The year was 1993 and Alan Williams had just reached what most musicians only dream of achieving when his band Knots and Crosses (along with his then wife and bandmate) signed to Island Records.
Then in 1994, it all came crashing down.
After getting lost in the fray when Chris Blackwell sold Island Records to Polygram, the band was dropped, they decided to call it quits (canceling their slated appearance at The Newport Folk Festival), and his marriage dissolved. To put into words what he was feeling, Williams assembled a group of friends and headed to the Portland Performing Arts Center in Maine to record Evidence a collection of twelve tracks he wrote in response to all of the upheaval. But after sending out promotional copies and despite getting positive reviews in the local Boston press, Williams lost faith in the project and shelved the album. For more than two decades, he hauled a thousand CDs (which he still has today) from apartment to apartment as some kind of penitence for having such musical aspirations.
Fast forward to today, the stunted release of his 1995 album quietly gnawed at him so he dusted it off, gave it a good listen, and to his surprise, the songs held up, and the contributions of his fellow musicians were unquestionably strong but the one flaw, in his mind, was his vocal performance. Incorporating all that he had learned in his time as a freelance engineer and producer, as well as his work with current band Birdsong At Morning, a solution emerged, redo the vocals, rework some arrangement ideas, remix the whole thing, then finally release it.
A study in contrasts, Evidence Unearthed (Blue Gentian Records) out August 28, 2020 digitally and on CD/Blu-Ray (pre-order HERE), pushes the elements familiar to fans of Birdsong to wider extremes – louder and softer, more complex yet comfortable in simplicity. Now this album that both reclaims the past and points to future directions, has been resurrected
TELL ALL THE WORLD
This is one of several “divorce” songs on the album – nothing more cathartic that getting to wail on the word “lies” while your friends commence to pound out the power chord pulse all around you. From today’s vantage point, it’s clear that the end of my marriage to Carol as we were in the midst of recording the second Knots and Crosses album, and the end of seven years of creative effort/struggle/poverty had left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Growing up in the American south, I was initially unaware, then absolutely consciously aware of the lingering histories of racial strife that is central to that region’s (and frankly to the entire nation’s) cultural identity. I also grew up in a family of storytellers. Some of these tales placed my family on the heroic side of history; some did not. This song is about living with all of those histories, even those closer to myth than truth. This song was once part of an entire concept album involving a night spent quaking in my car after removing a number of business cards left by the local KKK chapter in an interstate rest stop bathroom, recollecting various moments in my life where the lines between black and white, good and evil were crossed. That album never made it beyond a few cassettes given to the folks that helped me put it together, but this song seemed worthy of bringing back to life in 1995 and may still be worth a listen 25 years later.
A well-worn trope about the desire to escape a small town and the ponderous weight of fate that hovers in the air. Anniston is named for a small city in Alabama and tells its story from the perspective of a narrator whose dreams of escaping it seem as doomed to evaporate as the smoke from the train engines pulling out of town. The energetic drive of the track exhibits one of the benefits of the album’s long-delayed release as I reconsidered the original arrangement, replacing key guitar parts to provide a more muscular, more aggressive tone that better serves the feeling of frustrated rebellion at the heart of the story. The song title was inspired by Uncle Tupelo’s “Chickamauga,” I thought I would write a song located on a Civil War battlefield. As the song emerged from the usual nonsense syllables that eventually coalesce into lyrics, I settled on “Antietam” as the word that perfectly suited the subject. The problem was – I didn’t know how to correctly pronounce it. I soon discovered the error of my ways, and after struggling to sing the title with the correct pronunciation, I decided to relocate the song. Looking at an atlas of the American south, my eyes landed on Anniston, Alabama, a place that I have still never been to. “Anniston” fit the melody in a close approximation to my mangled version of “Antietam,” and we were off to the races.
