June 4, 2018
Released On September 23, 2016
Released By Horton Records
Late last year, just a couple of months before John Moreland was set to perform at The Camel here in Richmond, I managed to secure an interview with the Oklahoma-based singer-songwriter, who tells powerful first-person stories with intense, arresting lyrics. (In a piece for The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich put it this way: “It is as if, just by listening to him, a person is taken into his confidence. That trust—the negligible distance between what Moreland feels and what he sings—can create a beguiling intimacy.”) I set out to do as much research as I could. I listened to his albums repeatedly while driving, running, and cooking, and I scoured the Internet for existing interviews. That’s how I found a radio show/podcast called eTown, which Moreland played just a short time before we were scheduled to speak. And it’s how I found John Calvin Abney.
I was struck by the acoustic guitar playing that accompanied Moreland’s during that eTown performance. The Gillian Welch/David Rawlings (see OYR Issue #27) dynamic came to mind — that idea of quick, proficient guitar that uses every available note to add color and levity to stark compositions. I mentioned that comparison during our interview, and Moreland spoke glowingly of his partnership with Abney later in our conversation:
“I’ve played solo for such a long time, and then this year we’ve been doing a duo thing. We’ve played together before, but we didn’t get to do it often. So that’s been really cool to get to play with him on a regular basis all year. We had a friendship, but now there’s a different musical relationship that happens when you play with somebody every night for a year that we didn’t have before that we do now.”
When that sold-out January show at The Camel finally arrived, I had a choice — stand in the back of the venue’s main space, where the sound was great but the view of Moreland and Abney wasn’t, or hang out on The Camel’s bar side, where you couldn’t hear as well but could get a clear view of Abney’s guitar. I chose the latter and was enthralled from start to finish. Abney’s guitar work was masterful, and he added keys as well, including droning interludes between songs. (Quick point of clarification: There were no wrong answers to the question of where to stand. By all accounts I’ve heard, the show was pure brilliance regardless of your vantage point.)
I hit the merch table as quickly as I could when the final notes rang out, and while I was gunning for a copy of Moreland’s latest LP, Big Bad Luv, which Abney appears on, I was pleased to see an album of Abney’s for sale alongside the three of Moreland’s that were available. I bought Far Cries And Close Calls sight unseen (sound unheard?) and hovered long enough to get Abney to sign it. We talked for a minute or so, and I let him know about the leap of faith I was taking in picking the album up without having heard a note. He asked if I liked Bob Dylan. I said yes. He asked if I liked Elliott Smith. I said yes. Then he set the record for the fastest I’ve seen someone dispense with the shrink wrap around an album. I’d have missed it entirely if I’d blinked. The same task can take me 10 minutes. Sometimes blood is drawn. Not even kidding.
Dylan and Smith have served as apt reference points. Abney embodies Smith’s poignancy via double-tracked vocals in “Way Out” and “In Such A Strange Town,” and “Goodbye Temporarily” and “I’ll Be Here, Mairead” set a rollicking tone that channels Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. In fact, listening to Far Cries And Close Calls helped me recognize the loose, mischievous atmosphere of Highway 61 as a quality unto itself, legitimately changing my answer to the question Abney poses in “Beauty Seldom Seen,” Far Cries‘ opening track: “Do you remember rock and roll and how it made us feel?”
The theme of remembering shows up throughout the album. “I’ve confused dreams with memories” from “In Such a Strange Town” hits especially close to home. My capacity for memory isn’t the greatest, and I often wonder about how that’ll impact my life as I get older. If I’m being honest, that’s one reason I’m quick to snag an album from the merch table at the end of a night I don’t want to forget — I get to look forward to a future in which I’ll always be able to hold something in my hands that brings memories rushing back and makes the experience real all over again.
Speaking of the future, Abney released a new full-length album, Coyote, just a few weeks ago. Looking forward to getting my hands on that as well.
A musician that speaks to the heartland in all of us while playing to the music fan in us all.
