BY JAMES M. DAVIS If you wanna play art rock and be the cool guitarist guy the first thing you need is a Fender Jaguar and a bunch of pedals. The second thing you have to do is decide which Fender Jaguar/Jazzmaster art-rock icon it is that you want to imitate. Most people go for J. Mascis or Thurston Moore. Who are we kidding, you’ll probably wind up doing Thurston Moore. However, I would only ask you to take a moment, look around you, and listen for a single word, breathed under one’s breath: americana. There is a confusing thing with hipness v. un-hipness of rockabilly and old country music. Is Carl Perkins cool? The question should feel kind of rancid in the mouth, like, ‘Is Hank Williams culturally relevant?’ The truth is, there is a strain of deep, dark American music which taps into a quality of timelessness that transcends fashion. Legend has it that Jeffrey Lee Pierce understood this, it came to him in a fever dream after over indulging in some East-African ibogaine: American authenticity can only be achieved through American music. He put down the bongos, and left his reggae career behind forever.
So it is perhaps odd that Rowland, an Australian, would come to such a similar realization. Especially after a career in, rather than reggae, german avant-garde sounding noise music with Nick Cave in The Birthday Party, before Nick Cave too found his americana muse. However, while Cave had the drama and the fire-and-brimstone bombast, the record sales, the adoring teenage fans, etc. Rowland was slinking around in the shadows, putting out records whose magic was subtle, in the timbre of the guitar playing and tinny out-of-tune piano, in Rowland’s own broken sounding singing voice. He recorded with a few bands after his time in The Birthday Party, he did a few albums with Lydia Lunch, a few albums with Crime and the City Solution and another two as These Immortal Souls, before disappearing for a while, only to return with his masterpiece Teenage Snuff Film.
It is the sound of someone who has cracked something they’ve been trying to do for years. The sound is effortlessly powerful, with Rowland’s guitar serving as the main vehicle for his uncompromising vision. There are very few truly innovative guitarists, but he truly invented a sound which has been mercilessly plundered since. He effortlessly marries squalling feedback-laden guitar with a country violin over Ennio Morricone melodies. It conjures images of an acid-damaged, supernatural wild west. And not only was he one of the best guitarists of his generation, but a brilliant lyricist as well. Smiling through your tears and your tetracycline overdose he sings on the album’s opener “Dead Radio” marking the best ever use of antibiotics in music. With the “indie-americana” thing taking such a spectacular nosedive, with Coleman Hell and Avicii moving millions of records by combining Mumford with EDM, not to mention the Mumford and Sons / Lumineers axis of evil, it is important to remember that it can be done well. There is an incorruptible goodness out there in the west. Rowland found it, Nick Cave found it, Jeffrey Lee Pierce found it. We need more people to find it.