Two of the most buzzed-about records so far this year come from very different corners of the pop universe, but share a certain kinship. Both might safely fit under the umbrella of "Americana," but only at the outer extremes, with Bob Dylan likely their only common real ancestor. The first album in question, Father John Misty's I Love You, Honeybear, is a 21st-century recasting of the Laurel Canyon drawing-room dramas of the early-'70s perfected by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne; while the other, Shinyribs' Okra Candy, hews to a path where Doug Sahm and Levon Helm did most of the brush-clearing.
Nevertheless, both performers, whose given names are J. Tillman and Kevin Russell, have created alter egos that have become fully realized characters in their own right, lifting the musicians responsible for them to unprecedented levels of success. Based on the passions both men have stirred up within their rapidly growing fan bases, you might even call them latter-day folk heroes.
After playing both weekends of Coachella earlier this month, including a walk-on during Florence + the Machine's set last Sunday to sing the old Emmylou Harris/Gram Parsons chestnut "Love Hurts," Father John Misty's spring tour behind Honeybear has been sold out for weeks, including in Houston tonight.
Shinyribs, meanwhile, has recently been embraced by the so-called "Texas country" audience and later this month will appear alongside Cody Canada & the Departed at the Panhandle's Canadian River Music Festival and the Dia Del Gallo Festival at John T. Floores Country Store in Helotes, where other acts on the bill include the Turnpike Troubadors and Hayes Carll. Houstonians can catch him at Discovery Green on May 14 and Under the Volcano June 24.
Both personae have their origins as side projects from popular bands where, although other factors certainly played a role, the rapid ascent of both Shinyribs and Father John Misty helped hasten their parent groups' demise. Father John Misty began as Tillman's off-the-cuff comedy routines while onstage with Seattle's Fleet Foxes, who, come the turn of the 2010s, were right up there with Band of Horses among indie-rock fans who liked their bands bearded and crunchy.
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Tillman, who recorded a number of solo albums under his own name before joining Fleet Foxes, left that band in 2012 and later that year released solo LP Fear Fun. Though they have not officially disbanded, Fleet Foxes have also not released a new album since the previous year's Helplessness Blues.
Five years ago, the Gourds were one of the most popular alt-country bands on the Gulf Coast, with a national fan base and the kind of credibility that opened the kind of doors that enabled them to record 2011's Old Mad Joy at Levon Helm's studios in upstate New York, known as "The Barn." Shinyribs, in which Russell indulges the same deep interest in R&B, funk and hip-hop that led to the Gourds' unlikely hit cover of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice," started as songs that didn't quite fit the Gourds' by-then established sound. (As well as more practical matters: in August 2010, Russell told our William Michael smith he also started Shinyribs as a way to help pay off the note on a new car he bought for his family.)
Something else Shinyribs and Father John Misty share is an encyclopedic knowledge of their preferred musical turf: the lush orchestral pop that flourished in the '70s for the former, versus anything that grows in the bayous and byways of Southeast Texas. The swelling strings and cooing backup vocals of a track like Honeybear's "When You're Smiling and Astride Me" heightens the feeling of emotional intimacy expressed by lines like "I can hardly believe I found you, and I'm terrified by that," or "I've got nothing to hide from you/ Kissing my brother in my dreams, or finding God knows in my jeans." His truth bombs are more like carpet bombs.
But Father John Misty also specializes in lines that are both explicit and a little absurd, like this choice couplet from "Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)": "I wanna take you in the kitchen/Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in." Occasionally it's just as well he doesn't go into quite as much detail; it's hard to think of a better opening line than "Strange Encounter": "Only ever be the girl who just almost died in my house." Still, nothing can top the final verse from "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment."
She blames her excess on my influence but gladly Hoovers all my drugs
I found her naked with the best friend in the tub
We sang "Silent Night" in three parts which was fun
Til she said that she sounds just like Sarah Vaughan
I hate that soulful affectation white girls put on
Why don't you move to the Delta?
I obliged later on when you begged me to choke ya
"Bored In the USA" even has a laugh track, not that it really needs one. Just about every song on Honeybear has at least one line that brings on a "what did he just say?" double-take, inducing as many cringes as guffaws.
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Not to be outdone, Shinyribs gets in more than his share of shots. The answer to "Baby What's Wrong With You" is simple: "I'm gone." Or this burn from "Walt Disney," in which he's somewhat put out with an absentee wife/lover while he lies hospitalized with no idea where his children are: "maybe the garbageman will give you what you deserve."
But overall, Okra Candy is much less fraught than Honeybear; even the music of "Walt Disney" is one part "Monster Mash," and "The Sacred & the Profane" sticks to your ribs like the best of the Stax catalog. Finding his bearings to the countrified James Brown shake of "Red Quasar," Shinyribs claims to be spinning "like a beach ball in a livestock yard." "Donut Taco Palace," a pure gas, celebrates heaven on Earth: chorizo and beans, cream-filled eclairs, and a '60s San Antonio organ groove guaranteed to cure whatever ails you.
But among all the verbal gymnastics, musical kaleidoscopes and sharp-edged comebacks, every so often both records circle larger issues as well. Honeybear's "Holy Shit" plucks a litany of buzzwords from contemporary life -- "carbon footprint," "Dust Bowl chic," "mobile lifestyle" -- only to ponder, "what's that gotta do with this black hole in me?" The question pointedly remains unanswered.
Meanwhile, in the extremely low-key, Lightnin' Hopkins-esque fashion of "Pak-It-Rite," Shinyribs weighs in on legislation that forces convenient stores to close at midnight and other modern inconveniences; in other words, "all that bourgeois bullshit, trying to kill the spark." But shortly afterwards, he mutters, they can't kill my spark.
He might put it in a little haughtier terms, but Father John Misty would no doubt agree.
Father John Misty performs tonight at Fitzgerald's; the show has been sold out for weeks. Shinyribs returns to Discovery Green Thursday, May 14.
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