Southerly – Best Dressed and Expressionless
(2004, Dead Letter Records)
In that heady, fateful summer of 2004 of which I have now rambled on about several times, I ended up one July evening at a coffee house in Neenah, Wisconsin, where I got to play a show with Krist Krueger, aka Southerly.
Krist is one of those rare people of unlimited energy and industry who make me feel exhausted just thinking about. When I met him he was about one year into a two year nonstop solo tour, and had by that time logged 100,000 miles on a classic Aerostar minivan (as I recall, the tour finally ended when the van did). That whole enterprise was an experiment of sorts, to prove the idea that with laptop, cellphone, talent and effort, you could live indefinitely on the road. Which Southerly did, stopping occasionally in his native Appleton, Wisconsin for a break, or in Portland, Oregon to record. Best Dressed and Expressionless came out of one of these Portland sojourns.
Solo, Southerly is all about dextrous acoustic guitar fingerpicking and strong, wordy melodies (as in, there are lots of words and I can’t follow them), in the service of songs that lie somewhere between folk and late-90s indie rock. This recording combines those elements with a kickass drummer and a surprisingly full arrangement of bass, strings, piano, and an occasional appearance of brass, recorded by Portland’s Rob Bartleson.
The songs deal largely with death, specifically the untimely passing of four people close to Krist, who are represented by a motif/song called “Accidental” (I, II, III, IV) repeating every third song. Despite the subject, the music is not dark. The closest it comes to darkness is the song “Choke,” a piano-and-strings-driven ballad that at times puts me in mind of the band Muse, and seems to be about an argument with a lover. The “Accidental” motif could be described as wistful, and then that’s it: the album is (musically) upbeat, particularly the second to last song “Ceremony,” which is a singalong.
The one-two punch of “Rise” and “Harmony” (tracks 2 and 3), however, are what I think of when I think of Southerly: a catchy melody, an acoustic guitar hook, a danceable rhythm, and no idea what he’s saying:
Krist eventually settled in Portland, where he started a booking agency/record label (the Self Group) and has just kept at it, releasing several albums and touring the US many times over, Canada, and Europe. This week he’s started yet another tour, playing tonight at the Sunset Tavern in Seattle with Scriptures (another of my Bad at Listening subjects) and our own Levi Fuller.