Tag Archives: Alex Dupree


15 Aug

a monthly music column
read previous posts here 

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I don’t know how to write about music. I’m tempted to say it can’t be done. At least not in the way I think a lot of us want, treading that line between technical and experiential modes of listening. As well as taking into account that most people (myself included) don’t know the politics of the New Orleans bounce scene or the difference between dubstep and 2-step garage. Because music writing that references these sorts of things without explaining them is bound to fail for the majority. Which is, I’m sure, the point for some, who in their self-importance or self-consciousness feel superior in their exclusivity. Or perhaps there are particular audiences who crave music criticism that’s filled with nothing but adjectives and genre names, but in general, I think there’s a better way to write about music. And that’s what I’m trying to explore. It’s just that as I try, I feel a bit like I have cerebral palsy—there’s a million things rolling around in my head, but my mouth muscles won’t cooperate.  Continue reading

“out of focus”

3 Jun

a monthly music column

Albums Acquired

Music Listened To
21, Adele
Away From Us, Record Low
Burn It Down, Sims
Ítrekun + Haglél, a new song, Mugison 
King of Limbs, Radiohead
Las Meridanzas, Alex Dupree and the Trapdoor Band
Magic, Sean Rowe
Salon des Amateurs
, Hauschka

Texas Radio Drift, James Reeves
Useless Creatures, Andrew Bird

Artists Seen
KLANG!!! @ The Hideout

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We love when the world is obscured. Towns swallowed in fog. Windows clouded in rain and smearing lights into golden dollops that run like pancake batter. On the train one morning, we sat, hunched. Heavy with rain. What we could see through the six-inch clearing at the bottom of the window was shrouded in gray. “You Woke Me Up!” was a sentiment we all shared, and I found myself wanting to be able to reach over, grab an auxiliary cable, and plug it into the train’s speaker system. Useless Creatures, in terms of genre, might be closer to classical than anything—it’s mostly violin—but this isn’t music for the orchestra hall. In fact, a train car felt right, this song in particular, with its gentle, rising progression, somber chords, and echoing portamenti, it’s pace not a trudge, but invariably steady, much like the speed at which we approached our destination.

Downtown, in the rain, and with the foreignness of “Carrion Suite” in my ears, could’ve been Ho Chi Minh. Maybe the song’s Eastern modes reminded me of “Shore Leave,” with those sparse Vietnamese plinks over Tom Waits’ minor blues. Or maybe the slender channels of cars that seemed to float amidst the Gaussian lights looked like what I imagine cities in Asia to be: busy but surreal. When it got to what I’d call the second movement, every time the doors opened it was as if Bird’s bouncing spiccato was the sound of the rain drops on the platform. Something about this music, especially in Chicago, where history is never far in the rearview, is of another age. Even though—like everything—it couldn’t have existed at any other time.

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It’s no surprise that music suspends belief, transports us back in time and across the Pacific Plate, but it is surprising when you realize how easily it does so. As if we’re so anxious to oblige it. A snippet of a folk tune sends us to the hills of Tennessee, the sun hot on our backs, wooden stools under us, whiskey in our hands. Is it possible that some music is powerful enough that not just generic belief but an entire belief system could be suspended? I was walking home on a warm evening, heading west on North Avenue listening to the last track on Las Meridanzas, when I decided it is.

For 3 minutes and 40 seconds, Alex Dupree lifts me off my feet. One question emerges, though I’ve never felt it before, with this song or any other: Do I believe in heaven? When was the last time I even asked myself? Is what I call faith anything more than a ruse I’m ever the victim of? The street is soil. A canopy overhead. Thrum thrum thrum thrum thrum thrum the incessant pounding beneath the ethereal hum, the guitar hitting the same few notes over and over and over step step step step step step thrum thrum thrum thrum thrum. Behind the liquor store there is a light / … neon red, she peered outside / all manner of things let go / Hold on, behind the lake frozen in snow / it’s the same giving life / the same giving light / black ice shinin’ / … into the pool of something that is unknown / Now life, not death but movement / oh God, you have not abandoned us / to the mouth of the Earth / we lay there still / come ice, come fire / we will grow until / you plant in our hearts / with rain, with high noon / with frost, with vines / with deep roots / Until all is overgrown.