Memory is fragile. It’s like porcelain. It’s pretty but it breaks so goddamn easily. I’ve seen/heard/experienced art discuss this from multiple perspectives: that it’s frustrating, that it removes objectivity from reality and makes it inherently subjective (i.e., solipsism), that it makes reminiscing more/less fun, that it’s fascinating. I don’t think, however, that I’ve come across a take that could be seen as cynically apathetic. So when John Calvin Abney says on Far Cries And Close Calls that he confuses dreams and memories, or that everything will be changed in the future, or when he notes, “Funny things that happen when you play the moments of your past / Minutes like molasses, you begin to age twice as fast,” I get the sense that he accepts that fragility as a disinterested observer — like, “Well, what can ya do?” Interestingly, the album’s upbeat (read: fun) songs — say, “Jailbreak” and “I’ll Be Here, Mairead” — suggest he’s made peace with this on some level. But it’s hard not to wonder, assuming my interpretation holds, if that’s an act or part of the commentary. Even the song titles themselves suggest a level of permanent impermanence: “Goodbye Temporarily,” “Imposter,” and “In Such A Strange Town.” Notably, Far Cries was recorded in just a couple days, like Abney didn’t want anything (like a memory) to escape. Indeed, on the album’s Bandcamp page, Abney thanks, among many others, “anyone and everyone in the blue and the black listening to these transmissions,” as if memory or reality or whatever can’t be grasped because it can’t stay whole.
I’m not as hip as Davy, who’s probably been on the John Calvin Abney train since the start, but I did learn about him last month when another smart music journo friend recommended his latest album, 2018’s Coyote. As I listened, I was immediately impressed with his sheer instrumental abilities, mainly as an acoustic guitarist. His fingerpicked patterns, both delicate and sturdy and played to perfection, made it easy to hear why he was such a popular sideman for folks like John Moreland, M. Lockwood Porter, and Samantha Crain. He also plays piano, organ, synth, and other instruments with a musicality that goes far beyond competence. In this way, Abney reminds me of Phil Cook, also a fantastic guitar and keys player who has made a name as a sideman and collaborator as a member of Megafaun, DeYarmond Edison, and Gayngs while also playing with Hiss Golden Messenger, Sylvan Esso, The Dead Tongues, et cetera, and releasing his own albums (check out People Are My Drug, his excellent third album, which just came out). Like Cook, Abney also has a broad knowledge of many flavors of “Americana,” whether folk, rock, or country, infusing his songs with an earthy richness and depth. His voice is a versatile and immediately familiar instrument, the old friend you never knew you had, and his lyrics are full of homespun wisdom, lived experience and well-earned Dylanesque poetics (i.e. “I stole from Peter and I gave to Paul / broke down in Damascus and I lost it all,” from “Imposter“). Far Cries And Close Calls, his fourth solo album, displays all these aspects in sympathetic surroundings, beautifully produced by Abney and Jason Weinheimer. He also gets able assistance from his fellow musicians, especially electric guitarist Cody Clinton, whose spectacular leads lend necessary fire to highlights like “I’ll Be Here, Mairead” and “Jailbreak.” I can unequivocally say that Far Cries would have been a regular listen in 2016 had I known about it at the time. I think it’s about time this songwriter’s songwriter and guitarist’s guitarist went from being a best-kept-secret to being officially as on the radar as all the names I mentioned above. Whether you start with Coyote, this record, or work your way through the whole discography — and you should do all those things — Abney is very likely to become one of your staple artists.
