Fred Eaglesmith,
Drive-in Movie
(Vertical, 1996)
Lipstick, Lies & Gasoline
(Razor & Tie, 1997)

I recently discovered the music of Buddy Miller and Jimmy LaFave, and I did not think it possible that this particular musical horizon could hold anything more for me. I was wrong. Fred Eaglesmith has written and recorded at least two albums that travel even further down the same road.

In the process, he has made a significant contribution to a new feature on the landscape of American Music. It's not folk, it's not country, it's not rock -- although it owes a debt to all three. It is a musical form as American as apple pie, and just as delicious. A mixture of acoustic and electric instrumentation, these tunes grab a hold of you and don't let go. I guarantee that if you put either of these discs into rotation on your CD player, they won't come off for weeks.

Fred's clear and simple observations of the world of dirt and grit, the knuckle-busting, pick-up driving mechanics, and cowboys, are hung on a spare but concise musical framework that perfectly accents and brings them to life. His band has a familiarity with their instruments that bespeaks endless hours in motel rooms, someone's garage/warehouse or in some practice hall, playing the same tunes, the same chord changes until that point is reached where one no longer "thinks" about the music, about the mechanics of playing the notes, and begins to "feel" it. That point, where creativity, feeling and purpose merge and MUSIC happens. This is good stuff.

Fred wrote all of the songs and they are great; it is hard to imagine that any one of them could have been done differently. Each song is perfect. I have a real preference for short songs these days. After listening to countless psychedelic bands bash around a set of chord changes until half the audience was asleep, I like a song that goes some place. A song that -- like a short story -- has a beginning, a middle and an end. And on these two discs, Fred and his band give us 22 of these little gems.

Drive-in Movie, released in 1996, begins with "I Like Trains," in which we find out that the singer's girl has only trains to be worried about, "...not some dewy-eyed darlin', darlin'...." She should be listening for "...the sound of a big-ole train." "49 Tons" follows, as in "Forty-nine tons of diesel locomotive couldn't drag me back to you!" Do we detect a theme here, almost an obsession perhaps?

Most of Fred's songs have trains or cars, crashin' or burnin', in them. Take "Good Enough," the seventh song on this disc, where the singer laments the changing nature of his relationship, he tells us: "I stole myself a car last week / drove it up to Willis peak / covered it in gasoline / but it's not the same when she's not with me. / When I was good enough / and we lived the life / good enough and she carried a knife..." and so on. It's a rough and tumble life Fred describes, but not a single note rings false.

Lipstick, Lies & Gasoline, his most recent effort, succeeds wildly; this second album contains further proof of his song-writing skills, and once again, the music is honed to a razor-sharp edge. There is not a superfluous note on either of these albums; nobody marking time, or just filling empty space. The empty spaces are left empty if there is no reason to fill them, and that only adds to the fullness of the sound -- because you can actually hear what is going on. When someone plays a lick or fill, it is meaningful and oh-so tasty.

There are so many great songs on both of these albums that I can't mention them all, but I would like to talk about a couple more that really stand out. On this second disc, "Spookin' the Horses" is incredible. A slow-paced tune; guitar and mandolin sketch in the rhythm, while a Hammond B-3 and Lap Steel help fill in the spaces. Fred's funky, real voice tells us about the changes in his girl, who is not the way she used to be, and how unsettling that can be: "...with that bright colored makeup / and the clothes that you wear / and I seen you dancing / last night 'neath the trees / you're spooking the horses / and you're scaring me."

The next tune is "Time to Get a Gun," all about change again. After the neighbors' car is stolen right out of their driveway and the singer finds a government man on his back porch telling him that the freeway is coming through, the singer muses that it might be: "...time to get a gun / that's what I been thinkin' / I could afford one / if I did a little less drinkin'." After all, "...when it's all said and done / somebody's got to walk into the night / well I'm going to be that one."

I know the feeling. And in fact that is what is so great about all these songs; you know the feeling. The feelings of loss and pain, of uncertainty, of apprehension, of driving at 105 mph (check out the second song on Lipstick, Lies & Gasoline). This disc ends with one of the great truck-driving songs of all time, "Water in My Fuel." Man, I can smell the diesel and feel the gritty old seat covers when Fred sings this one; it's quiet and it's cool and it's funky, and when Fred croaks out the line: "...guess this ole truck ain't worth shutting down," it makes you want to park and cry.

Reading this review is simply no substitute for hearing these discs. You will just have to get them and listen to them. And if you like music that comes straight from the heart of this weird, crazy American landscape, if you like Buddy Miller, Jimmy LaFave, John Hiatt, Robert Earl Keene or any of the other artists that are helping to build this new musical genre, you will be happy you did.

[ by Jan Marica ]