Do I believe in heaven? The question is somehow in the song, even though it isn’t. Do I believe in any goodness, then, or now, or ever before? Do I believe in the replanting of Eden? That a broken world could be overthrown with new vines? Do I at least believe that life follows death? For a while, a few minutes, it doesn’t matter.

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The Record Low makes music that lets your eyes go out of focus. I’ve tried to explain it before, what I can make my eyes do—I’m convinced most people can too—but in part I don’t understand it myself. Do they drift apart, or move closer together? Is there any discernible physical change at all? How am I controlling it? It works best looking at lights. Street lights. Christmas lights. You can see them blur and splay out, five or six fuzzy planets static in long orbitals.

There’s this tunnel in Chicago, connecting the Blue Line to the Red Line, and if you’re down there, and stare straight ahead, and unfocus your eyes like this, it’s as if it goes on forever. And in that eternity, what should be playing is The Record Low. Tellingly, after some time, their music becomes hard to focus on as well, becomes the score to a film that’s on somewhere behind us. It’s beautiful, but it’s also subdued and spacey and almost more a void than something to fill it. The band couldn’t be more different live. The deafening shrieks and grunts of guitar effects were like watching mutilation on the big screen. You wanted to unfocus everything, get something into the periphery. There was too much sound, and it strained at your ears like a wild animal tearing through a fence. We only lasted a few songs. That was before I’d heard Away From Us, before “Immediate Family” became one of my favorite songs of last year, and made me often wonder how the same music could be presented so differently.

The inverse was true for Hauschka, who, with Samuli Kosminen—drummer for Icelandic electronic outfit múm—offered something of a magic show at Schuba’s not long ago. With a ‘prepared’ piano—bottle caps, paper clips, cloth, Tic Tacs, felt, foil, duct tape, cellophane, marbles, necklaces, all placed inside, on or between the piano’s strings—the sonic landscape was that of a 12-piece band, not a duo, and with sincerity, charm, and a gift at storytelling, Hauschka put on a show that was much more than a concert. At one point, in preparation for a song, he removed his preparations, and it was very similar to watching a magician pull impossibly large things out of a hat. The odd and innumerable objects just kept coming. It might’ve been the best part of the show. That, or when he subsequently poured an entire bag of ping-pong balls into the piano for a lively, totally random, visually engaging, and aptly named tune.

These sorts of theatrics are what’s missing on Salon des Amateurs. Its compositions are simply flat in comparison. I wonder if they sound that way to someone who hasn’t seen him live. It’s possible they don’t. But to me, after such a carnival of music, antics, and storytelling, the album is like a half-filled helium balloon. Hauschka is someone to appreciate in person.

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Are you ready for this year’s song of the summer? I hope so. I also hope you don’t care too much about novelty, because this, technically, was last summer’s song, released as the title track of BLK JKS’ 5-song EP ZOL! in June 2010. The song [which you can listen to right here] does one thing: it makes you feel like your cutting through the throngs outside the Green Point Stadium in Cape Town, avoiding the hooligans from Manchester and the vomit that patterns the pavement in splotches, in the summer heat, excited for what the rest of the world calls futbol, vuvuzelas blaring like wild animals. And it’s a testament to the fanfare and energy of the track that this scene is conjured without the following: “This new five-song ZOL! EP arrives around the same time of the World Cup’s arrival in the band’s Johannesburg hometown. … We’re told the celebratory, upbeat, sunny “ZOL!” is a song about soccer.”

