So, what happens when two of our favourite Italian Americana artists, Edward Abbiati and Stiv Cantarelli, find themselves at a bit of a loose end? Well, they form a band, The ACC (The Abbiati Cantarelli Conspiracy), get a tough rhythm section in and, bada bing!, record a magnificent set of scuzzy rock songs which owe as much to Husker Du, Gun Club and The Stooges as they do to Neil Young and Crazy Horse. They’re aided and abetted in this endeavour by ex Green On Red keyboard player, Chris Cacavas, and lap steel player Mike “Slo Mo” Brenner, familiar to many from his playing with Marah, and the result is a grand holy mess, a churning broth of snarling vocals, wicked slippery guitars and muddy rhythms. As they sing on I Want You To Like Me, “Turn the music up, I want to freeze my brain.”
It’s not an album for the faint hearted especially as it’s best appreciated cranked up to 11 on the stereo and even then there’s a sense of, “Jeez, what would this sound like live?” but it’s not just noise as Abbiati and Cantarelli root the songs with melodious undercurrents and memorable choruses even as the guitars churn and boil in their cauldron, creating a mix of blues, hard rock, alt country and post punk grungy squalls. The opening Dog Beat The Devil snarls with slide guitar as they run pell mell through the song before the sludge like intro to the title song looms into earshot. With ominous organ work from Cacavas it’s like Crazy Horse battling Green On Red with the end result a draw while Richard Hunter’s harmonica work here adds a fly blown texture to the song. There’s a whiff of that so called “desert rock” in the twangy guitar reveries of Never Gave Up which sounds as if it was born out of Giant Sand’s Valley Of Rain album while Saturday Night is like a rumble in a juke joint which has R L Burnside playing on the jukebox as the guitars here flash and twist like switchblades.
They rumble on with I Want You To Like Me an evil sounding Stones’ like kick in the head, Crab Tree alternating between Flamin’Groovies like slide guitar and stoned harmony choruses, and delve into a nightmare world of drunken mayhem on the woozy Life’s Calling. The ace in the deck however is the final song, Old Satan Revisited. Based on an unreleased Townes Van Zandt demo recording, the words certainly have the familiar Van Zandt themes but the band go at it like hounds from hell. Magnificent.
Over the past few years Blabber’n’Smoke has grown to expect great things from Lowlands. An Italian based band they’ve steadily built up a fine reputation with 2012’s Beyond an excellent Springsteen type album while main man Edward Abbiati delivered a tremendous collaboration with Chris Cacavas earlier this year on Me And The Devil. Love etc. finds Abbiati and the band in a more reflective mood as they ponder on those old perennials, love and loss, a mood influenced by Abbiati’s personal circumstances but, as has happened elsewhere, leading to a peak in the artistic process.
It seems that following on from some emotional knocks Abbiati wrote the title song, an attempt to dump the ballast and resurface and then built the album around this resurrecting songs he had written previously that fit into the theme of loss, bereavement and abandonment. Initially the album was acoustic but a live show with a horn section led to several of the songs being recorded in a single session with the band augmented by the horns. The end result is an album that recalls the loose limbed approach of The Basement Tapes as the band spin woozily throughout the songs with spiralling steel guitars, wheezy harmonica and parped trumpet and trombone fleshing out the sound. While some of the music portrays a sombre mood as on the cello clad You And I and the stripped down Can’t Face The Distance the majority of the album is like an exorcism of bad times as the songs sway and swing with abandonment and the horns are used to flesh out regret or joy.
The opening song, How Many, sets the scene perfectly as the band, curled lap steel and all are enveloped by the horn section who evoke an old fashioned and faded grandeur. This is intensified in the following title song as the horns sound like the Salvation Army and Abbiati swings like a New York troubadour in the seventies with wisps of Tom Waits and even Billy Joel sneaking in. I Wanna Be continues in this vein with Abbiati singing “I walk the streets at night/Try to find me a little light/I learn me a Dylan tune/Then I howl it to the moon.” As he sings this a clarinet homes in recalling Gershwin’s NY threnody creating a bit of a chill. You, Me, The Sky & The Sun uses the horns to create a devil may care attitude, a woozy stagger that is revisited on Happy Anniversary. The happy go lucky country jaunt of Wave Me Goodbye and the joyous trot that is My Baby lift the mood of the album suggesting that despite the clouds there’s some sunshine in Abbiati’s mind.
