Saturday, June 11, 2011

Overlooked music: Willem Maker

UPDATE: Some added information re Maker's biography, and a discography at the bottom of the post.

[Note: We all have our lists of artists we think deserve more recognition than they appear to have. Here begins my list. It'll appear on occasion, as mood and opportunity strike.]

Willem Maker. Website here; (free downloadable) Daytrotter session here.

I briefly mentioned Willem Maker (born Wes Doggett) in my Best of 2010 Music list, but I didn't speak to my sense of his being Overlooked--and I should have. Consider this post a belated remedying of that oversight.

Actually, Maker may not remain Overlooked for much longer. In the course of looking around for links for this post, I learned that Maker received brief mention in this past Sunday's New York Times, in belated acknowledgement of Maker's album Agapao, released back in April. Ben Ratliff describes Maker's music as "sophisticated southern-rock trance music, composed with open-tuned guitar and boot heel, adjoining blues and country and heterophonic gospel music," and that is hard to improve upon.

But, this being the Internet, I'll elaborate anyway.

Maker's biography is a powerful one that gives added weight to his work. His career, in fact, very nearly came to an end just as it was beginning. As described in this article in No Depression, Maker and his brother's band had just recorded a single with alt-country star Jay Farrar (co-founder of Uncle Tupelo and, later, Son Volt) in the mid-'90s when Maker began exhibiting bipolar-like mood swings. Extensive testing revealed that he and the rest of his family had toxic levels of lead and mercury in their bodies: it turned out that their rent house in Georgia had been built on (and parts of it with) slag from the local copper refinery. The family then moved just over the state line to the somehow-apt Turkey Heaven Mountain in Ranburne, Alabama, where Maker still lives.

You don't have to know all that, though, to sense Maker's music's power. And it is powerful: This man is no whiner. At its heart is that trance-like quality Ratliff mentions. It owes something of its quality to the droning, proto-boogie style of north-Mississippi blues practiced by R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough (both also very much worth knowing, if you don't already), but its tempos are slower, giving Maker's songs a more expansive, starker quality. Think of the opening riff of Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks"--not just its rhythm but its overall mood--and that's something like the feel of Maker's songs.

But these songs wouldn't work if Maker had a crooner's voice, and fortunately, he doesn't. Imagine a rougher-voiced Bob Seger who isn't so much singing as declaiming rhythmically, and you'd have Maker's voice.

I said "declaiming." Maker's songs are more like visions (often foreboding) than stories. In some of them, lovers done each other wrong, but more often than not the speaker's concerns transcend the particulars of his world to include all of us. Maker sees, he doesn't like what he sees, but he's unafraid of what he sees. This isn't exactly lounge-by-the-pool, Southern good-timey music, but it's heady, heady stuff.

As an example of his work, click to play "Red as a Rose," from Maker's first album, the one-man-show Stars Fell On. This link is a freebie via Maker's record label, so download with impunity, if you're so inclined. Lyrics below:

Black road's busy
Toll's overflowin
Payin for a promise
It'll take care and save
Away from the danger
Away from the threat
Wolves for shepherds
Chains for charms

They say
It's all gonna be alright
But I don't believe em
And if they say
Its all gonna be alright
Don't you believe em
Don't you believe em

I came here for joy
I came here for love
I came here to open the darkest door
I say I'm a lover
That knows how to fight
For the precious, the dear and the quiet
that cries

No more to be so civilized
With teeth like fangs, eyes flashin knives
A hunger’s shift from led to lied
I pass the sheep for the shepherd’s hide
Gold’s illumination to hide the beast inside

I see a road
And it's red as a rose
I see a road
And it's red as a rose
Red as a rose
Red as a rose
Red as a rose


Stars Fell On (2008)

New Moon Hand (2009)

Agapao (2011) (presently available only via Maker's website)

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