AMERICAN GOTHIC - SLEEPING BAG STUDIOS - THE LUMINOUS JER - November 1, 2023
I tell ya folks…there are some things in this lifetime that your soul simply seems to be tied to, you know what I mean? I can’t remember the specific date that I first saw the legendary painting by Grant Wood called American Gothic for the first time, but I know I would have only been about seven years old when I’d come across a Garbage Pail Kids card called “Dick Hick” that parodied the classic contribution to art. I can’t say I know the first time I was shown the essential isolation-based Horror movie American Gothic starring Rod Steiger, but same thing…I was about seven years old when it was made and I can still vividly picture it in my mind like I just watched it yesterday. There’s even a good chance that I saw that movie after I’d already discovered the first attempt to make a series out of the concept of American Gothic, starring Gary Cole back in 1995, or more crucially, Jake Weber, and a young unknown Sarah Paulson, which became my favorite show immediately. This was all long before a fairly tame attempt at another series later on down the road almost two decades later that starred Virginia Madsen and Justin Chatwin of course…but I have the feeling you’re getting the point – American Gothic seems to have always been a part of me. Which is even stranger considering the fact that I’m Canadian. Go figure that one, eh?
Anyhow! I’m sure you see where this is going. One of my favorite artists currently out there in the indie scene, Stuart Pearson, is here to bring life full circle for me once again with his own take on American Gothic. This dude crushed it earlier in 2023, back in March with his album Mojave, which I had the pleasure of reviewing here on our pages – and heck, you might have even heard me ranting and raving about that album still, months later, not too long ago on the ol’ SBS Podcast. We’ve also checked out the advance single “The Devil Whammy” fairly recently in review as well…and word on the street is that we might even just maybe be kinda hopefully organizing one of our infamous video interviews with the man behind the music. That’s assuming I can ever get my shit together…keep your fingers crossed y’all.
Naturally, I would have thought it’d be extremely tough to out-do what has already been done. Given how much I attached myself to Mojave and have mentioned the name Stuart Pearson to everyone that’s been within earshot – I just assumed he’d have an extremely tough time competing with himself inside of the same year. Even in listening to “The Devil Whammy,” which I enjoyed, I was still convinced that the man would have a tough time keeping up to what he’d previously accomplished on Mojave. Then I heard “We Are The Falling Rain” for the first time and immediately felt like I’d be eating my words here. I know better than that. I shouldn’t have doubted this man for a single second. Hearing the sensational way that this new record begins with “We Are The Falling Rain” – lines like “we are the pot-holed road to your recovery” and the low, bass-heavy drawl of this mysterious dude, the animals in the background, the fiddle solo, the buzz of the fly at the very start of it all…everything quickly stacked up to a HUGE win. And that’s still having said nothing of the glorious stomping beat that pumps the heartbeat of track one! Or what about that kickass surge into the main hooks of the chorus and the gripping power it possesses? Stuart Pearson clearly came to play with his devilish charm on this brand-new record, and he makes that apparent from the second you push play. The confidence and conviction – the poetry – is outstanding!
Pearson has always been a clever, performance-minded artist as far as I’ve been able to tell – and you’ll hear that come to life through his pronunciation & the way he chooses to sing “Ticking Away.” That’s an aspect of his sound & style that should be fairly expected, given that he looks up to icons like Tom Waits, Nick Cave & such. Did Mark Lanegan make that list of his, I wonder? Seems like that dude would make it into his top ten somewhere…the similarities between Stuart and Mark can be freakishly uncanny at times. “Ticking Away” is a solid example of that apt comparison in action if you ask me. Anyhow. I’m not gonna be the guy that’s gonna try to claim I know exactly what each and every song he writes is about – but I’ll definitely be the guy to tell ya I love HOW he writes. The words he chooses, the imagery he creates with his lyricism, the way he bends his syllables to suit his artistic desires, his…wait a second – what in the all-hell was THAT? LISTEN to what happens on “Ticking Away” around the 2:40 mark will ya? More accurately, I can promise you this – if you’re listening, you couldn’t possibly miss it! The sound of this song gets straight-up WILD for a hot half-minute, and sends Stuart surging towards the finale of this second cut on American Gothic. It’s so over the top that it’s truly nothing short of purely magnificent. He already had secured a victory with the way the beat & poetry work from the very get-go in pushing play on “Ticking Away” – but to hear this song completely GO OFF after such an impressive building up of the tension, mystery, and drama…I’m tellin’ ya folks – I LIVE for moments like what you’ll hear at 2:40.
