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Reviewing the Neighbors: "Tiny Pilot" by Michael Perry and the Long Beds

Post by Ben Roovers on 3/10/2010 1:15pm

Tiny Pilot

Those who have heard Michael Perry do interviews may not jump at a chance to hear him sing. It would be easy to assume that the deep, gravelly voice they hear on the radio or television would not easily translate into something you’d want to hear over twangy guitar tracks. That being said, those who have read any of his books would most likely be eager to consume some words of his that aren’t put down on paper.

To those who have done both: take your pick. But have no fear! Perry’s prose can be found in abundance on Tiny Pilot, the second full-length album created by himself and his band The Long Beds, and the musical prowess shown by the group (including the vocals) is nothing to scoff at.

It is a promising sign that the band was chosen by Eau Claire native Kyle Frenette to release the album on his fast-rising Amble Down Records, the same that has signed such notables as The Daredevil Christopher Wright, We Are The Willows, and the late Wars of 1812. It is also fitting that Perry’s music would be released on a label located in northern Wisconsin, the same place from which he has drawn inspiration for his writing. As may be expected, the same characters (or at least some version of them) can be found in his songs as well. These are the quirky, idiosyncratic, and sometimes tragic characters of the Northwoods.

One thing that readers of Mr. Perry may be surprised at is the lack of the zingy one-liners that pepper the pages of his writing. The songs on Tiny Pilot are full of the same country scenes and many of them tell a tale, each verse serving as a different piece of the story. The opening track “Alice Mayhew Jackson” begins with crisp notes from a lonely acoustic guitar, which is then joined by a bass and Perry’s vocals as he sings about the song’s namesake and her struggles, and eventual triumph over an abusive husband. The subject matter may be slightly overdone, but Perry’s prose has no trouble overcoming it. The dialogue and imagery that the song provides, as well as an appealing classic yet contemporary country sound, more than make up for a tired theme.

The band takes its turn at western swing on “Undone.” The guitar sounds like something you’d hear on a Commander Cody album, and Perry gets to show off his vocal skills during the final chorus as he belts his ode to independence: “Oh Bless my soul I’ve come undone / I’m like a mad dog on the run / I pick a star and watch it shine, shine, shine / You follow yours and I’ll follow mine.” In contrast to the opening track, “Undone” relies more on the musical skills of the group than Perry’s lyrics, and it’s encouraging to find that even without a narrative the group can create memorable tracks.

The album continues to make an impression from front to back, each song adding its own piece to the eclectic mix. “Somewhere South of Sunday” revolves around the banjo and incorporates full, sweet harmonies that give it more of a bluegrass feel while still retaining the nostalgic sensitivities of small town life. “Everclear” has a similar feel, and provides Rockwellesque images with lines like “Fifteen below and the oak trees are cracking.” The title track slows things down considerably, providing a nice contrast to the rest of the album while the listener hangs on every word.

Taken as a whole, the album’s message is the same that can be found in Perry’s books: While life may get you down at times, everything is just fine. When wrapped in the package of humble, rural beginnings and an “aw shucks” attitude, it comes off as endearing and light hearted where it easily could have slipped into a caricature of the brooding, depressed country songs of days gone by. When Perry pairs his natural lyrical abilities with a band that matches him note for note in the music department, the product is a balanced, accessible album that’s as enjoyable as a sweaty glass of lemonade on a July afternoon in Wisconsin.

Ben was born in Madison and grew up in the Fox Valley. He moved back to Madison in 2003 and will be starting law school at Marquette in the fall. His writing for Dane 101 consists mainly of concert and album reviews.