Thursday, February 10, 2011

New Album: Andrew Clayton - Fire In The Milky Way

Before I do anything I must make it known; Andrew Clayton is my best friend. I've known him for going on seven years, we've had more combined experiences together then anyone in my life, and I know more about him (and vice versa) then anyone else. That being said, when he asked me to review his debut album, Fire In The Milky Way, I told him that I wouldn't take it lightly, reviewing it favorably just because of our history, It would be a true review. He concurred, saying he wanted a truthful review, just like any other band. Luckily, we needn't have worried, as there is no question in my mind: this album is really damn good. Even after only one listen through, I found myself memorizing lyrics and tunes, something that doesn't usually happen, especially with the amount of music I listen to.

Andrew Clayton plays an almost archaic style of rock; blending blues, soul, and folk within a coating of warm tunes and compelling stories. The album, Fire In The Milky Way, unlike so many other folk rock acts (especially debut albums), does not stick to one style or genre or even a single thought, instead meandering as a river through a whole host of sub-sub genres of American folk. There are quick songs, some so fast you would swear he has two mouths, some grooving straight-forward rockers, and some soulful tunes that almost bring a tear to your eye. It's a smorgasbord of styles and themes - all of which are neck deep with a vocalized story.

Here's where Andrew gets preferential treatment as being my friend; I am going to give an account of the entire album, song by song, just so I can point out the excellence within. Long-time followers of The Guide will recognize that I only do this when the songs are notable - either extremely good or extremely bad - and Fire In The Milky Way is no exception.
"Fire In The Milky Way" -  The title track and the most 'progressive' song on the album. Now, I don't mean progressive as in complex time signatures or shifting rhythms, it's just the song that is the most complex track on the record. It's in a slight swing beat, featuring acoustic guitar layered with electric, drums, and a harmonica. The vocals begin as a solo but as the song progresses backing singers come in, especially at the very end of the song. With layered vocals, and many different instruments, it's a different then the songs that follow, and a great lead-off for the album.
"James" - My favorite track, this is the fast one that I mentioned above. I swear I don't know how he doesn't garble this one or at least bite his lip or tongue repeatedly. The first track that is ultra-heavy on story (not that "Fire In The Milky Way" doesn't have a story, it's just overshadowed by the numerous instruments and great musicians playing on it (more of my friends)).
"Shadows of This Town" - A slow, melodic, if somewhat-dark song. It's a stark contrast to the previous songs, and reminds me of a 90s alt-rock song. I'm not saying it's real poppy or anything - the opposite is true actually - but just a voice and a guitar, and the melody reminds me of some songs of my childhood. As I said, this is another song that revolves around Andrew's guitar and voice, but this time there is a haunting backing vocal (which is actually Mr. Clayton, with an insane octave), which really gives the song depth and a eerie feeling, as if it was actually the 'shadow of the town' singing to you.
"Cottonwood" - A twangy dual acoustic-guitar piece, with a drum-set backing, "Cottonwood" reminds me of a late 60s/early 70s folk rock song like James Taylor or Simon & Garfunkel. This one come off a bit more 'poppy' then "Shadows of This Town" did, but it works great. A short chorus and equally short verses keep the song moving along, and hey, there is even a trumpet, not something you hear every day.
"Cool Waters" - Recorded in one take, "Cool Waters" is a beautiful guitar piece. While not my favorite track (I prefer the 'rocking' songs instead), you can't deny the effort that is being displayed here. Andrew Clayton is showing off his prowess as a singer/songwriter, able to combine numerous different styles within a forty-minute album and none of it seems out of place. This one is for the ladies, fall in love with it and show your girlfriends.
"Back East" - Another one of my favorites, a great rock 'n roll ditty. It begins in pieces, first drums, then guitars and finally vocals - again something that stands out from the album - and is shouldered by Andrew's guitar and amazing vocals. The 'outlaw' song of the album ("Lord Silas" may be another contender, see below), it tells the story of a repentant man, standing before the gallows, looking back upon his life. He's known as a bank robber, but he hollers for amnesty, claiming to be more then just a thief, saying he has a life and wife back east, who relies on him. The song itself is short, only a pairing of verses and choruses, but I really never noticed until I started dissecting the song. There is just so much sound and story, that you get lost in the message. I'd gladly hear this track on repeat.
"Lord Silas" - Close second for my favorite song off the album, for this one Andrew goes into a deep baritone to make his point. Another song that relies almost entirely on the strength of the man's voice, to tell the story of Lord Silas. I love the verse of this one, which reminds me more of one of the classical epics, such as the Iliad or Odyssey, then a simple rock song. While not as blatant as "Back East," "Lord Silas" does strike me as another outlaw song, about a man who carries a 'sawed-off shot gun' and has God cry out 'my son, what have you done?' really strikes me as the kind of song where some foul play is afoot. Hell, if you follow the lyrics, it's implied that the man massacres most of a town, calling them sinners, that is some deep/dark shit; and I love it! This is the number one song that get's stuck in my head, mostly for the slowness of the vocals (when compared to "James" that is) and the deepness of it all. An easy song for any rock/metal fan to get behind, even if I'd never call it truly metal.Strikes me more as the 'dark acoustic' term I've been throwing around lately, like Dax Riggs or the new Wino album; not quite metal, but we love it anyway.
"1, 2, 3" - Andrew's 'road traveling' song, I could easily see "1, 2, 3" being used for an opening soundtrack to a movie or TV show. It's another song that stands out a bit, being set on the off-beats, and yet another that has a host of instruments and sounds hidden within; trumpet, double bass, concertina, drums and guitar - electric and acoustic - quite the collection. I like songs that are focused on the off-beat, of pretty much any genre, so this one evokes something primal within me.
"Tell Me" - Much akin with "Cool Waters," another slow, soul-driven beautiful piece. A good, calm story, elegant and exposing (in a metaphysical sense), another that brings a tear to your eye. Again not my favorite, but it proves the elegance of Fire In The Milky Way.
"White Lace In Shackles" - Continuing on the themes begun with the previous track, "White Lace In Shackles" is much more appealing to me. The music, while present, fades into the background, forcing the vocals and story into the foreground. Of the mournful collection ("Cool Waters," "Tell Me," and "White Lace In Shackles"), this song is by far my favorite. It also closes the album, bringing a peaceful end to a stellar album