From what I can see online, “Where Are You?” was originally released back in early 2022. Stuart’s got music in his catalog online that dates back further, all the way to good ol’ Uncle Fuddy from back in 2015…but this track would be both post-Mojave and pre-American Gothic. In any event, “Where Are You?” seems very faithful to the original version, to the point where I’m not even too sure that many changes have been made to it, if any at all. What can be said? If you get something right, leave it be. Perhaps you can get it righter…that’s within the realm of possibility of course…or maybe there’s something else you wanna experiment with about your song, and if that’s the case, heckin’ do it! Songs can live many lives. Some lie dormant in waiting to find their rightful place in this world too…and I suspect that’s the case with the deadly bass-line driven call & answer cut we know as “Where Are You?” From what I’ve read, it was originally intended for an album that was going to be called Carnivals…but again, perhaps that wasn’t the right time, or maybe the plans changed – it’s mysterious combination of devilish vibes and angelic whispers fits perfect into this lineup of tunes on American Gothic, and the album is better strengthened for having it included for sure. Like…c’mon y’all…you can’t beat that warped merry-go-round sound you’ll find around the 2:00 mark.
And down the rabbit-hole we go. OK Google…tell me what the heck a “Lochinvar” is, will ya? Hmmm. I feel like Stuart probably wouldn’t be writing about a company that has been offering ‘hot water solutions since 1939’ – but mind you, that kind of inspiration could never really be ruled out for a guy like Pearson either…you never know what’ll attract his attention. So then, the next results lead me to Sir Walter Scott, who’s a writer from Scotland, back in the 1700/1800s…he wrote a poem that featured a character called “Lochinvar” – and while that seems like it’d be a closer fit for an explanation, I still don’t think I’m on the right trail. So we’re gonna have to conclude this is simply the artistic mind of Pearson at work, creating his own fictional tale of “Lochinvar,” which seems to be a place more than a person in his song here. I suppose I could simply look at the fully detailed notes he sent me along with the album in advance. Ahhh there it is! The explanation hath cometh! This story is actually seriously rad…it takes a twisted piece of family history, and turns it into a ghost story of sorts – check this out. “Lochinvar” is apparently about “Hunter’s ancestor who she found out last year owned a plantation during the civil war,” and how “the owner of the plantation went to fight for the Confederates (slave owners, like him) and left his favorite slave in charge of the plantation to protect his family and property. Instead of escaping, “Uncle Ebenezer,” as he was called, stayed and guarded the home.” As Pearson continues to explain the story of Uncle Ebenezer; “He died of an infection before the owner returned from war, and mourned the death of his friend/slave. The ghost still haunts the halls of the house to this day – Lochivar is the name of the plantation. Still there in Mississippi.” It’s got Hunter in the background, adding in the kind of vocals you’d find in a Lou Reed song – and the ever impressive combination of low-end heavy vocals & dusty poetry that Stuart is becoming synonymous with. I really dig the hooks we get in the “you dance in lantern light from frame to frame” moment, which will resurface later as “through stone and timber and blood and bone” – this is a really well-balanced cut that’s got significant allure to both its verse & chorus, sparing no quarter and showing no struggle in keeping your attention affixed to every second as you follow this unique tale. Bonus points for the backing vocals, not only from Hunter, but in the background of the chorus hooks you’ll find as well. “Lochinvar” is very cleverly conceived, and its mystery is executed to sheer perfection. Definitely one of the most interesting origin-stories of a song I’ve read in some time, even if I’m still a little bit sad about having had to rule out the possibility of “Lochinvar” being a song about offering ‘hot water solutions since 1939.‘ You win some, you lose some, as they say.