That’s Brandon Stosuy of Stereogum reporting. BLK JKS apparently played at the opening celebration of the World Cup, sharing the stage in Soweto with Alicia Keys, Tinariwen, and the Black Eyed Peas. Listening to “ZOL!,” it’s clear that once again, globalization has wrought all sorts of musical experimentation. Here that looks like a young South African four-piece using a reggaeton backbeat behind its Afrikaans choruses. Fortunately, it’s not an incongruous blend; in fact, it’s the slickest track from them yet. Put this on, and you want to move. It’s infused with a sport-like energy and even though it’s got a beat, your body almost wants to run more than dance. It’s communal as well, with its choral call-and-response, and I’d wager there’s no one who hears this who doesn’t want to turn back time, buy a couple plane tickets—or join the hooligans in their rampage gratis—and head to the tip of the African continent, just for a few days where your body is somehow part of the hot soil and the churning crowds and the players out on the field, in some life-giving and mystical moment of unity.

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Reasons James Reeves and Alex Dupree Should Meet

15 May

1. Alex Dupree and his Trapdoor Band—a diverse and undefinable collective of musicians living in or around Austin, Texas—represent much of what James A. Reeves (writer, photographer, designer, sound artist, law student) loves about the American Southwest. Open, arid spaces that are simultaneously perfect for exploration and contemplation, the opportunity for escape and discovery, the visible proof that unknowable worlds exist right in front of us, stories from the fringes—borderlands, underbellies, unwritten histories, fictions full of sorrow and longing but told with immense honesty, as if this great openness dilutes the danger of giving voice to our deepest fears and crippling weaknesses, as if down here one can speak freely, assured the sound will die somewhere over the barren plain long before it reaches another set of ears.

2. It seems obvious to me, a mostly unbiased third party, that the two would certainly enjoy a conversation, perhaps along the Colorado River in Austin, Reeves having just finished another semester of law school and driven over from New Orleans—a surprisingly lateral journey, their latitudes only a single degree off—the 509 miles a mere drop in the bucket of Reeves’ many roadtrips, which, in 2005, became something of an obsession. It’s so obvious, in fact, that there’s a good chance they have already met. They might already be regular correspondents, sharing thoughts in quick gchats, photos via Flickr, songs on SoundCloud.

It wouldn’t surprise me. Artists tend not to travel in packs—like a creative diaspora, they’re scattered around the world—but they do tend to rise and fall collectively, like a school of fish in separate seas, synchronous despite the distance, or like the particles quantum physicists can’t unlink, no matter how far apart they are. Friends become colleagues become major influences in their respective fields and so, by default, get regular gigs as guest contributors, visiting artists, and co-editors. Frank Chimero and Liz Danzico. Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley (who even tied the knot). And James Reeves already has Candy Chang (who, oddly enough, I recently read about in Twilley’s magazine). So why shouldn’t he already know Alex Dupree?

3. They’re do-it-yourselfers out of necessity, but they’d probably choose to anyway. Dupree says he and his consort “record in empty houses and church attics…play music in motel rooms, riverbeds, and street parades…and cook together because it’s cheaper.”

Reeves wrote a 400-page book about America, got it printed, and then… wrote a blog post.

“Yesterday I received the first test copies from Lulu, and it feels good to finally hold the thing in my hands. It’s heavy. Now . . . what should I do with it?”

He didn’t have a book deal or an agent or a contact at a publishing house. He just wrote it. Two years later, Reeves’ hard work and excellent writing—one of which followed the other—is paying off with a true book deal. The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir is being published by W.W. Norton and released on that most American but hardly anticipated holiday—July 4th, also known by its less-used name: Independence Day.

The book is anticipated enough that Roger Ebert blurbed it: “The inspiration is so simple: Head out at random into America and see what you find. James A. Reeves found the America no one seems to be looking for anymore, and he also found himself.”

On the Road for a new century,” someone else is claiming.

