Godspeed You! Black Emperor – The Dead Flag Blues

We’ve been on a bit of an apocalyptic post-rock kick as of late. Perhaps its the brutal cold weather, or a random rekindling of our youthful rage against the man, or maybe its the writing death march induced by a looming article deadline. Whatever the cause of this state of mind, a spin through the older works of the legendary Godspeed You! Black Emperor (don’t forget to add the exclamation point), which incidentally form an excellent writing soundtrack if one wants to induce a frenzy of paranoid productivity, unearthed a train song and inspired an update here.

“Dead Flag Blues” comes off of F#a#infinity, the debut record that launched the group into the public eye. The track starts with a chilling spoken word piece, about a corrupt society degenerating into chaos, complete with “buildings toppling in on themselves” and “mothers clutching babies” apparently written by a member of the group. Few bands channel fears of societal collapse better than Godspeed – its no surprise Danny Boyle used the second track off this record in the excellent zombie movie 28 Days Later. Swelling strings add to the drama and the narrator opens up his wallet, only to find it full of blood. And if that’s not an indictment of capitalism and greed in whatever horror has transpired here, we don’t know what is.

Then the beat falls away and there it is – the whistle of a train and the chugging of an engine as it speeds up and flies off into the distance. The train image below is from an insert in the LP (The Revered Gary Davis referenced on this train is a blues artist).

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The symbolism of the railroad works on many levels here. As a historian writing about railroads as a symbol of capitalism’s advance, the link between the group’s prophetic vision of societal collapse, and the inherent chaos and instability built into the system, is all too apparent to us. The leaving train also fits the “western” atmosphere of the next part of the track. The train leaves behind ambient sounds in certainly wake, which certainly adds to the dreamlike atmosphere and as the song builds again, one can imagine a camera panning away from the train to reveal a wide-open landscape. Finally, the train works to reset the listener’s attention and leads us to wonder if we are waking up from a horrible dream. The train whistle often intrudes in literature and film as a device to jar the viewer back into consciousness, and in this case its a jarring and effective transition to the second half of the song, a link between a nightmare and the new dawn.

After a lengthy hiatus through the turbulent 00s, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are back in action, releasing new music, trashing and pointing out the hypocrisy in prestigious awards they win, and going on tour. Here they are, posing by some train tracks:
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Its certainly a good time to have them back – F#a#infinity came out in 1997 and a look back reveals that these guys were indeed prophets. Considering the cataclysms and crises of the first decade of the 21st century – environmental catastrophes ravaging major cities, fears of global terror, and a financial crisis that brought the world to the brink of economic collapse – we’ve been closer to the apocalyptic vision of “Dead Flag Blues” than anyone could have guessed. Indeed, the apocalypse is hot stuff now – a zombie show is the highest rated show on cable, and few monsters prey on end-of-the-world anxieties like zombies.

Zombies aside, its an interesting use of a train song, and certainly an unconventional train song. Not to beat up on our own blog, but the many lonesome whistles and trains leaving behind lost loves and broken hearts were getting a little repetitive here…

Magnetic Fields – Born on a Train

This is second Magnetic Fields song to show up here, and like the last song we posted, its off of their travel-themed record Charm of the Highway Strip. “Fear of Trains” is a catalog of railroad-related historical horrors, but this is quite simply a song about living a restless life and being “born on a train.”

The illustrious minds over in the songmeanings.com commenting section seem to think this is about vampires, and though the lines about never getting old and the walking dead may speak to this, we’d argue its more about travel than the life of the undead. The black and white music video, featuring a girl wandering a city and a small train set, is quite good at matching the mood of the song, but it does little to support the vampire thesis.

The song largely fits with the theme of the record – of drifting aimlessly and the traveling life. The narrator promises to leave a lover at some point, because he’ll “have to go when the whistle blows” because “the whistle knows my name.” As he explains, “Baby I was born on a train.” Just as we’ve seen in other train songs, trains most often symbolize travel and restlessness. The song’s story of a failing relationship, and imagery of grey mornings, neon signs and walking dead, all speak to the ambiguities of a life on the move.

On a personal level, this song had special relevance to us while in the thick of dissertation writing. At times, we reached a level of obsession that had us feeling like we were also “born on a train.” The song, like most of their stuff, is also catchy as hell – good luck getting it out of your head!

The Arcade Fire did a pretty nifty cover of the tune as well – here’s the video for that:

Black Twig Pickers – Cherry River Line

The Black Twig Pickers hail from Virginia and West Virginia and they specialize in resurrecting lost folk songs from the mountainous border region between these two states. A bit of an anomaly on the indie-oriented label Thrill Jockey, they boast a rich discography chock full of great arrangements of old-time music, and of course a veritable roundhouse worth of train songs. The music conjures up images of front porch jams and old country stores, and it drips with a level of authenticity that today’s suspender-clad hip new folk troubadours could only dream of matching. Indeed their record label’s site relates their reliance on first person sources, either actual songsmiths, or relatives, and even recordings dredged up from archives. To be sure, this is not the last time you will see this group here on this blog.