“That’s the hat you get after all this commotion!” It is? Fuck yeah it is! You ever find yourself caught on a line in a song that you could never explain, but seems to give you endless pleasure to listen to? That’s the line for me – you’ll find it in the ever-bizarre “Cropsey,” another wild concoction of the collaboration between Hunter & Stuart joining forces. So…hmm…look – obviously I’m gonna be real with ya and tell you that, comparatively to the rest, a track like “Cropsey” is clearly an acquired taste, and I’m not gonna be the guy to tell ya everyone has acquired it. I sure as hell have, but I’m a strange cat…and I don’t know if I’d even be comfortable telling anyone to be like me…but I am happy, each and every day if you find that relevant information. I find JOY in weirdness like “Cropsey” – and YES, I’d listen to something like this song regularly without hesitation. I ain’t just gonna hear this on the record when I spin it – I’ll actively seek songs like “Cropsey” out, because there is ART in this here weirdness, you feel me? “You ain’t no farmer – look at these beans!” is another line that’s equally as awesome as the first one I cited from “Cropsey,” and I can promise ya that you’ll find a few more of your own as you listen. Lowry does a remarkable job with the background vocals, and it’s almost funny considering that she’s so reliable in her main part, which is probably considered the chorus of “Cropsey” – yet it’ll probably be like, the tenth thing you might notice about this song. From the odd composition of the music to the voices rambling throughout the background, to its inherent uniqueness & artistic license…”Cropsey” is one serious trip.
You want some chills down your spine? Try “The Abandoned Carousel” with Hunter leading the way. From the moment she sang “but we know that it’s happening again,” I was like, ‘OH DAMN, we’re on that twisted shit here for real y’all…buckle the fuck on up!’ And while I’m clearly a lot more crass and crude than these two crafted songwriters are throughout the course of this album, I’ve never said I was GOOD at what I do, I just do it anyway. Look at this though…look at what Hunter is capable of with her own poetry – “The merry-go-round horses snort in paralyzed defeat/their hooves forever pinned to metal ground/but we know that you better beat a hasty retreat/if you ever see those horses come unbound.” That’s genius-level awesome dear readers, dear friends…I can completely understand why these two keep on hangin’ out with each other so willingly throughout the years. Musically, “The Abandoned Carousel” goes from its delicate music-box vibes at the beginning, to an unbridled creativity that gets unleashed on ya as the story progresses. Hunter is a proven force in this songwriting pair – she co-wrote one of my all-time favorites on Mojave called “One Cut” too…every time Lowry’s involved, I feel like she brings an extra dimension of depth, art, and poetry into the mix that really complements Pearson’s vibe. Hence you get songs like “The Abandoned Carousel” where Stuart gives Hunter the opportunity to take the reins on his album…it speaks volumes on behalf of the trust, respect, and admiration they share for each other. It’s a killer song that’s like part nursery rhyme, part fairy tale in the style of Brothers Grimm.
If you weren’t turning up “The Devil Whammy” over the past twenty-four hours, do you even Halloween bro? Stuart was out there heavily promoting this track right up to the dawn of Samhain, and now I’d reckon he’ll shift his attention to American Gothic’s upcoming release. In any event, you can find my original thoughts on this freakout jam in review by clicking here and know I most certainly still feel the same way as I always do. I put grooves in mp3s y’all…and I don’t comment on music until I’m sure I can stand behind every goddamn word I write! Here’s a fun fact for you though – you can actually find “The Devil Whammy” out there EN FRANCAIS as well, as “Le Devil Whammy,” which features Isa Pill from the band Les Manteez as a guest star. This is what I was talkin’ about earlier on about how music or a song can go on to live multiple lives – Isa puts in the kind of performance that makes a difference – très bien!
For a second there, I almost thought Pearson was about to cover “Black Velvet” by Alannah Myles – which would have been a very Canadian twist on American Gothic, now wouldn’t it? As it turns out, it was a song called “We’ll Meet Again” instead…and hey, it’s pretty good too! I don’t know that I felt like it was the most essential cut in the lineup overall, but I certainly ain’t hatin’ on it either. It’s probably fair to say it’s more of a formulaic style of writing that has Stuart saying you’re this and he’s that through a series of poetic comparisons…but I dig the imagery and the words he’s using like I always do. I think for myself personally, it ended up being everything else that surrounded his voice & the bass that stood out to me the most as the real highlights of this song…there are some seriously outstanding atmospheric elements in this tune that give it wild sonic textures, and I dig that kinda stuff for sure. All-in-all, there’s more of a controlled vibe goin’ on in “We’ll Meet Again” that I wouldn’t go so far as to say is predictable, but perhaps more ‘normal’ (if you will) by comparison to the bizarre oddities we tend to find Pearson’s music. Nothing wrong with that of course…in fact, there are many aspects of how a song like “We’ll Meet Again” actually make it a candidate for one of the record’s most universally accessible tracks when it comes right down to it…and whenever you stumble into something like that, it could end up a single.
