happened to The Crabs? I have a theory (I have lots of theories). My theory is there was a shadow, a huge shadow to be sure, called Beat Happening. Lunsford’s brother, Bret, launched his Beat Happening first, and he quickly slipstreamed into a mighty wave of new songwriting energy and musical entrepreneurship swirling around Bret, Knw-Yr-Own Records, Calvin Johnson, and K Records. A lot of talented people and bands jumped out at the same time as Beat Happening. It was one of those perfect moments in regional music, with new labels and new bands and new friendships. Then regional became national. It’s a big history. And a big, competitive dynamic that would affect any artists working in such a space.
The Crabs’ style was and remains very much part of that history (if not quite as ‘hooky’ of a sound as Beat Happening, or as lyrically experimental). Their four full-length records still maintain a sense of identity and artistic growth that would be impressive for any band. But listening to them today is a somewhat nostalgic experience, as they fit so perfectly with their late-1990s milieu. There’s even an innocence that floats through their four records, the innocence of the time, a nervousness and edginess about the brave new century just around the corner, an innocence that has utterly vanished today.
Now, The Crabs are back again with “Shut the Door,” their first release (an EP) in 15 years. Three short, sweet songs that feel a little like a musical reset back to their mid-career. I personally think if you’ve mastered your skills in any art form, why stop? But they did. So I have another theory. I wonder if starting a family had something to do with the break in the band’s activity. Children can certainly redirect the creative energies of even the most career-driven of artists. Today’s band has grown in terms of personnel on this EP, with four members: Lunsford and Jackson, joined by their children Zinnia (keyboard) and Vince (drums). I tracked them down on their Bandcamp page, currently the only source for this download. Bob Vaux plays drums on the song “Stop the Start.” “Shut the Door” was recorded at The Unknown Studio, produced by Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie/The Microphones) and recording engineer Nich Wilbur.
The giant post punk/nu metal/angst fuzz wave that Mark Arm (Green River/Mudhoney) famously labeled “Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit!” has roared over this coastal landscape and left its legacy and memories and scars. Now The Crabs have returned. Although the new EP isn’t as bright, production-wise, as their still sparkling “Sand and Sea,” these three new songs slipstream easily into their overall catalog. DIY has never been easier in music, though it’s lost its power to shock. Their new song “Ain’t Nothin Changed” suggests that the band knows exactly where they are today. They’ve given us three new songs for now, but I want more. We need bands like The Crabs. We need artists who go their own way, and keep going. It’s instructive. We’re caught in a giant corporate apathy that grinds everything down based on market and profit. Maybe The Crabs can help us find a new kind of innocence again, for a new century, one that leads away from the cynical apathy we live in today. The Crabs are back and just as clever as ever. I want them to stick around this time.
NPR recently posted a short note about Edinburgh-based Dan Willson, also known by his band name, Withered Hand, saying that Willson is a former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses but that he had “drifted away” from the church to start making his stylish, folkish pop music filled with images of spiritual displacement and longing, and especially the dynamics of human relations, rich as they are with confusion and compulsion and unresolved conflict. Drifted away? From the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Then I remembered a scene from Kyria Abraham’s insider and funny book, I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing (Simon & Schuster, 2009), a scene about the author as a young girl finding her mother sitting on the kitchen floor, in a trance, with a hammer in her hand and a shattered vinyl record of the soundtrack of “Fantasia” (1940), Disney’s animated classic with a memorable bigger-than-life soundtrack, including a version of “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). Mussorgsky’s tone poem turned classical composition is crafted out of Russian legends about a witches’ sabbath on St. John’s Eve. Filled with gossip and conjuring and dark mischief for the whole family, with a full-walk-on part by the big evil one himself, Satan, “Night on Bald Mountain” was a crowd pleaser. That offending Disney record found its way into Abraham’s devout JW household because she and her mother loved “Fantasia.” Only later did her mother discover that it contained an evil piece of demon music. Get a hammer! That’s how things leave a JW’s home.
Although Willson left the JWs early in his life, as a boy, it clearly remains something of a big deal. It’s not a small matter, leaving a religion-based cult that imposes strict social adherence to hierarchy, literal interpretations of scripture, and universal obedience for all, including children. Leaving such an all-encompassing community leaves its mark on the departing individual.