I’ve just noticed something. More often than not, when I sit down to write my weekly Off Your Radar blurb, the albums we review have exceptional lyrics. Maybe this is just happenstance or maybe as a team of writers we naturally gravitate to this element. My gut says it’s the latter and furthermore, I say that Far Cries And Close Calls perfectly proves my point. Like a ten-song trip to the 1960s, John Calvin Abney’s voice warm and easy swings effortlessly over every strum of his acoustic guitar oh so reminiscent to the likeness of Bob Dylan. When I initially looked up the album, I was surprised to see that it was only released in 2016. Abney is clearly an old-soul… whatever that means. Hang on, let me try again… Abney has captured the essence of a bygone era… still too vague? Let me spell it out. I think he has a lyrical voice, style, and perspective that stands out amongst his contemporaries, as in I am not familiar with any emerging artist at present who truly has a grip on the iconic 1960s style like him. Whether you view that as a testament to old school revival or an overplayed gimmick is entirely a matter of opinion, but for those of you reading this thinking, this is just another copycat hipster who’s lost in time, right? You’re wrong. Although his work has a clear and present Bob Dylan influence, Abney brings something new to the table with this album. It is obvious to me that he has carefully orchestrated each song so that it has that larger than life feel despite its core elements being quite simple. The record is clear, warm, and oozes that timeless and iconic charm that artists like Bob Dylan are renown for, but Abney is just a little livelier and striking to capture the hearts and minds of his modern audience.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
Often I feel a certain reluctancy to acknowledge a record as country. I admit that I’ve come to associate the genre with many of its worst musical clichés and that’s a trap that’s too easy to fall into as a critic. From the Scud Mountain Boys to Justin Rutledge, there have been no shortage of fantastic country records in recent years. So with that said, I place a Stetson on my head, jingle my spurs with a heel stomp to the start of “Beauty Seldom Seen” and acknowledge that John Calvin Abney’s Far Cries And Close Calls is a wonderful, musically satisfying and optimistic record. It’s the kind of record which helps reclaim the genre from the clutches of tired redneck rock and braindead misinterpretations of the meaning of “the simple man.” Track by track Abney demonstrates the prerequisites of relatable accessibility and uncomplicated melody. Sticking close to the genres traditional elements of guitar rock, slide guitar, harmonica, and organ, he shows us there is life left in the traditions of the genre when it’s treated with respect. Here is the direct lineage of the great, outstanding differentiators like Johnny Cash, or Roger Miller. There’s emotion, fun, energy, and blues. While the opening of the record would have you believing he’ll stop at the safer sort of intimate acoustic elements, Abney also drops into what sounds like open mic night at the local honkey tonk on “I’ll Be Here, Mairead” and the high-energy “Weekly Rate Palace.” He also brings that one primary element that separates the best music from the worst music in any genre — sincerity. The gentle and high quality production on “Way Out” allows every string pluck to come through while the protagonist of the lyrics comes to grips with age and memory and the effects they have on a burgeoning relationship. Closing verses off with the line “I ain’t too proud” rings true — but he should be. This is a great record because it’s not just played, it’s experienced.
A celebrated sideman in his own right, Abney’s versatile skill allows his songs to reach lofty heights.
It’s always lovely when someone initially known for their supporting role in another musician’s life, gets to shape an individual destiny of their very own. It’s even better when those two routes of life don’t need to follow each other linearly but rather, get to coexist within the same space. A long time right hand man — or shall we say guitarist — to fellow country musician, John Moreland, Abney has taken a solo songwriting stance for a few years now, with more than one project under his belt to show for the divergence. This sophomore 2016 release is just that. However, because of Abney’s experience in the business and his obvious know-how around a guitar and a hit song, Far Cries And Close Calls doesn’t come across like a project that’s just starting to find a solid sonic footing and it certainly is no second album slump. As a self-contained piece of work — outside of Moreland and outside of even earlier work Abney released — Far Cries And Close Calls is a really confident hybrid record. There’s a blend of neighboring styles, balanced across a nice round number of 10 tracks: Quieter indie folk, more instrumentally energetic folk rock, and even a stripe of garage rebel where the production is concerned. Numbers like “Way Out” which strip Abney down to that classic acoustic guitar, finger style melodies, and a melodically smooth vocal are quintessential folk fare. In these, Abney’s just-so twang tinged voice fits perfectly and makes him seem like an old soul in those