“Cherry River Line” is off their 2008 release, Hobo Handshake, and its a rather dark tune to say the least, and a reminder to this former metalhead that the old-time Appalachian ballads can often match metal when it comes to grimness. The vocals are in the back of the mix, allowing the minor-key instrumentation to shine through, and adding to the isolation of the narrator. Lyrically, its yet another train song about a failing relationship. The singer is “lonesome all the time” missing a girl on “yonder mountain” who took up with another man. He resolves to find another woman and the slow running train’s lonesome whistle matches his despair, He closes the tune by noting that while someday he may forget his former lover, he’ll never forget the Cherry River Line.

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The tune itself comes from the mountains of West Virginia. Far as we can tell, the “Cherry River Line” refers to an old spur line off the Baltimore & Ohio, a spur line that has now undergone a conversion to a rail trail. Mountain regions were usually the latest to receive rail service – from the looks of this map of the B&O system above, it looks as if the railroad got to this area (near the town of Richwood) by 1901. When the rails did arrive, it was usually the leading edge of an exploitative or even colonial arrangement hauling away wealth and resources, with little benefit to the local communities. Though the grievance that inspires this track is more personal, it should not be surprising that a railroad song from this corner of the mountains is so dark.

Further hints about the origins of this tune come from this clip of old-time fiddler Lester McCumber who recalls a friend of his used to play “Cherry River Line” so it “made the hair raise up on your back” and who discusses a few variations on the tune. There’s a profile of McCumber in the New York Times rom 1999 if you’re curious on reading more on his career. The story is testament to the authenticity of the song, so kudos to the Black Twig Pickers for resurrecting this great piece of history.

2013 Albums of the Year (Part 3)

After a holiday-induced delay, here are the rest of our picks for albums we liked this year:

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Lucero – Texas & Tennessee
Its a brief 4 song EP, but anything from Lucero is worth celebrating. This one even has a train song . In contrast to the more uptempo, horn-driven material on their latest 2 records, this is a stripped down acoustic affair. Its also worth mentioning we finally got a chance to see these fellows live in Asheville, and they did not disappoint.

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Restorations – LP2
Whether due to the move away from Gainesville, or just growing boredom with the genre, this was one of the few punk albums that really stuck in our playing rotation this year. Its sad and introspective stuff, a soundtrack to the tumultuous transition to early adulthood. The tempo shifts – from the meandering “In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe” to the rollicking “New Old” – add variety and diversity and helping it stand out from the pack.

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Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
The ghost of Pavement haunts this album of this indie band from Massachusetts. Crunchy slacker anthems that were a good fit for the period of crushing uncertainty we experienced while awaiting the conclusion of a torturous job hunt.

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Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
Some irreverent garage punk from Texas. Veers wildly between boastful/cocky jams and biting social commentary – another good encapsulation of life in your mid-20s.

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Water Liars – Wyoming
Everything this prolific group does hits us like a ton of bricks, and this was no exception. Their great tunes, crushing lyrics, and perfectly melancholic vocals sucked us in for a long time.

A 2013 recap list would also be remiss if it did not mention the sad passing of Jason Molina, mastermind behind Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. In case you missed it, one of our favorite posts we’ve done here was on the many trains that appear in his work. We’ll leave you all with this phenomenal bonus track off the 10th anniversary reissue of his classic album “Magnolia Electric Co.” We are hoping to catch one of the memorial shows feature members of his band and Hiss Golden Messenger when they swing through NC next month.

…And there you have it – a bunch of stuff we have been into this year. We are already eagerly anticipating new albums in 2014 from Titus Andronicus, Pallbearer, Agalloch, Alcest, The Drive-By Truckers, among others, so the new year should be a good one, at least musically speaking. On a personal level, its going to be hard to match the changes and transformations of 2013, but that’s probably a good thing.

And with the conclusion of this retrospective, we will back to our usually scheduled train song programming shortly.

2013 Albums of the Year (Part 1)

In a departure from our usual format, today we are going to recap some of the records we particularly enjoyed this year, many of which contain not a single train song. This makes no claim to be a definitive list – we listen to an assortment of music that in no way is comprehensive or systematic in its approach. This is the first in a series of year-end posts grouped roughly by genre. Today let’s cover some choice selections from the alt.country/americana side of the spectrum.