The whole exiled JW thing can be used as a kind of handy (but certainly not exclusive) navigation device to some of the images in Willson’s lyrics. Nothing brings the rebel clarity and focus like a precise cultural obstacle from which to rebel. Nearly every song on “New Gods” (2013), a record that carries both the Rough Trade and Slumberland Records imprimaturs, weaves melody and language that straddles secular as well as religious pathways. For example: “We could kill our friends,” and “Here I stand hand in hand with the nameless one” (“Horseshoe”); “I try to picture the creator” (“Love Over Desire”); “Like I was born again,” “Better the devil you know,” and “The Gilded Palace of Sin” (“King of Hollywood”); “Waiting in line for the prophecy,” “Proclaim the end is nigh,” and “Sinners say what?” (“California”); “I never said I was good/How after all these years of life/Slipping into a new line” (“New Gods”); and “No fiery light in your brow,” “No mountain in your palm,” and “To everything there is a season/Under heaven” (“Heart Heart”). There are many more. These songs are filled with scriptural tie-ins, as well as universal doubt, some guilt, and just a little bitter reflection.
Mastered at the mighty Abbey Road Studios in London, this is a beautifully crafted (in every way), career-defining record. It’s a shining example of the power and reach and universality of the singer/songwriter genre. These 11 songs speak to many universal themes, not just those I’m reading as influenced by a JW exit. So there’s much to enjoy without worrying about “religious songs.” There’s a coming of age vibe to many of the songs, such as “Between True Love and Ruin,” “Not Alone,” and Black Tambourine.” Willson isn’t old, but he’s also not a boy any more. He’s a father and has experienced love and loss, including the death of a friend his own age. Some reviewers have written about Willson’s sense of humor in his songwriting, but I didn’t experience “New Gods” as humorous. Most of the material on this new record feels introspective and melancholy to me. Life is what makes art. A life open-heartedly lived is what makes one person’s art and story universal. This is the second full-length collection from Withered Hand. It’s a powerful beginning to a career that will certainly continue to reflect on the unbelievable believable in all that we do, out here among the un-anointed.
What’s old is new, or is it what’s old is old and what’s new is new? Amos Lee’s career sometimes confuses people, I think, because he uses both old and new as if they were just tools he’s picked up, as he blends his beginning as a recording artist with his new work, to get a job done. I think he’s been building his career from the beginning around an ever-stronger core of songs and records, each flowing together, one after another, as if they were set down in a plan years ago.
I first encountered Amos Lee’s songwriting live, early on, at the time of his first record, “Amos Lee” (Blue Note Records, 2005). He toured with Bob Dylan, opening for Dylan and Merle Haggard. And he was good. When I listen to that first record today, side by side with his fifth studio record, “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” (Blue Note Records, 2013), I hear the journeyman’s clear voice, and there’s that feeling, that something special that he’s carried all along.
Jack Kerouac totally called it when he said all he had to offer anyone as a writer was his confusion. It’s something special when a man can pick up a guitar and find the simplest words to explore complicated, confusing, eternal emotional landscapes that he knows we all travel. Why make it complicated?
“Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” was recorded live with Lee’s touring band in Nashville. Many of the tracks have a floating quality, making them seem more nostalgic than Lee’s previous records. Producer Jay Joyce is known for the atmospherics he brings to studio recordings, and he’s done that again here. And like with Lee’s previous records, the layers are kept to a minimum, in most cases allowing Lee’s voice and guitar to remain central.
Lee’s voice and stories carry his songs along. Always rich, simple, elegant, and honest. I think his brilliance as a songwriter is exactly the reason people sometimes criticize him: He writes lyrics that wrap everyone in the simple truth of their own lives. Lovers break hearts, memories cut deep. We feel the same things: We get hurt, we get pushed to our limits, we give up and start again. We all go through the same things, over and over.
“Mission Bell” (Blue Note Records, 2011) set a career high mark for Lee, hitting number one in the U.S. Some have wondered how “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” could possibly beat it. As I listen to this new record, especially songs like “Johnson Blvd.,” “Dresser Drawer,” “Mountains of Sorrow,” and “Burden,” I hear songs that flow backward to “Mission Bell,” and even to “As the Crow Flies” (Blue Note Records, 2012), an amazing EP that somehow slipped by without much notice.
Other songs on the new album split away into a new space: “Stranger,” “The Man Who Wants You,” “Loretta,” and “Plain View.” I love the energy of these particular songs, but they sit awkwardly next to the others. Earlier albums were beautifully crafted as whole albums. Here, we have a studio and an almost-live recording sewn together, in a way that feels uneven. I almost want these songs, with the exception of “Stranger,” pulled out and developed into a separate record.
Lee’s records are novels, full of characters and action and sorrow, with his infinite melodies played on his acoustic guitar. This time, though, the lyrics sometime seem pushed down in favor of the live energy. I’ve always stayed with Lee’s work because of his lyrics, and I miss them here—just a bit.