more reserved moments. And yet, choose at random to start the album by listening to “Weekly Rate Palace” and no one would be at fault for thinking they were in for 10 tracks of romping and roaring garage blues — what with a distorted, fuzzed up, filtered out lead guitar; wide toned, crash cymbal heavy percussion; and a galloping syncopated hook that is only a few hops off from a good old 12-bar-blues progression. The same rough around the edges approach could be said for “I’ll Be Here, Mairead,” though the tempo and the overall flow of the song take on a more consistent turn and there’s even a hint of untouched straightforward acoustic fiddle that sneaks its way through to the front lines of the mix, showing that Abney keeps a soft spot for the natural side of folk rock, even if the loose but snappy snare tones and distance-recorded vocals prompt thinking to the contrary. Heck, there was even a moment at the beginning of midway track, “Imposter,” that the simultaneously arpeggiating and briefly chromatic guitar motif with a sustaining and legato organ felt reminiscent of the vibe on the Arctic Monkeys’ strangely warm and daydreamy, “No. 1 Party Anthem,” before Abney’s clear and thinner voice about 10 seconds in, flicks that flash of sonic likeness away like a pesky mosquito. It would be easy to color Abney’s second album as being actually quite slipshod in terms of sonic direction, if the multi-faceted quality of these 10 songs was processed and immediately projected back out at a face value of, “There’s a lot going on here. Too much to be good.” But as I mentioned earlier, these stylistic sides of acoustic folk, rock, and ragged garage are not such far away neighbors, and are not so foreign to the idea of lending each other a cup of sonic sugar (nobody borrows sugar from their neighbors often enough anymore for my reference to work, do they?), that Far Cries And Close Calls should be deemed a haphazard potpourri of ideas. Instead, these 10 songs play out as any good road trip: There’s a starting point, an ending point, and lots of moments between them that can range from easy going and chill (strolling the backroads with some acoustic), to more pumped up but controlled (cruising with momentum on the lightless interstate highways through the folk rock), and then perhaps a little unpredictable and-or dicey (swerving to avoid a deer or, driving rocky terrain instead of a paved road with the messier mixing and production choices on the arrangement). This is a great album that traverses quite a bit of style and Abney went for it without an ounce of hesitation in tow.
For all that I’m a positive feminist, the kind of realistic idealist who can teach the most at-risk population and find something to smile about every day, I really do love me an asshole. You can take a moderately attractive man who’s pretty good at what he does and add a spice of arrogance, and you’ll find me rewatching House yet again while Father John Misty plays in the background, Chuck Palahniuk books stacked up against the record player. John Calvin Abney’s record this week played in between the newest Father John Misty release in the aftermath of Marlin Greene’s album last week, and in my happy summer-folk haze I was struck by how just unpretentious Far Cries And Close Calls is. With serious arrangement chops and a rolling pace, OYR offers up another impeccable summer album, something perfect for a road trip or for playing late night around a fire, everyone still talking but unconsciously swaying to the rhythm. A pleasing influence of folk, gypsy rock, indie, and 1970s rock give a familiar vibe to these new tracks, with vocals reminiscent of Tom Petty or Wilco. Beautifully absent is the self-deprecation or self-centeredness that flavors some other great music in this wheelhouse. For an album not asking to be taken too seriously, you seriously have to put it on the next time your dinner party devolves down into cheap beer and dirty dancing.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
I always love writing about records like Far Cries And Close Calls for OYR because there is no guess work. There’s no asking yourself “why would someone enjoy this?” Or, “what parts can I salvage to squeeze out a couple hundred words here?” The entire album features heartfelt story-telling over top-notch musicianship that makes me harken back to rock’s glory days. Maybe it’s the “outsider” in me talking, having never heard John Calvin Abney before, but the vocal similarities between Abney and the late great Tom Petty are striking. Abney’s inviting tone is like a warm hug from a childhood friend you haven’t seen in way too long. To further that familiar image, halfway through “I’ll Be Here, Mairead” I had the realization that this is what Marty McFly’s band would sound like in 2018! The later stages of the album feature some of my favorite lyrical passages, not only for their simplicity, but for their gravitas. On the heavy “Opportunity,” Abney asks “I threw a curveball with not much follow through / will you take a collect call? I need a long shot to hold onto.” The lovely chorus of “More Than Moonlight” describes a light “less like Las Vegas, more like fireflies / less like Las Vegas, more like moonlight.” It’s neither a far cry nor a close call that Abney should cause more than a blip on your radar.
