In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we don’t have bedroom musicians or closet musicians. Instead, we have sauna musicians. They’re the ones that hide out at their homesteads, alternating between tending the sauna fire and recording song after song into old four tracks. We’re talking about people like Scotty Alan, who lives off the grid in a log home that he built himself nearly 20 years ago. Which is impressive. But the thing you gotta know about Scotty Alan is that he dug his basement with a shovel. A frickin’ shovel. He’s not a macho guy, just a man who appreciates simple living and the DIY ethic. So, whenever it came time for Scotty to record a new batch of songs, he’d fire up the generator, plug the four track in, and get to work. The product of those recordings were collections of great songs that sounded like they were recorded on a four track powered by a generator.
Now, have you ever heard a musician who wrote really good songs but whose recordings were rough around the edges, and then wondered what they would sound like if they got a decent band behind them and some quality time in a real studio? As you might have guessed, that’s where this story is heading.
Scotty Alan’s new album, Wreck and the Mess, is a departure. In every sense of the word. Back in January, Scotty made himself a suit case, packed up his stuff, and then flew to L.A. to record at a proper studio with electricity and running water. That alone would be enough to get most folks from around here out of their comfort zone but you have to remember, we’re talking about a dude who dug his basement with a shovel.
What happened next is the kind of thing that could only happen in L.A. Scotty asked his friend and producer Bernie Larsen to find him a backing band. Larsen, who has been making music since the early 80’s with El Rayo-X, Jackson Brown, Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Raitt, and his own band Cry On Cue, started making calls. By the time Larsen was finished, he had rounded up eight musicians, including a portion of Lucinda Williams’ backing band, to play behind Scotty. Oh, and then Larsen got his old El Rayo-X bandmate David Lindley — who has recorded with everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Dolly Parton — to stop by and play fiddle on the album.
As someone who has been listening to Scotty’s music for ten-plus years, I was not prepared for what I heard when I finally got a review copy of the album. After all, I am firmly rooted in the lo-fi camp of production quality and was under the smug assumption that if you wanted to let a song rest on its own merits, just record it with as little fanfare as possible. I was wrong. All of those knobs and dials actually make a hell of a difference. The resulting product of Scotty’s L.A. trip is a perfect showcase for his tunes. There are no facades here, just songs with the right amount of instrumentation and production to bring them to life and let their best elements shine through.
Scotty’s music is alt country but not the kind that evolved from the same family tree as Gram Parsons, Uncle Tupelo, and Wilco. Rather, the genealogy here can be traced back to 80’s folk bands like the Waterboys. It also has that particular combination of well-written lyrics, melody, and rhythm reminiscent of The Rave-Ups. For instance, in “Ain’t Much,” the band drops out except for the kick drum and Scotty delivers his lines in that “Positively Lost Me” staccato style:
Like a sunflower growing on the side of the road
Standing proud no place to go
You’re the hand that reaches from the truck and picks me
It ain’t much but it’s all for you
I may be late, I’m a wreck and a mess
Standing undone on your front steps
Corks and stems for my lady
It ain’t much but it’s all for you
The driving country rhythm also shows up in the album’s closing song “Looking for Someone to Fight.” While the title suggests a bar fight waiting to happen, the song slowly reveals itself to be a recruitment song for Scotty’s battle against the mundane. He doesn’t want to start a brawl, just a revolution.
What’s evident throughout Wreck and the Mess is that Scotty Alan is someone who is happy to be alive. On his previous recordings, this thirst for life was always hidden behind a curtain of murky production but now that curtain is gone. For instance, on the standout track, “Barn Dance,” there’s that same kind of thank-god-I’m-alive-right-this-very-instant vibe that emanates from the best Waterboys songs like “Fisherman’s Blues.” The Waterboys comparison is also helped along by Lindley’s fiddle, which takes a prominent role in the song, as well as Scotty’s almost brogue accent that he picked up during his punk rock days with The Muldoons.
Other highlights include “Long Ways From Laughin’,” a cry-into-your-beer-song minus the beer which somehow makes being depressed sound kind of okay, because hey, at least you woke up today, right? Also, his tounge-in-cheek ode to bachelorhood, “Do It Alone” and “Says Lately,” with its refrain of “I feel alive, I feel alive, I feel alive…” make you, well, feel alive.
Wreck and the Mess has easily made it onto my best-of-the-year list. It’s the product of a songwriter who, for the first time in a fairly long music career, has backing musicians and production quality equal to his songwriting. The album is also a reminder that the 90’s alt country revival was the result of a fairly narrow range of country and folk influences and that the genre is still ripe for exploration and discovery.
“Long Ways From Laughin'”