I met Maurice Tani at a downtown Berkeley coffee shop to discuss his new collection of songs, The White Water. We immediately launched into a discussion of the astounding number of recent musician deaths and particularly the loss of Merle Haggard. It seemed like the natural place to begin our conversation. Tani quickly remarked “there aren’t many country greats from the generation of songwriters that inspired what I do left on this planet…the last of that generation of great iconic songwriters.”
Peter Guralnick recently wrote an obituary for Merle that started out with the bold proclamation “ Merle Haggard was probably the greatest singer-songwriter I’ve ever seen. The only artist I can think to compare him to is Sam Cooke, who like Merle possessed the gift for writing songs that were at once both deeply personal and universally applicable to the human condition. “ Garalnick goes on to describe Haggard’s songs as “no less expressive (than Cooke’s) of the kind of unnameable yearning that none of us can escape, and no less eloquent in their empathy for people from all walks of life…”
Now I’m not saying that Tani has reached the heights of Haggard or Cooke but Tani like Haggard is a songwriter’s songwriter with reoccurring themes and his own life experiences, a mournful world critics to date have rushed to categorize as “country music.” I referred to Tani’s voice , songwriting and instrumentation as creating a unique David Lynch like “Hillbilly Noir” on his previous cds. Tani explains that he wanted this new album to combine the live/studio sound on “The Blue Line” with the intimate acoustic duo atmosphere captured on “Two Stroke.”
Those elements are all present in the songs on “The White Water” and of course Tani’s unique vocal style is what it is – but I will argue that labeling this record as a country record is limiting and doesn't do it justice. I think its more than country like a lot of “country” music being created these days by the likes of Jason Isbell, The Drive By Truckers, Ryan Adams, or Sturgill Simpson. To carve out a unique place in the singer songwriter space these days takes truly single minded talent, a good backup band and solid songs…and probably most of all a trademark vocal quality. You can immediately hear a song by Joe Ely or Dave Alvin and know by their unique voices and songwriting styles that it’s their song – the same goes for Maurice Tani.
“The White Water” is a new high water mark for Tani. The songs are extremely evocative and the studio quality is top notch There are several radio ready songs on this album including the opening song, a mid tempo rocker entitled, “Kitchen Fire” The noir-ish ballad that follows “Suffer” is all Tani with lyrics such as:
I know you didn’t want to kill me
You could have made this so much tougher
No, you’d never want to kill me,
You just want to make me suffer.
The songs that follow are full of loss, scenes right out of "The Postman Rings Twice” and at times even humor. The song “Baby Made 1 2 3” sung with Ari Fellows-Mannion sounds like something John Prine and Iris DeMint could have sung together with their wry humorous takes on life. This collection also includes a political song “The Cheap Seats” which talks about the new reality created by the disappearing middle class:
The profits were up
When they shut this place down
And 800 folks lost their jobs
In this factory town.
We’re watching it all
From the cheap seats.
They sure as hell ain’t
The big screen will show
What they want us to know
And no matter who loses they win
No matter who loses they win.
These lyrics reminded me of James McMurtry’s song “They Don’t Make it Here Anymore.” But my favorite song on this cd is “Take Me When You Go Too Far” sung by Pam Brandon. Tani’s voice isn’t heard on this song but it is unmistakably his trademark phrasing and pathos. Brandon sings:
I just bleed on the keys
While you stand on the ledge
I want to take that chance
Of going over the falls
This town just blackens the page
while the white water calls”
Maurice explains the lyric and the title of the album “The White Water” as referencing a Hemingway quote he found that resonated with him ”There’s nothing to writing. You just sit at the typewriter and bleed.” I’ll go back to my point that its very difficult for me to call this record a country album…even a hillbilly noir album. It’s full of beautiful songs, intriguing lyrics and intoxicating dreamscapes. It also includes two covers, the Bacharah/David composition, “The Look of Love” sung in true Dusty Springfield harmony with Tani by Pam Brandon and a Grateful Dead cover, “Believe It or Not”
According to Tani when asked about this particular song “David Gans asked me to play a Jerry Garcia tribute and I said I would if I could sing my favorite Dead song, the crushingly beautiful 1973 “Stella Blue”. He said I could do it if I took a shot at this other song he sent me.”
“I’m hesitant to call myself a “Deadhead” but I’ve certainly followed the Dead from the Speedway Meadows days in the 70’s and I’m familiar with their albums but I’d never heard the song Gans was requesting that I play. Gans explained that 'Believe it Or Not" was an obscure Robert Hunter- Jerry Garcia song that the band only performed six times between 1988 an 1992. They recorded it in the studio for their album “Built to Last” , but it never made it onto the record. He sent me a live version that was pretty rough but I could hear the bones of something that grabbed me. Robert Hunter described the lyric as being reminiscent of the kind of country and western stuff he remembered hearing come out of tavern jukeboxes in 1948. “ David Gans proclaimed upon hearing this new arrangement at the Jerry Tribute Concert as now being owned by Maurice Tani as the definitive version.
“The White Water” is an album I’ll go back to and one of the better songwriter albums I’ve heard so far this year. But don’t take my word for it. If songwriting in the tradition of Merle Haggard is your cup of tea, you will hear songs on this record that are deeply personal and universally applicable to the human condition. And here’s just one example of what you can expect on the new album: