Column 174: A Coward’s Return; Live Review: Heavenly States, Head of Femur; More Rilo Kiley tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 5:49 pm May 21, 2008

When I found out that Team Love was rereleasing Simon Joyner’s The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll I knew I had to interview Joyner about the record. It’s been a decade since our last interview. Our talk focused almost solely on the album, and I got so much stuff over that hour on the phone that I knew I would need two columns to get all the best parts in print. So here is part one of my first two-part column. Look for part two next Wednesday.

Column 174: The Traveller Returns
The first in a two-part look at Simon Joyner’s just-reissued seminal recording.

The date was sometime in 1994. Omaha singer songwriter Simon Joyner was opening a show for a band who I’ve long ago forgotten down at the original Howard St. Tavern, the one that was right next to the Old Market Homer’s. Sitting at the table looking up at the stage, I noticed a couple things different straight away. First, behind Joyner — who had always been a solitary performer — was a guy sitting behind a small trap set. Second, the acoustic guitar that had always been strapped around Joyner’s fragile frame had been replaced by one with a chord running from its hind end.

Joyner was about to go electric, and none of us knew what to think. The occasion was the release of his then new vinyl album, The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll, a record that would prove to be a departure both for him and for the rest of us who had known Joyner as merely a solo acoustic folk-punk musician. Cowardly Traveller would change all that.

On the occasion of its long-awaited rerelease on Conor Oberst’s Team Love Records — the album’s only re-pressing since its second run sold out more than a decade ago — Joyner talked about how Cowardly Traveller happened, and what it meant to him all those years ago, and today.

But first, let me tell you what it meant to me. Cowardly Traveller was Joyner’s third formal release. Over the prior years, Dave Sink’s One Hour Records had put out two cassette-only releases — Umbilical Chords and Room Temperature. It was the latter that had caught the ear of iconic UK DJ John Peel, who played a song from the cassette on his famous radio show (which was shades of things to come). Those two cassettes were filled with Joyner’s jangling coffee-shop folk, sort of like early Dylan, but edgy with a fractured punk attitude. Joyner’s knack for writing confessional journalistic lyrics carried the day, more so than the songs’ melodies, which suffered from a simplistic sameness from track to track, both in composition and musicianship. One marveled at the lyrics and little else.

Then along came Cowardly Traveller, a completely realized album from side to side, probably the first record I had heard released by an Omaha musician that artistically could hold its own with anything released anywhere. The glare of Joyner’s distorted guitar chords married with Chris Deden’s flat, tribal drumming on opening track “747” was a salvo shot over the bow of anyone who expected another dip of frenetic sidewalk folk. Its cold, hard sonic stare would only be equaled by the album’s final track, “Joy Division,” a song that closed with the distortion pedal firmly pressed to the floor while Joyner caterwauled in his infamous off-key warble, “Papa, everything falls apart.”

Sandwiched between those two songs were 10 more, some of them bracing and electric, others mournful and acoustic, each haunting in its own way. Cowardly Traveller was Joyner’s first masterpiece. It would influence a generation of Omaha songwriters, and earn a place as one of my all-time favorite records.

Joyner, who turns 37 in August, was 22 when he recorded Cowardly Traveller, and was staring down what he thought would be the end of a brief musical career, one that he had never expected. “At the time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself,” he said. “I hadn’t considered becoming a professional musician. Music was what I did as a creative outlet. It was something that was fun before I went on to do something else.”

But before he left music behind, he had one more record left in him. “I was in a bit of a rut both in my personal and professional life,” he recalled. “I felt a little bit restricted in how I had become thought of as this solo acoustic singer songwriter bard of Omaha. I had really expansive musical interests, but up to that point it had been all solo acoustic, which I felt was a proper way of going about beginning a career as a songwriter, just like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Buckley and Leonard Cohen had.”

And like those artists, Joyner was ready to branch out beyond the solo acoustic realm of those first two cassettes, but there were those around him who felt that solo acoustic was all that he would ever be good for. “There are people who are excited about a certain thing you’ve done, and want you to do it again and again. That’s definitely artistic death.

“(The record) was my own small version of a Dylan-going-electric moment,” Joyner said. “I didn’t know how people would react, but I knew that I definitely wouldn’t be making music much longer if it was all going to be acoustic. I thought (Cowardly Traveller) might be the last thing that I would ever do, and it would have made me happy to end like that. Instead, it turned out to be a springboard that kept me challenging myself.”

Next week: The recording, the musicians, the story behind the songs and the reaction both here and abroad.

* * *

I’ve seen a number of different incarnations of Head of Femur over the years, but my favorite is still when the band played as a trio at Sokol Underground back in 2003. Femur ballooned to around eight musicians when they returned to Sokol a couple years later, opening for Rogue Wave. Last night they whittled that number down to five. But it was as a trio that the band was at its edgiest. Back then, they had a wind-blown, organic freedom that felt hand-made and improvised. Maybe it was just the newness of Femur that was showing through their set. Last night’s ensemble, on the other hand, was the most competent — every musician effortlessly hitting their mark, playing with a matter-of-fact confidence as if they’d been on the road nonstop for the past year. They sounded good, professional, an expert band playing indie prog that at times glowed with an Elvis Costello hangover, thanks to a few of the songs’ intricate, clever lyrics — good songs, but Femur is at its best on the ones with the bigger choruses, simpler hooks and fewer words.

There clearly was a comfort level coming off the stage, probably because the crowd of around 60 or 70 consisted of a lot of family and friends, who frontman Matt Focht acknowledged throughout the evening. They came on rather late, around 11:30 after a jumping set by The Heavenly States, who played somewhat pedestrian indie rock that had enough ummph at times to get a few of the folks in front of the stage dancing. “They don’t have a drummer, they have a cymbal player,” remarked a guy standing next to me. Afterward, of course, it was impossible to ignore how their drummer did seem to have the drum set reversed, playing mainly on the cymbals and using the rest of the set as an accouterment. The result, as you might imagine, was rather bright and brashy. Still, I like the band’s singer, whose voice reminded me Trip Shakespeare’s Matt Wilson, and I liked most of their songs, though their set fell flat a few times.

Playing the role of audience clowns were members of Poison Control Center, who left the stage before I got there. All bands need this kind of crowd fluffers to stand in front of the stage and interact both with the band and the audience, making people feel more at ease and willing to loosen up. All’s they needed was an applause sign…

* * *

Tonight at Slowdown, night two of Rilo Kiley. The line-up is the same as last night, with Nik Freitas and The Spinto Band opening, and also like last night, the show is sold out.

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