The 15th solo album from long-time Austin iconoclast Walter Ehresman finds him casting a typically-wide net. Styles range from industrial rock/world music hybrid to post-punk art rock to experimental Waits-ian weirdness to poignant mountain music to scathing solo guitar protest song to complex acoustic guitar suite to post-rock piano singer-songwriter material. Lyrics cut to the bone about the state of the world, and the state of our hearts......with bits of winking humor along the way.
In the midst of preparations to relocate to Mexico in early 2015, Walter Ehresman stops to release "Blue-Eyed Devils" as a parting commentary on life in the US during these troubled times. Fans expect a wide variety of styles on albums by the long-time Austin rabble-rouser, and that's certainly the case here. As with all his releases, finding the right track order is vital to ensuring that the album has a narrative flow that avoids sounding like an unconnected mish-mash of songs. Luckily, "Blue-Eyed Devils" follows well in the footsteps of its predecessors in that regard. While the album is certainly a varied sonic journey, there is a logic to how each song flows into the next. By the end, you feel as if you've passed through some kind of intense rite of passage, emerging changed is ways that may take time to fully blossom in the mind.
Like all his solo albums, "Blue-Eyed Devils" features Ehresman largely in his one-man band mode, with just a few guest spots scattered throughout the album. Also producing and engineering the album, Ehresman made sure to create space and ambiance in the mix to avoid the songs sounding too antiseptic or digitally-claustrophobic.
The title track has a latter-day industrial Bowie vibe, with lyrics shining a piercing light on the cultural devastation overseas when US foreign policy is used as a mere vehicle to further the interests of giant corporations. The music illustrates the theme by alternating a myriad of world music instrumental vignettes with pulverizing electric guitar. Aside from some some of the wildest guitar yet heard from him, Ehresman shows tremendous versatility on instruments from all over the world.......from Middle Eastern oud to Turkish saz to Uzbecki rawap. The didgeridoo, tabla, and Tibetan singing bowl parts also work really well to create a musical reflection of the lyrics. Austinite Nigel Jacobs guests for small segments of throat-singing. It has to be said that this song is a 2X4 upside the head, and it will wear you out.
"A Big Day for the Lizards" is a song Ehresman says was written way back in '89 while watching George Bush Sr. get inaugurated, but which wasn't recorded until 2013. Quite the elephantine gestation period. The song has the quirky art-rock danceability of the augmented touring version (with Adrian Belew, Bernie Worrell, etc.) of The Talking Heads. Both these first two songs show Ehresman really expanding his electric guitar palette into new and exciting directions. NOTE: with the alternating images of right wing bad guys with gristly feeding scenes involving packs of Komodo Dragons, the YouTube video for this song is not for the squeamish.
The track "When You Turn (One Foot in the Elephant Dung)" has a clear Tom Waits influence as its stomping rhythms tell of a romantic partner whose love turns 180 degrees in the blink of an eye, never to flip back. There is an undercurrent of sadness and hurt beneath the raw testifying that imparts a vulnerability shielded by bravado. The list of instrumentation on the CD package is worth noting.....Ehresman is credited with "vocals, keyboards, acoustic guitars, guitar-back percussion, and flatulent canine plush toy."
At this point in the running order, up pops an unexpected piece of sublime, melancholy mountain music ("Now What?"), full of acoustic guitars, mandolins and fiddles and featuring a lovely duet with special guest Katie Shepherd. Lyrically, the song is a world-weary lament that ponders the very timely dilemma of how to be happy in one's life while keeping engaged with all the problems of the world. The plaintive, wistful vocals sing "I just want to be happy/but I don't want to be blind/it's so hard to dance forward/with this weigh on my mind." The song is firmly anchored by the electric bass work of guest Taj Estrada, along with long-time Ehresman cohort James Rader using brushes to play percussion on the album cover to BB King's iconic "Live at Cook County Jail." Nigel Jacobs provides plaintive fiddle. This is authentic roots music, with songwriting that's startling to come from the same pen as the aggressive title track.
