Today, the Uncut Music Award judges ruminate on the power of Josh T Pearson‘s debut solo album, “Last Of The Country Gentlemen”.
Allan Jones: This has all the hallmarks of his former band Lift To Experience, it’s basically acoustic guitar, some string flourishes, a little Appalachian fiddle. Most of the songs come in at around 10 minutes, so for a mainstream audience it’s perhaps very demanding. For me, it’s one of the most gripping records of the year, one that I’ve returned to perhaps more than others on the list.
Stewart Lee: I didn’t know Lift To Experience or much about the backstory, so I came to this record clean without any preconceptions. The bad thing about it is that the lyrics are quite silly – and it’s not helped by the fact that you can read them clearly. I couldn’t really work out if he was in character, but if he is it’s a fairly clichéd character. But I think it’s really bold, the minimal instrumentation, the length of songs, the fact that it takes you time to get into them. If they pop up at random on your iPod you have to stop what you’re doing, they’ve got this atmosphere about them that stops everything else.
I think, in a way, it’s a bit like an excessive version of those strange auteurs who’ve been around for ages, like Jandek. But I think it has an amazing sparseness, and a confidence in not trying to augment the sound in any way. I also like the fact that stuff happens with the guitar playing, there are suddenly breaks in the pattern of the song where he’ll go off and do some sort of instrumentation that doesn’t seem to fit with what’s gone before. I think it’s really good, it was great to come across it without having any preconceptions.
Nick Stewart: I did know about Lift To Experience, I played them a lot on my radio show, but this couldn’t be more different. You get drawn into this extraordinary experience. The songs are long, some of them are close to complete indulgence. When you think about the PJ Harvey album and its songs of two minutes and 30 seconds that condense so much, the flipside is this man sprawling himself to 12 minutes in some cases. But there is something quite fascinating about it, and it’s a record I’ll want to go back to again soon. If you think about Tim Buckley and those artists signed to Vanguard or Elektra all those years ago, he’s somewhere in there but at the same time he’s not. Is he Randy Newman? No, he’s not Randy Neman either, but he does fit into that field of American auteur observer. It’s intensely personal, it doesn’t look out very much – at least Bill Callahan is looking out, as is Bon Iver.
Stewart Lee: What I’d also like to say about this album, in common with the PJ Harvey record, is what’s really good about them is that they’re both on the edge of being ridiculous at times. I think it’s really great to see someone not trying to be cool. It’s on the edge of absurd, you can almost laugh at the joy of the risk of it.
Allan Jones: I think one of the aspects of it that hasn’t been too widely remarked upon is the level of pitch-black humour in it. He does take it to the edge of caricature.
Nick Stewart: I agree with Stewart; this is right on the edge, PJ is right on the edge.
Mark Cooper: When you see Josh live, as I did at the appropriately-named Slaughtered Lamb, the perfect venue to see him, he actually talked more than he sang. He was a stand-up comic, he was hilarious. I think there’s a way of looking at this record as a stand-up comedy record, I really think you could go that far with it. I think it’s just as dramatic as Polly’s record, you could say it’s a record about self-pity, self-mortification, blaming the woman, all the things that happen in straight country music. He’s interrogated all that in a very post-modern way, and then made a very self-indulgent but also rational record. I think it’s very funny, although all I heard initially was the tragedy of it. But there’s often a lot of comedy in tragedy, and there’s a lot of laughs in this record. That might be a weird thing to say when he’s wallowing away for 10 minutes, but I think he knows exactly what he’s doing. I think, as much as PJ has, he’s created a kind of character.
Allan Jones: I saw him at The Great Escape in Brighton, and my first reaction to it was that was like a stand-up routine, with the songs interspersing these increasingly weird monologues.
Mark Cooper: I love the idea that there he is in Texas, really caught up in the religiosity of that culture, and as an artist he transposes that into a high-wire act, it’s really impressive. He’s an original.
Phil Manzanera: Not knowing anything about him before, and not having seen him live, I just didn’t get it. I just thought it sounded incredibly doomy, and it just didn’t do anything for me at all. Maybe because I didn’t know about this other side of it, I didn’t think Americans did irony. I just heard it as this guy who seems to be into religion, but also the feeling that he was just making it up as he went along, as if the reason why the tracks were so long was that he was just stoned in the studio. If that’s not the case, and all this is done on purpose, then I’ll have to listen to it again in a different way.
Mark Cooper: Yeah, it is so close to something that could be so awful or, like Stewart said, ridiculous. It does suck you in, though, it stops you in your tracks. Leonard Cohen is a good comparison, because he’s funny in the way that Leonard is.
Phil Manzanera: Maybe it would make more sense to me if I’d seen him live.
Mark Cooper: Yeah, I think live you’re able to get it more easily, it’s not quite as pious as it may seem on the surface.
Stewart Lee: I do feel it’s one of the records on this list that you can go back to, I feel there’s always more to get out of it. It’s a thing that can keep on giving, whereas a lot of the other records, you get to the end of them and you feel they’re a closed book.
Tony Wadsworth: I’m more on Phil’s path, the light bulb didn’t quite click for me. I liked it when he brought a bit more colour into it, like the track “Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ”, there was a shaft of light. I didn’t really want to wallow for that long in this misery. I like miserable records, don’t get me wrong, but I like them to be a bit more structured. Something like Neil Young’s On The Beach is such an amazingly bleak record, but it’s fantastic.
Allan Jones: I think that’s funny as well…
Tony Wadsworth: …Leonard Cohen has that as well, but it’s much more disciplined. I dunno, maybe self-indulgence is a good thing sometimes. I get what Stewart said about being stopped in your tracks when something pops up on shuffle on the iPod, but do you really want to listen to a whole album like that?
Stewart Lee: Well…, yeah. But I wouldn’t want to inflict it on people.
Mark Cooper: It’s not a social record, is it?
Stewart Lee: No, it’s not a very social record, it’s something you’d probably end up having quite a hostile relationship with. A lot of this isn’t the sort of stuff I would normally listen to, and I was struck, having not listened to 25 modern rock records in a row for a while, that we’ve reached a sort of saturation point in production, where it’s quite hard to hear through things to what’s going on. In a way, that thing of low-fi about 15 years ago when you make it deliberately a mess is also a kind of cliché.
I knew a guy who was remastering things for the Smithsonian Institute, he was taking all the crackles off old Robert Johnson records but then asked to hold on to them so that someone could put them on to a Chris Rea record. But this album is not guilty of either of those things; it’s not produced to the point of, say, Fleet Foxes being trapped in their own architecture, but it isn’t self-consciously scruffy either.
Linda Thompson: Josh is somebody who’s over-pathologised his sadness, to the point where he’s seen how risible it is, and I think that’s fantastic. What a lot of people might think is ill-discipline is just free verse, free association. I like it.
Phil Manzanera: But in that free verse has he actually said anything that’s illuminating?
Mark Cooper: I think the way he shifts the voices, he shifts his attitude to his self-pity is dramatic. It may appear to be wallowing, but there’s a drama to it. I’m not trying to say that it’s not meaningful, but it is artful.
Linda Thompson: I don’t think he means it to be particularly ironic.
Nick Stewart: I think he’s a poet, he’s interesting. I wish more records were made like this.