The plot doesn’t sound like much, but it’s always less about what happens than how what happens is told. Alex Dupree’s sound, which most would lazily throw into the ever-growing abyss of “indie-folk,” would agree I think. It’s folk heavy for sure, but it’s also mountain and it’s blues. It’s a foot-stomping hoe-down if they had foot-stomping hoe-downs in Thailand. It’s jazz-influenced noise. It’d be Pop/Rock if it was sold at Target. According to Dupree himself, it’s Crunk / Folk / Gospel.

James A. Reeves

Alex Dupree

4. Here are two people not yet past the point of no return. They can still have friends and make new ones. They can still take detours, or make U-turns. They can drive and not write about it. They can write songs and not release them. Fame hasn’t gotten its foot too firmly in the door.

Sure, Reeves’ blog, Big American Night, has hundreds if not thousands of followers, and he’s received localized acclaim for his record label / creative studio Red Antenna, his new urban design studio, Civic Center, and his photography. But he’s also retained the freedom to make decisions, i.e. while law school is in session, he doesn’t post anything new on his blog, and he doesn’t have any advertising on it.

Dupree is even more difficult to find. He’s left a faint trail online, but even NPR, in the one formal piece of music journalism that’s been written about him (near as I can tell), admits: “Not much else is known about Alex Dupree and the Trapdoor Band.” Google constantly confuses him with Alex Dupre, from One Tree Hill, and Ashley Alexandra Dupré, the call girl at the center of the Eliot Spitzer scandal.

5. Reeves is an insomniac, so he has time for another friend and the occasional late-night conversation. And Dupree… well I doubt the Trapdoor Band is made up of early-to-bed-early-to-rise folk.

Reeves' Book, Out July 4th

6. On August 15, 2010, James published a post titled “Night Shift.” It opened with a noirish shot of grain elevators, silhouetted against a hazy, setting sun. Somewhere in Kansas, it read underneath, and I’m sure that I granted the post a little extra gravity given that I’m a boy who grew up not far from “somewhere in Kansas,” but even going back to reread, it’s something of a book-jacket blurb for Reeves, a representative sample of who he is and what he’s about (and why I respect him so much):

“This new outpost requires a title…and I’ve picked “Big American Night,” which I plucked from a promise that I made a few months ago around midnight: Someday I’m gonna live in the Mojave in a double-wide. I’ll grow my hair long and buy a ham radio and broadcast into the big American night.

Big American Night. It’s an optimistic phrase, packed with the promise of space and possibility. … There’s a dark edge to this phrase, too. A bit of dread. Some people say we’re at the end of the American age. Maybe that’s true. We’re certainly living through the aftershocks of Reagan’s Morning in America and there are all kinds of strange signals and headlines in the air these days. I worry and I seethe, but ranting on a computer screen doesn’t help anybody. Arguing with avatars doesn’t go anywhere new. I want to get better at storytelling and dot connecting. …

If you zoom in, the landscape collapses. Stories start cropping up everywhere. Slain sheriffs. Eccentric actresses holed up above dive bars. Odd coincidences, tragic histories, and legal quandaries.

It sounds like an Alex Dupree song.

7. In fact, the mention of a sheriff alone would’ve made me think of Alex Dupree. I’ve been listening to “Las Meridanzas” a lot lately, which begins:

“Clothespins lay about the ruined houses / the Jack of Diamonds tore our daughter’s blouse / his keys fell out, that’s how the sheriff found him / scarecrows dangling up on Charity Mountain.”

He seems as determined to capture the corners of this country as Reeves is. And Dupree is one hell of a storyteller. Just listen to “Shekinah” or “The Hidden Legacy of Elizabeth Ney” or “One Year Staring at the War.” Though they’re mostly fictions, and Reeves’ are real, it’s evident they both have their ear to the southern soil, listening for the tremors of the Earth, for the wails and sirens and long silences between. They’re good at being quiet. And when they speak, it’s as if from a place far beyond their years.

