Let me tell you a little about Stace England. Back in 2005 or so, Stace and the boys put out an album titled Greetings From Cairo, Illinois which music critic Greil Marcus put in his Top Ten albums of that year. They followed it up in 2007 with Salt Sex Slaves, another historically apt musical look behind the facade of reality-as-told. (Here is part of the story behind the album, lifted straight off of England's CDBaby page: "England and his new band, The Salt Kings continue his story telling mastery on Salt Sex Slaves, weaving tales of brutal salt production, kidnapped free blacks, ghosts, slave breeding and murder in a supposed Free State, the Land of Lincoln, into a volatile, provocative Exile On Main St.-ish stew. SSS bridges the gap between forced slavery and chosen servitude to the commodity of the moment, making the story remarkably relevant for modern times. John Crenshaw, the “Salt King,” operated a profitable reverse underground railroad in the No Mans Land bordering Slave and Free states. His castle, The Old Slave House, still stands near strangely named Equality, Illinois."). In 2009, they delved into the history of The Amazing Oscar Micheaux, a black filmmaker who dared buck up against a new but powerful Hollywood, a story I found fascinating even beyond the fact that so many conspired to keep it buried.
Through the length of these albums, the thing which sticks out is England's reliance on history. The songs are not just songs but vessels upon which the stories sail. I cannot even begin to imagine the amount of research done before each project was finalized. Tons, I would assume.
Not quite as much on their latest, America, Illinois, but that does not detract from the album itself. This one is a bit more personal, a bit more modern. This one does not delve into the past except the one all of us in the States share--- the history which made us who and what we are. As England states on the album jacket, "This is our American experience from September, 2010 to today." The day everything changed. The day the world really changed, and not in our consciousness but in reality. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan is a fly on a horse's ass compared to 9/11. The day the music died, no less.
It is a different approach for England, but he more than makes up for it with insightful and well-written songs. Indeed, there is a flow to this album which almost shoves the history-as-it-happens aspect aside. Almost. The real ear-grabber isn't really a part of the album, a grunge-infused (with cellos, it sounds like--- is that even possible?) cover of Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susannah." They recorded it as an entry into Neil Young's Cover-a-Cover-Song-That-Neil-Young-and-Crazy-Horse-Covered contest. At first, I didn't even want to hear it. When I did, I realized that it was not anything Foster had even remotely dreamed of.
The album's lead-in is a throwback to the days of the Old South or maybe just the Old, "Illinois" being a very short musical vignette played by a small ensemble of strings. "Asleep in America" wakes you from the dream and begins a ride through the heartland. In song, of course. "Asleep" is September 1oth. What follows shows the rending of the fabric of the country and and the hope as it begins to heal. Listen to the songs in sequence and the journey becomes obvious. "Tear In the Sky" is the 11th and the day after; "Cairo Annie" a military recruit because of circumstances who returns home from war broken both physically and mentally; "Mound City" an ode to the fleeting reverence of the dead in war; "Confluence" an analogy, streams and rivers which flow into one much as the people of the US have done until recent years.
Are you following it yet? It isn't one story but it is. England makes sure of it. These are his visions and they take place in his world, that of Illinois. These are his songs, too, and he lays them out beautifully, one flowing into the other seamlessly. It doesn't matter if a rocker flows into a country rocker and then flows into acoustic folk. The story matters. And the music is part of the story.
Ah, the music. Even in saying the sequence is most important, I have favorites. "Villa Ridge" impresses me with its leanings toward pop/psych, but then I feed on pop/psych. You couldn't wrap up a concept like this without a song as strong as "America. Epilogue," a heartfelt and emotional tribute to the resilience we must have, the alternative being death as a nation.
I wish I had England's optimism. When I listen to this album, I do, in a way. I forget about the corporate world which has arisen and remember how we got here--- or, at least, what I was told about how we got here. I really believed in this country once. Maybe I will again when reason prevails. This album gives me hope.
A word about the band and attendant musicians. Every stanza, every note on this album fills a musical purpose. It may not be perfect, but I like it more because it is not. I believe music isn't meant to be. Without the personality and the related interpretations, music becomes lifeless. That's why we listen to Bob Dylan, whose voice is not the best, and to Iggy Pop, who is as much attitude as voice. And to so many others we have crowned kings and queens over the years. After hearing Stace England & The Salt Kings hundreds of times over four albums, I can say that they are working their way toward the top of my artists to hear for pleasure. You can check the band out at www.staceengland.com. You stop by, tell him I said hello.
Here's a bonus. A video put together to support their last album, The Amazing Oscar Micheaux: