Alt-country often cultivates an unworldliness that does an injustice to the complexity of the music’s roots. While it’s true that country, blues and bluegrass have their spiritual side, alt-country can trade lyrical and musical specificity for vague representations of a world that never existed, except on old records.
Amy LaVere’s debut, This World Is Not My Home, avoids this vagueness in ways that suggest we’re living in the post-alt era. Recorded in Memphis with a cast of supporting players that includes former Squirrel Nut Zippers guitarist Jimbo Mathus and pianist Jim Dickinson, it’s not a total success. But at its best, This World operates in a time-honored Memphis tradition, confounding categories and working readymade forms for all they’re worth.
Born in Shreveport and raised in locales ranging from northwestern Louisiana to Detroit, LaVere grew up listening to Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton. In Detroit, she began singing in punk bands, and in 1996 relocated to Nashville, where she learned to play upright bass from Jason Brown, the bassist in Hank Williams III’s band.
Performing with guitarist Gabe Kudela as The Gabe & Amy Show, LaVere began playing slap-style bass in earnest. In the late ’90s, the duo moved to Memphis, where LaVere honed her songwriting and developed a live show that incorporated both her own material and songs by Koko Taylor and Carla Thomas. Always as interested in blues, soul and rockabilly as in country, she found the edgy Memphis scene congenial.
This World Is Not My Home reflects LaVere’s evolution. Produced by Paul Taylor, a superb multi-instrumentalist who played bass with Cody and Luther Dickinson in DDT, their pre-North Mississippi All Stars group, the record combines honky blues, 1950s-style country music, Southern-Gothic folk-rock and flashes of down-home wit.
LaVere’s soul-inflected voice is naive and worldly, with an attractive grain. Her bass playing, while not virtuosic, solidly grounds the music and provides a warmth that is complemented by Taylor’s understated production, which employs a limited palette (guitars and pedal steel) enlivened by touches of accordion, piano, mandolin and Mellotron.
This approach is most effective on Jimbo Mathus’ “Nightingale,” where Forrest Parker’s pedal steel and Taylor’s guitars create a pillowy cloud of implied harmonics over a bed of minimal percussion. It’s a gorgeous bit of production whose musicality complements a beautifully simple piece of songwriting.
LaVere’s “Day Like Any” uses Mathus’ scaly Marc Ribot-like guitar lines in a snaky, sexy performance that recalls Tom Waits’ occluded soundscapes. It’s perhaps a better recording than a piece of songwriting, although LaVere’s lyrics show savvy: “It was a day like any day / The sun came on, but didn’t stay.”
Where LaVere really hits her stride as a songwriter is on “Never Been Sadder.” Set to a cantering shuffle, lyrics like, “But the soap I tried to make / It wouldn’t wash away / This dirty feeling like I made a big mistake,” are canny and droll. Similarly, Taylor’s “Innocent Girl” fleshes out LaVere’s persona: “I’m no longer an innocent girl / I’ve had my taste of this tasteless world.”
Elsewhere, Tommy Hull’s “Take ’Em or Leave ’Em” bears comparison to something off the Sir Douglas Quintet’s Together After Five. “We Went Sailing” suggests that LaVere has a talent for combining the commonplaces of country music with a feel for the mythic when she sings, “I slipped into the water / And floated down to the bottom.”
So, while This World doesn’t contain quite enough first-rate songwriting, and its country pastiches come across as a bit complacent, it demonstrates that post-alt-country can be both barbed and romantic. Its placid surface conceals considerable complexity, and who could ask much more of the world than that?