The next track, "10 Cent Patriots," is a solo vocal/acoustic guitar number with no overdubs (except for a brief acoustic guitar solo), which is a sparse rarity in the lengthy Ehresman discography. To hear him tell it, "I had this title around for over a decade, and was paralyzed by choice in terms of coming up with suitable lyrics.....Finally, just this year, I sat down with it, found a handle into the subject matter by creating small character vignettes, and at that point the whole thing came together in about 15 minutes." This is a protest song in the classic tradition, alternating scathing social commentary with thumbnail sketches of rage-filled Tea Party fathers who protest abortion rights while terrorizing their own kids at home, and of subjugated housewives who meekly walk behind their husbands (as preached by insidious "Promiskeeper" Christian ideology) as they blindly support the forces that put them there while their innate human potential slowly leaks away.
"I wrote the song 'Holding Pattern' at the moment I decided to leave the ever rightward-shifting US and move to central Mexico," Ehresman tells us. The lyrics sing of a Zen-like jump toward Big Change as a route to a revival of the spirit, and the music features a wonderful 5-string electric violin solo from guest Nigel Jacobs, with a tasteful electric mandola part from Ehresman at the coda to bring the song home. A very satisfying waltz-time piece of music.
"Reduction" is really an acoustic guitar suite, with multiple discrete parts and recurring themes. Bowed bass, cello and string section parts interweave throughout, with a stunning, soaring middle section where the strings surge and a sublime eBow guitar solo brings out the chicken skin. Full of emotion and melancholy, this is really one of the most effective pieces Ehresman has ever recorded (check out the beautiful video for the song on YouTube). Largely instrumental, the brief lyrics sing of those very sad moments when you realize that that a long-term friendship has somehow ended without you even realizing its demise.
The album's final regular track is "A Ghost of Myself," with a tortured, subsonic intro leading into a heartbreaking piano ballad of self-doubt and despair. The singer's disconnect from his own heart and core is accentuated by the vocoder vocals, and an unexpectedly stately Steve Howe-ish electric guitar solo in the middle that seems to provide a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak, desolate landscape.
So as not to end the album on that type of note, Ehresman includes a quite-ridiculous bonus track called "Wayne's Lengthy Ablutions." As he writes in the CD liner notes: "This track was written about a guy I used to work with who spent an inordinate amount of time in the office bathroom fussily doing an inordinate number of things." Nothing more really needs to be said. Very silly indeed.
In some ways, the lyrics and music on the album display a winding up of themes that have dominated Ehresman compositions throughout the decades of his prolific career. As he recently stated, "As I leave the United States behind and move permanently to Mexico, I see myself writing a different kind of music down there......I'm going to stop reading and talking about politics, and focus more on the matters between people in inter-personal relationships....I've written enough protest songs about the corruption in the world's systems, and I've really pretty much said what I have to say on that.....but I know that there are boundless songs to be written about people and how they relate to each other , and I look forward to soaking in my new surroundings and then processing them into new music......music that I can't wait to share with everyone."
--solo albums: "Honor in the Swine?" ('89); "In the Path of the Cat Chasers" ('90); "Split Brain Theory" ('91); "The Blue Shoat Special" ('96); the spoken-word "The Rants" ('97); "Handwedge from the Trap" ('99); “Le Cafard“ (’01); "The Feral Rugby Team Must GO!" ('03); "No Unifying Theme" ('04); "March, Scream or Cry" ('07); "The ADG Project" ('07); "Monkey Paw Situation" ('09); “Well…..Let‘s Look at Your Track Record, Shall We?” (’10); “Life Outside the Tent“ (’12); and "Blue-Eyed Devils" ('14).
--with Snipe Hunt: "We'll Be Right Back!" ('99); "Dirty Ditties and Cover Tunes" ('00); and "I Saw the Future (But the Damn Train Hit Me Just the Same)" ('02).
--with Los Platos: “Oh, No” EP (’08).
--with Delphi Rising: “For Granted” (‘10)
--compilations (various artists):
(with Swine Patrol) “The Austin Cassette Compendium” (‘86)
(solo) "Monkey Boy Sampler" ('01, '05); and "Several Famous Orchestras" ('03).