Whenever I come across an artist that falls under either the “singer songwriter” or “alt-country” categories, my gut instinct is to minimize the Ryan Adams comparisons. I briefly mentioned it back in our issue covering Daniel Romano’s Modern Pressure, but part of the reason I want to avoid the comparisons is because I think it’s lazy writing — there are hundreds of thousands of artists out there and they don’t need to be compared to each other, let alone the same guy time and time again — but it’s also partially because I don’t want it to be seen as me dismissing or diminishing the artist on their own merits. That said, after listening to John Calvin Abney’s Far Cries And Close Calls, I’m beginning to reconsider my position on that. After all, three of my top five favorite bands crank out album after album that sound like what would have happened if Bruce Springsteen had joined The Clash, or if Paul Westerberg had backed Tom Petty in 1989, and another one of my favorites has been putting out variations of the same album since at least 1993. And of all the artists to be compared to, Ryan Adams is top tier — the dude has cranked out tons of music in the last few decades, ranging from alt-country, folk and blues rock, to hardcore punk, college rock, and even metal. Even though Far Cries And Close Calls doesn’t cover nearly as many genres, it does bounce around and delivers everything in a neatly enjoyable package. I can picture “I’ll Be Here, Mairead” playing in a country dive bar that’s mostly empty, save a handful of regulars, while the stripped down instrumentation of “Way Out” (as far as I can tell, it’s just Abney and his guitar) seems like a perfect choice to cover at an open mic. And whether “Beauty Seldom Seen” sounds reminiscent of Adams or not, it doesn’t stop it from being a good song. As I often say, why reinvent the wheel when it doesn’t need reinventing?
Though laidback & austere, Abney’s sound is every bit as vibrant & chromatic as any piece of modern music.
Sometimes, an album will feel displaced in time. It doesn’t sound like it comes from a particular era or it sounds like it is authentically from multiple eras. I believe that Far Cries And Close Calls is just such an album. When I listen to it, the first thing that strikes me is just how cool it sounds. If a friend had played this for me in college, I would have almost certainly become a deeply devoted JCA-head — which is what I assume members of his fanbase are called — from that day forward. It’s an album that feels divinely inspired and executed. From the delicacy of “Way Out” to the rip-roaring jamboree of “I’ll Be Here, Mairead,” it all seems pretty perfect. Oh and by the way, I have to say I’ve never heard a song that sounded more like a Highway 61 Revisited outtake than “I’ll Be Here, Mairead” and I love it so much. I know it sounds like I’m gushing. I just get very excited when I listen to an album that so perfectly embodies everything I love about this newsletter: Something that I had never even heard of before, but also something that my ears had been aching to hear.
“Do you remember rock and roll and how it made us feel?” Honestly, that line stuck with me the second I heard it in “Beauty Seldom Seen.” After having just seen a pretty epic rock show this past weekend, I definitely can remember how it made me feel. Just seeing live music in general leaves you with such a high; it’s an incredible rush to know that human beings are capable of creating something so powerful, and evoking that feeling. And I’m sure rock and roll felt a hell of a lot different back in the heyday, but it’s still pretty epic. I just love that line! This album has a little bit of everything, which I like. There are songs for every mood: a bit of blues, a bit of rock, and some nice slowed down tracks. I really liked “Way Out” and “In Such A Strange Town,” but maybe because I’m in more of a quiet mood at the moment. I found also that his voice at times sounds similar to Tom Petty. Maybe that’s just me, but there were definitely a couple of moments where I heard the similarity. It’s nice to have someone relatively recent who has a distinct sound like that. Great album to round out the week and wind down on a Sunday evening for me!