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Jason Isbell – Southeastern
We’ve been fans of Isbell’s work for a long time – indeed many of our favorite Drive-By Truckers songs (“The Day John Henry Died,” “Decoration Day,” “Outfit,” etc…) were Isbell creations. Southeastern is a powerful step forward for him, full of songs that hit the listener straight in the gut. As a testament to his songwriting skills, he shifts effortlessly between characters as diverse as a friend of a cancer patient, a 19th century brigand, and semi-autobiographical tales dealing with his newfound sobriety.

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Futurebirds – Baba Yaga
Few bands evoke the sense of murkiness of the South, and the weirdness at the margins of this seemingly straight-laced region, than this group out of Athens, Georgia. A proper heir to the southern gothic-laced sounds of early R.E.M., or perhaps an example of what My Morning Jacket would have sounded like if they soldiered on in the vein of their early records, and kept the reverb dial turned up to 11. This one is more of a slow boil, and more of a grower than their impressive first record. So come for the immediately striking atmosphere, and stay for revelations of stunning moments like the second half of “Dig.”

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Mount Moriah – Miracle Temple
Boasting what is probably our favorite album cover of the year, this North Carolina group’s sophomore record builds on the successes of their 2011 self-titled debut. Twisting and turning guitar lines from the mastermind behind one of our favorite metal groups Horseback, merge with melodic bass work, and the compelling vocals of front-woman Heather McIntyre, who first cut her teeth in the punk scene. The flaming barn on the front is a perfect encapsulation of band’s musical and lyrical tension between Old and New Souths. Perhaps this group resonates so strongly with us because the members have walked a similar path of musical growth – from metal/punk/heaviness to rural-inflected americana. Or maybe its just our move – “Swannanoa” in particular has been on repeat since our relocation to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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Austin Lucas – Stay Reckless
Yet another punk-Americana hybrid, Lucas has made a smooth shift from hardcore to acoustic bluegrass, and on the new record he turns up the electric guitars (with the help of backing band Glossary). Great stuff and a nice step forward in Lucas’s sound.

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Doc Feldman & the LD50s – Sundowning at the Station
The buzz on this one by some bloggers I follow, was so heavy I had to check it out, and the hype is well-deserved. Utter bleakness translated into acoustic musical misery. Its not for the faint of heart, but its hard to find a better soundtrack to

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Divided & United: Songs of the Civil War
We realize that as a music-obsessed 19th century historian we fall squarely within the target demographic for this one. But the care that went into curating this collection and the skillful execution should give this resonance outside the historical profession. Its a diverse set of songs, encompassing multiple viewpoints of the war, and performed by a variety of artists, including some real heavy hitters. Put this on and spend an hour or two in the 1860s. Sam Amidon’s “Wildwood Flower” and Old Crow Medicine Show’s rousing rendition of “Marching through Georgia” are immediate standouts, but the whole collection is even more powerful in one full run-through.

Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band – Texas Eagle

Steve Earle’s son has been on here twice, but it seemed about time to write up the legend himself. We’ve been perhaps a little remiss in our attention to his sprawling discography, but a road trip spin of The Mountain brought this excellent train song to mind. The album came out in 1999 and its a collaboration between Earle and the bluegrass outfit the DelMcCoury Band. Its a great record, by the way, blending rousing bluegrass instrumentation with powerful lyrics and Earle’s unmatchable vocals, and it also happens to includes one of our favorite Civil War songs, Dixieland, based on a character from the Gettysburg novel, Killer Angels. If there’s one thing we love as much as train songs, its Civil War songs, but that’s definitely a topic for another blog…

In this tune, Earle reminisces about the Texas Eagle, an old train that since has been shut down and sold to Mexico. His grandfather was a “railroad man” who took Earle for a ride on the Texas Eagle “‘fore its gone.” The blue and silver train eventually did bite the dust, as the line went under and the train was sold to Mexico. Earle laments that “nowaday’s they don’t make no trains,” a common lament in backwards-looking train songs like this. But even though the train is gone, the memory of the whistle lingers as a haunting reminder of past glories.

The Texas Eagle route historically ran from 1948 to 1970 was under control of the Missouri Pacific Railroad and the Texas & Pacific Railway. Like many of the beloved passenger rail routes of yore, like the Southern Crescent, City of New Orleans, and Southern Pacific, Amtrak revived the Texas Eagle name and stuck it on the passenger route from Chicago through Texas and on to the West Coast. But in Earle’s mind (and in the opinion of many others), these don’t match up to the old glamour lines – Earle derisively refers to the reincarnated routes as “them Amtrak things.”

Texas Eagle

So Texas Eagle fits right into the grand tradition of train songs that invoke trains for nostalgic purposes. The personalized story gives this one a little more power and lest anyone doubt Earle’s sincerity here, in a song-by-song writeup of the album Earle unequivocally declared, “every single word of this song is true.”