The following two were included in my advance copy of Fire In The Milky Way, but have sense been knocked off the album's playlist. These songs are available for free download off of Andrew Clayton's website, so I urge you all to go and pick them up, to get a taste for the magic within the album itself.

"Evening Prayer" - Keeping the soul and beauty of the final 'official' tracks of Fire In The Milky Way, but combining it with the walking guitar tune of "James" and "1, 2, 3," creates an interesting sound. It's a prayer for a traveler/warrior/adventurer, wanting to see more days like the days before. It's short and quick and I think it should have made the final cut, but it's not my album, so the artistic freedom is all his.
"In My Time of Dying" - A tried and true cover, more akin to the original blues version then the Led Zeppelin version of fame (and the one that 99% of people know). I actually contributed some of the backing vocals for this one, being one of the drunken mob for the "well, well, well"'s, although you would never be able to pick my voice out of the masses. The vocals are purposelessly a bit under-produced/fuzzy, with the backing chorus likewise afflicted, giving the song a 'bar room' feel. As if a group of friends are just jamming while having a drink, or a live performance in a tiny venue. It took me a couple of listens to get that aspect, which is why I'm spelling it out here. Don't damn the seemingly-low production, for it's there on purpose, instead praise the creativity of the project. This track isn't officially on Fire In The Milky Way, instead it is offered for free download off of his website, but I'm including it, because I think it deserves to be so. It's a strong representation of the song, and is amazing to hear the man sing it live.

I have listened through the entirety of Fire In The Milky Way at least three times now, with my favorites being played more often then that. I will confess that I initially did this to get a better feel for the album, wanting to put more time into my best friend's record then some random band I found interesting. But on the way, I discovered that I did truly enjoy this release. You listen to a friend's music once or twice to be nice and say you did, anything more then that and you are listening just for yourself, because you've really enjoyed it, not because he's a friend. This is what happened with Fire In The Milky Way; I listened initially to give my experience and opinions, but I kept listening because I found these songs stuck in my head hours after I had heard them - often with two or three other albums heard in between. The album is my best friend's, and so it got to jump ahead of many others, but it has continuously stayed within the lead playlist on my computer because of it's quality, and that is saying something.

Some shameless promoting of his online persona:

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