Case in-point, “Runaway Girl” instantly sounds like a Bond theme that has been left out in the sun and has already half-melted…and I’m freakin’ HERE FOR IT! It makes you think about who the anti-Bond is – and that’d be Tarrantino, wouldn’t it? Someone get Quentin on the phone and tell him we’ve just found the song he needs for the soundtrack of whatever he’s cookin’ up next! What’s that you say? I don’t have Quentin’s number and he assuredly wouldn’t answer the likes of me even if I did? Fair enough. Anyhow. You’ll get what I mean when you listen to it for yourself…tracks like “Runaway Girl” are vivid to the point where you can see them in your mind on a cinematic level. For example – “The sky paints charcoal swirls of gray where rays of light withdrew/I bid a hello to the runaway girl/”And I to you.” I AM NOT WORTHY, says the writer of this review in a very Wayne’s World-esque bow to the master before him. I tell ya folks…Stuart’s such a gifted writer and visionary artist that it’s nothing but inspiring. I feel like “Runaway Girl” is one of the real unsung heroes of this record’s lineup…it seems like quite an understated track when it comes to its energy, but its impact is freakin’ MIGHTY. Definitely one of my favorite performances from Stuart in the lead…love the whispered echoes from Hunter…and you can practically feel the rubber on the road and the slick rain hitting the windshield as you listen to this track.
As far as I’ve read and researched, “3 Feet From A Vein” was also originally released as a single back in 2022. The title makes me think about the time my wife and I had to get our blood tested to get life insurance about a decade or so ago, and they must have stabbed her about fifty times trying to find the source of her red essence. “3 Feet From A Vein,” they most surely were – you’d have thought it was their first day on the freakin’ job, and my wife was as pale as a ghost by the end of it all. She’d make a terrible heroin junkie, but I guess that’s her loss! Anyhow. There’s good rhythm and groove to this tune, and I feel like that’ll translate pretty quickly to the listening ears out there. With music comprised mainly of a beat & a banjo, I think Stuart’s got something solid with “3 Feet From A Vein” that feels fresh for him. Quite the fireworks in the finale of this tune as well. Hunter co-wrote this tune, but the vocals at the end of this track actually come from a bunch of different audio clips that Stuart mixed into a concoction of audible awesomeness for you to enjoy. What I love about both Pearson and Lowry, on this tune and on the rest, is that they have the real confidence it takes to go after every unique idea they have with commitment & conviction – it’s the kind of professionalism in the approach that completely makes the difference in the end. It’s what gives each and every song they write & create a true puncher’s chance at reaching the ears on your beautiful faces.
As I came around to “One Old Coyote” at the very end of American Gothic, I had to crack a smile as I pondered whether or not I did end up liking this album even more than I liked Mojave, which I loved – and you know something? I just might! The reality is, it’s practically unfair to ever compare art against other art…and yes, I know that’s what us critics do, but sometimes we just gotta recognize the fact that there’s always room for more of a good thing, and that two good things can be twice as nice. “One Old Coyote” was a solid, low-key, acoustic-based ending that provided a clever conclusion to this record – it’s satisfying to say the least…heck, it might even be a love song of sorts, you dig? It’s beautiful when it comes right down to it…and listen to those harmonics and backing vocals in this tune will ya? I’m tellin’ ya – there are some extraordinary elements at the heart of “One Old Coyote” and there’s a real good chance that over time, this might even end up being one of the songs that continually keeps me coming back to American Gothic. It’s an unexpected, but very welcome final twist to the sounds & songs you’ll find on this record, and another glimpse into how Stuart Pearson morphs himself as an artist to suit the material & what the moment is calling for. It’s a subtle stunner without a doubt…evocate, thought-provoking, endearing, and undeniably sincere…”One Old Coyote” brings out some of the best you’ve heard from the man. It’s not like we’ve been on short supply either! American Gothic is filled with a lineup of songs you don’t wanna miss out on, and he’s saved one of its best songs for the very end.