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CD review: Sturgill Simpson, ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’

Sturgill Simpson

Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

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Posted 7:18am on Wednesday, May. 14, 2014

Sturgill Simpson’s sophomore record is downright disorienting.

His voice — rich and rough, with a vivid twang telegraphing old-school country from miles away — is mixed into music that, on its face, sounds like prime Music City magic, but upon repeated listens, reveals itself to be something far more complex and odd, replete with peculiar flourishes (dig the trippy backmasking on It Ain’t All Flowers).

Even the title — Metamodern Sounds in Country Music — feels ripped from the ’70s, when country artists like Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons and Jessi Colter brazenly upended the Nashville formula, unafraid of getting weird or getting raw.

In that respect, Simpson’s fearless deep dive feels revolutionary in an era where Nashville’s focus is upon the slick and shallow.

The Kentucky native may not always make sense (the opening track is titled Turtles All the Way Down, and praises psychotropics: “Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin and DMT/They all changed the way I see,” Simpson sings), but he is making music that feels like it was conceived by a single person, rather than a committee of songwriters.

This 35-minute excursion often evokes the throwback likes of Jamey Johnson having ingested a small mountain of hallucinogenics.

Simpson exerts a strange power over the material: his cover of ’80s pop-rockers When in Rome’s The Promise feels like a spiritual successor to Harry Nilsson’s Without You and a lost Waylon Jennings B-side.

Metamodern was produced by Dave Cobb (overseer of Simpson’s slept-on 2013 debut, High Top Mountain). They recorded these 10 tracks live-to-tape in Nashville over a period of just four days, with Simpson’s touring band joining him in the studio.

The spirit of the good old days is felt most strongly in the too-brief A Little Light, which swings even as it uplifts. The penultimate It Ain’t All Flowers finds Simpson literally howling — and reminding listeners “sometimes you gotta feel the thorns” — against a wall of psychedelic, layered electric guitars that Carlos Santana would appreciate.

On paper, such stylistic chaos must seem like a hodgepodge of ideas working at odds.

But Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is anything but half-baked.

In fact, it’s a clarion call — a bizarrely exciting record designed to jolt country music fans out of their glossy rut.

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones

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