Hey, it’s an alt-country record. I loved the early days of alt-country, in the late ’80s and on into the ’90s, because it was always clear that the players grew up in families that played old Nashville records around the house, but hit a certain age and discovered a rougher, more down-to-earth sensibility that simultaneously showed through in the post-punk-rock world of modern underground rock n’ roll and was present to a huge extent in the old-time hillbilly music that had been a forerunner to the Nashville sounds of their childhoods. So then you get people like Ryan Adams, Wilco, Son Volt, and the Old 97s, and they’ve simultaneously got that raw sensibility and those mainstream-country songwriting tropes flowing through their veins, and it all kicks quite a bit of ass. But in the years that followed the initial ’90s renaissance from this whole genre, things got a little farther away from the roots. Instead, it seemed like the alt-country sound that Adams, Tweedy, et al had synthesized became a sound of its own, one that landed closer to the early ’70s post-hippie rock n’ roll burnout sound of The Flying Burrito Bros or the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers. Once alt-country became a sound of its own that could easily be replicated with a few Stones riffs and a few thirtysomething-at-the-bar emotional clichés, it lost something in my humble opinion. Great artists still come through that scene, but it seems a lot easier to just make a good rock n’ roll record with a bit of a twang and have it go over with a really predictable audience that will lap that stuff up forever. It sort of reminds me of certain segments of the punk scene, if I’m honest, though those segments tend to bore me for the most part as well, so at least I’m consistent. Anyway, where’s John Calvin Abney in all this? Well, he’s a young guy with a twang and a swagger, who moves back and forth between that Stonesy stomp we talked about earlier and the more heartfelt ballads that are definitely the other side of the alt-country coin. He’s got a nice voice, and definitely writes some good melodies for Far Cries And Close Calls — “More Than Moonlight” is the best slow tune here, while “Weekly Rate Palace” is the rocker that most strikes my fancy. He’s a more than capable musician working in a solidly established tradition, and if it’s a perfectly cromulent example of that tradition you’re looking for, you really can’t go wrong here. Landing between the two styles I mentioned, it doesn’t necessarily stand out the way the originators of the genre do, but hey, he’s a young man — born too late to get there first, but still turning some ears with some fine music.
The more I write about country music, the meaner I get. Doesn’t even matter if I love what I’m writing about… like right now. I just can’t help myself. Last week for instance, I loved talking about the wonderful Marlin Greene, but I just had to throw some cheap (but weighty) jabs at the current state of country music. And listening to John Calvin Abney makes me want to do the same. Here is someone so sincere, so perceptive that’s crafting music so potent and so expressive… it makes mentioning radio country music seem meaningless. So I’m going to do my best to keep my cheap shots away and focus on the music, something that shouldn’t be hard here considering the wealth of goodies contained on this record. “Beauty Seldom Seen” opens up the record with that familiar rock sound, one that mixes Heartland rock with Southern rock in a way that makes any comparison instantly credible. It’s a bold statement to kick the record off with, mostly in how mellow and restrained it is. Don’t get confused though — the statement “Beauty Seldom Seen” presents is still one very much pronounced, just one Abney knows doesn’t need urgent cadence or restrained allure to succeed. The rest of the tracks unfold neatly after that statement, whether it’s more southern jangle (“Goodbye Temporarily“), august reflections (“Way Out“), barroom swings (“I’ll Be Here, Mairead“), or serene ballads (“In Such A Strange Town“). The real strength is Abney’s ability to place you in these moments, physically and mentally, within seconds of a song starting. At the 0:26 mark of “Weekly Rate Palace,” Abney proudly proclaims “I pulled into Nashville,” in a memorable and punctuated line that’s also redundant. The first five seconds of that song let you know you’re in Nashville, experiencing the wonders and bustle of the lower broadway in a way that words could never express. But Abney does have words… and boy do they express. His stories, confessions, and observation enhance each place and mood he’s dropped us in, making the lyrics the most vital and dramatic part of this record. He’ll close a song with a lyric like “I’m not the man that you refused / you’re not the girl I left behind me” and you can feel him building up to it through the entire song, summoning the strength to reveal two brutal truths, one that vindicates and one that damns. In this sense, you’ll be reminded of the great country-folk songwriters before him, though his playing and singing will evoke countless others leaving you with a laundry list of people to name drop if you want from Jason Isbell and Josh Ritter to Bob Dylan and John Mellencamp. They all work too because you get the sense Abney is someone looking up the history of Sun Records on his phone while Uncle Tupelo spins on a record player behind him. But look past all those reference points and you’ll really see where the familiarity comes into play. Abney has captured the charm of the south and country living here, making you remember the good times of porch swinging and Sunday cooking, while obscuring the images of pick-up trucks blasting Florida Georgia Line while a Confederate flag flies above a bumper sticker preaching patriotism. Sorry. I had to get at least one shot in.
On The Track by Leon Redbone
Chosen By Laura Burroughs