Overall Love etc. isn’t a gloomy album. There are moments that soar and tear at the emotions but at times there’s a tremendous ramshackle buoyancy about it, no more so than on the excellent Doing Time which sashays along with a winning swagger. There’s even a hint of the late sixties Dylan honey voice on Still I Wonder while the tender Goodbye, Goodnight , with only guitar, voice and accordion serves as an excellent sign off. Almost a lullaby in style it says goodbye to the past with some affection. Above all, it’s a warm, enveloping comfort blanket of an album, one to be savoured. And in case the above is somewhat long winded Chris Cacavas pretty much sums it up on Lowland’s website where he says “This album is fucking good. The best Lowlands yet?”
This album is somewhat of a summit meeting of two (plus two) of the most interesting characters in Americana music today. Chris Cacavas is of course the keyboard player for the troubled troupe that was Green On Red way back in the eighties before releasing a series of essential recordings with his band Junkyard Love. Edward Abbiati is the UK born leader of Italian Americana band Lowlands who have intrigued since their first release, The Last Call, in 2008 with the essence of Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie and Richmond Fontaine in their DNA. Cacavas guested on Lowlands’ debut album and last year he travelled from his current domicile in Germany to North Italy to record Me And The Devil with Abiatti picking up a crack rhythm section along the way, Winston Watson on drums, one of Dylan’s Never Ending Tour stalwarts (as well as past duties with Giant Sand and Warren Zevon) along with Mike “Slo Mo” Brenner, a multi instrumentalist who has played with Marah and Jason Molina who carries out bass and lap steel duties here. Cacavas and Abbiati huddled together and wrote the songs which the band then recorded in a two day burst in a barn close to Abiatti’s hometown of Pavia.
The end result of this “barnstorming” stream of consciousness approach to the record is surprisingly good given that it had all the elements present that could have resulted in an aural equivalent of an essay on “what we did on our holidays.” Instead the ten songs here are all robust with the band firing on all cylinders (with additional input on tenor Sax, cello and harmonica on some cuts) with at least one of the numbers achieving epic status. They open with the rumbling blues of Against The Wall, bass thumping and organ and harp (Richard Hunter) wailing while tenor Sax (Andres Villan) parps away. Like a Native American war dance sung by Morphine this is best experienced cranked up to full volume as the slab of sound hits in the chest and heart. A terrific opener. A chunky guitar rips into the introduction of the title song, a classic heat blasted slice of American music with a sludge like bottom topped by harmonica acrobatics from Hunter and a fierce guitar solo from another guest musician, Stefan Roller. Oh Baby, Please has Cacavas let loose on the organ while the sax drives a sixties garage punk riff that snarls with a pout not heard or seen since The Fleshtones, a song waiting to be discovered by hipsters on dance floors all over Tarantino land, again, play loud and just surrender to the dumb beat.
The Week Song is unfortunately titled as it palls in comparison to its predecessors but the opening chords of Hay Into Gold with a cello abetting the powerful bass and drum highway drive take us back into a dark Americana underbelly, lanced by shards of lap steel as the song creeps along in a disturbing stalking fashion. Long Dark Sky maintains this haunting, even threatening menace. Although it opens with a mighty mid sixties Who like thrash it soon unravels into a neon lit David Lynch nightmare lyrically while at the end the band bring it back to The Who with a mischievous morse code guitar stutter and thrashing Moon like drums. Can’t Wake Up is another dark tale with an acoustic slide driven push but The Other Side then sails into sight, towering above its compadres. Harking back to Cacavas’ early albums it employs a Neil Young slow burn as the guitars roil and boil churning up a menacing stew with Watson’s cymbals crashing away while the song ebbs and flows in magnificent fashion. The only complaint here is that it ends far too soon. I’ll See Ya in comparison is understated. Acoustic and tender it affords a ray of light in comparison to the devilish mayhem that precedes it while the closing song, Rest Of My Life, is another plea, plaintive this time, to be released from the shackles of the heart and given an uplifting feel with some winsome lap steel.
Overall Me And The Devil is a cracking album while the excellent cover art by Deborah Maggioncalda adds to the attraction. Very highly recommended.