Tag Archives: James Reeves

‘nostalgic for aesthetics’

22 Dec

James Reeves on Billie Holiday, the preservation of vinyl, and other topics dear to me:

Strange, listening to that voice through the filter of seventy-five years of American pop culture, a voice trapped in Woody Allen movies and PBS documentaries, a familiar shorthand for smoke-filled lounges and doomed genius.

Check it out.

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.

10.

“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.