Just Some of the Trapdoor Band

8. At this point it goes without saying, but they both really love music. Dupree might be the pro, but Reeves is something of a sound artist himself (remember, he did start a record label). Just about every post includes a song or two at the end, but a recent entry offered something even more intriguing.

In 2009, I was driving along the very bottom of Texas in the summertime and everything was bright white and hot. …

I scanned the dial for an oldies station while the Gulf of Mexico crashed to my left in big waves. That’s when I heard the song below, a woman’s beautiful voice singing like some well-worn memory. I pulled to the side of the road and nearly buried the car in a sand dune. I recorded the end of the song with my telephone and then the radio signal faded to silence.

The tune sounds familiar, but I can’t place it. Maybe it’s an old standard that everybody knows. Perhaps it’s something nobody’s heard before. I have no idea.

He doesn’t stop there.

I keep returning to this fragment, letting it loop when I write or study and it’s gradually taken a mystical tone for me. While studying Constitutional Law last week, I began tinkering with the snippet, adding a little reverb here and some fuzz there. I ended up with [an] eleven-minute soundtrack.

It starts off like a badly tuned radio and turns into what (I hope) sounds like a beautiful song seeping through the floorboards or drifting from an apartment down the hall before decaying into six minutes of pure reverb. I wanted to make something that feels like falling asleep in the sun. … Suggestions are welcome and if you’d like to take a crack at making it better, let me know and I’ll send you the master file.

9. This amicable and accessible demeanor characterizes both the men’s public—and, I have to assume, personal—personae. The nature of the Trapdoor Band is one of collective music- and merry-making, so one has to assume Alex Dupree is not a terrible guy to be around. And despite how much it looks and sounds like a commune, and though its music is admittedly political, the consort is more about relationships and less about revolution. Dupree’s earned himself some Bob Dylan comparisons, but he’s more “Mr. Tambourine Man” and less “Maggie’s Farm.” More introspection and less finger pointing.


“Maybe everyone jumps ship / but not everyone is able to admit it / Maybe everyone jumps ship / but not everyone seems to able to forget it / and if you have to ask / where the river just laughs its way under the bridge / saying ashes will be ashes / and the kids will be kids / and the war, it just is.”

The above lyrics are from “Song for Hooch and the Priest” (a reference to an alias of Alex’s and Seth Woods, a big-bellied and –bearded man who performs under the moniker The Whiskey Priest). It’s the second track on a free EP Alex Dupree released in February 2008.

The song is a nearly 8-minute-long anthem that refuses to stay on the path, lyrically or musically. First, it’s neither gimmicky nor afraid to sound good. Second, it’s a gorgeous song, yet it just stops at 7 minutes and 37 seconds. No fade-out, no static, no anything. It sounds like a mistake. So much so that I redownloaded the track to see if something had happened to the mp3 the first time. Third, how many songwriters can get Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and Henry V into the first three minutes of a song without sounding smug or ironic?

Then, when he gets to the lines above, when he hits, “And the war, it just is,” everything slows down, cuts out, settles into a solemn 6/8. A choir joins in, and he wavers between his strong tenor and a falsetto croon, singing “And the war, it just is. And the war, it just is. And the war, it just is. And the war, it just is. And the war, it just is.” Seventeen times he sings it. I’ve often thought, for many reasons, that this is probably one of the most important songs of our generation. If something like that still exists.

11. Let’s say James and Alex never meet. After all, do we need to know everyone doing great things in the world? Especially when those things are similar to what we’re doing? Maybe it’s okay that Alex has Austin and James has New Orleans and those cities have them. But I still might send James a copy of Las Meridanzas, just in case it hasn’t crossed his path yet. I expect it wouldn’t take too long for “Juarez Wedding Song” or the intense “Light” to turn up at the end of a post. At the very least, he should get the once-free-but-now-$1 EP. If it’s true his favorite word is “motorway,” he’ll love Track 4.