We're not going to sit here and try to define the Literary Greats. Instead, we'll tell you why we just had to have their new album Black Blizzard. For three years now your humble narrator has been tracking the music that features on HBO's True Blood. Each episode tends to bring with it more and more exciting Southern Gothic, a kind of rural darkness in song that we feel is the next evolution of spooky music.
When we caught the first couple of tracks from Black Blizzard, we knew that that was exactly where their music belonged.
The Literary Greats are no strangers to Rocks Off's acclaim. Last year they racked up more nominations for our own Houston Press Music Awards than any other artist. They've climbed the college-radio charts, and despite playing few shows they've built a massive following. Their music just speaks to the hole in our collective souls, echoing off the edges and growing louder rather than fading.
The music on Black Blizzard is a massive, toe-tapping affair full of horns and sultry back-up vocals. If the beat and pulse of James Brown could be wedded to the cracked folk mirror of Blitzen Trapper then the monster that would break free and demand a bride would be this album.
It's a contradiction in appreciation. Do you dance or meditate? Do you participate or give rapt attention? It is simply too big an album to admire from a single perspective.
For us, the song that sums it all up, the song that makes it all worth the price of admission is "Night Owl." The hollow resonation of the guitar line brought Murray Attaway's In Thrall to mind, and you simply cannot go wrong when you invoke the criminally underrated front man from Guadalcanal Diary.
Like Attaway, the Literary Greats share an exploration of faith and family that is almost pagan in its boldness, as if someone had enshrined the relics of a saint in the center of a circle of standing stones. Don't believe us? The band has graciously offered up the track as a free download to Rocks Off's readers.
We sat down with vocalist, guitarist, and lead songwriter Brandon Elam to ask him a bit about Black Blizzard.
Rocks Off: What exactly goes into the writing process of such personal music? Do you just sit in a circle and wait until the song comes, or is it more of an individual effort?
Brandon Elam: For the music, it's a combination of everyone sitting in a circle and coming up with things individually and sharing with the group. This is record is our most collaborative record when it comes to songwriting, and why I feel this is our strongest record.
Lyrically, I spend time alone writing stories or phrases and then add them to the music we came up with. Lyrics take up most of my time because I'm very particular about what I'm saying and how it flows.
RO: Gun to your head, what genre would you classify your music as and why? What artists do you identify with as peers and colleagues?
BE: Alternative Americana - we like to make up genres. We explore so many styles it can be difficult to choose one. Americana is so broad I think we fit there well but our records still aren't very typical for the genre. There are some good examples in this record where we took your basic song and then added orchestral layers to it. Not very Americana-like.
RO: Why the name Black Blizzard?
BE: The record is pretty dark lyrically but the music has good energy. We also explore some complex themes around family, politics, entitlement, death, and faith that are as true today as they were during the depression. I noticed many of the stories my grandparents used to tell me are still relevant today. In some cases, we really haven't learned anything as a society.
It just made sense to use a Depression-era term in the title... not to mention the poor economic conditions at present. We wanted to symbolize the energy of the record. Black Blizzard made perfect sense.
RO: How important is brutal honesty in songwriting?
BE: People like to listen to music to escape, but they also want to be able to relate. This is what makes songwriting so difficult. For me, the only way to do this is to be honest with the listener and be honest with myself.
I really challenged myself with the lyrics to get outside my comfort zone on this record. I was afraid nobody cared to hear my story or wouldn't be interested even when they did hear my story. You can't do that...you just have to go for it and lay it all out there. Some stuff will bomb, but at least they know you're being real with them.
RO: Fatherhood is a big theme in the album. How is singing about fatherhood different than singing about, say, romantic relationships?
BE: Great question. You still use lyrics like "baby," "darling," "don't be scared," "imagine you're with me," etc. Except this time, when someone swoops in to take your girl away, you're mad as hell and you get your shotgun to scare off some punk kid instead of crying in your beer. At least that is how I imagine it will be when my little girl grows up.
The Literary Greats play the Continental Club with the Orbans and Beetle Thursday, April 28. Visit the band's Facebook page to enter their "Write a Haiku" contest and when a VIP pass to the show which includes tickets, T-shirts, and a copy of the new album.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.