FOR WHAT IT IS
In the immediate aftermath of my split with my former bandmate and soon to be ex-wife, I lived in a house almost completely void of furniture (or heat), with the welcome exception of an upright piano on loan from a neighbor. This song recalls the feel of those cold winter mornings, with the stark light of a January sun illuminating the swirls of dust, and every exhale of my breath. Seriously, it was cold. The wood for the stove ended up buried under several feet of snow, and once it could be found, it was frozen to the ground. Bleak. And a little humorous with a few decades’ distance….This song always struck me as somewhat incomplete on the first version of the record. In reclaiming the album, I now got a chance to fill in the blanks, and thus the addition of a string orchestra. The Badfinger homage in the pre-chorus gets even more overt with the string part, but it’s the last choruses that really feel transformed by the strings, and now the song builds to a moment where the hero stands surrounded by an awesome army of sound warriors, rather than as a lone feeble cry in the wilderness. In a song about loneliness, it’s nice to conjure up a support network.
Sometimes the meaning of a song isn’t really found in the lyrics, but in the musical components, and often even in the construction of the recording. Perhaps a useful comparison is that it feels like to listen to a piece of orchestral music – there’s power in the conjunction of melody, harmony, and rhythm. And just as a composer carefully decides whether a line should be played on the oboe or a clarinet, record production is about sculpting sound to translate a feeling or meaning to the listener. This song is about sound. Perhaps more directly about hallucination, but it’s the sound that conveys that experience. When I was a little kid, I saw a movie called Valley of the Gwangi. Third-rate stop-motion animation, but the premise was what stayed with me – cowboys fighting dinosaurs. The unexpected play of genre worlds colliding. And that’s a bit what I’m trying to do here – clichéd cowboy riffs balanced with lots of metrical shifts and other audio indulgences.
This one has such silliness as its lyrical theme. My newfound love Darleen Wilson was an accomplished record producer and engineer, and thus inspired all the sonic metaphors in both the lyric and the production. Those keen-eared listeners will recognize the homage to the often bizarre instrument panning found on mid-period Beatles stereo records. The song too evokes mid-period Beatles, the moment when John and Paul still shared the experience of writing together, throwing ideas at one another, playing at strengths, reveling in their partnership.
AND SO HE LOVES YOU
I wrote this song in the back of a pick-up truck. Sounds like a joke, but it’s actually true. Knots and Crosses had gone to the woods of New Jersey to look into a potential recording studio. I took out a guitar, and for whatever reason, the Garden State Parkway inspired the first few lines. I-95 and the Mass Pike did their wonders as well, and by the time we pulled over to let me out, I had pretty much completed the song. Written for a loved one, I’m happy to report that the relationship in question ended soon after the song was completed. But unfortunately, too many of us can probably relate. Clearly, being part of a dysfunctional relationship can be misery, especially if it involves mental or physical abuse. And in recent years, I have been shocked to learn how many people around me have experienced this first-hand. But it can also be challenging to witness from the side, particularly if one cares about both partners. That’s the point of view taken in this song, describing the inevitable conclusion of the downward spiral, while somehow hoping that a crisis can be averted. How many of us have ever wondered, “how can all this misery be love?” There’s no answer to that question, but my sense is that its such a commonly shared experience, that there may be solace in hearing someone else pose the question.
TAKE IT ON FAITH
I think there is a version of this song on some old Knots and Crosses demo. I haven’t looked into it, partly because I don’t have a cassette player, and partly because I might suffer PTSD if I delve into the cardboard boxes that might house such things. Part of the original impulse behind Evidence was the need to reclaim my identity as a writer and performer. So, as with “Crosses,” I decided to revive some work from my (at the time) recent past. In a way, it’s a pop song without direct relation to my life. No real back story, no emotional revelation. But as with a good pop song, the act of making a joyful noise is reason and resonance enough. Pop music has often spoken to me – not just in terms of incisive lyric or powerful performance, but frequently as a matter of sonic “excitation.” That’s what this chorus feels like to me.
FALLING ON DEAF EARS
Another post-divorce song, but the perspective is less wounded/wounding, and more acknowledging and accepting. Sometimes, the world just doesn’t add up and there’s nothing one can do about it. Likewise, logic and reason don’t always (often, ever?) triumph. And that dilemma exists outside the realm of romance as well. In fact, with 25 years distance, the song seems more about the current state of the world than the memory of another fight about whose turn is is to do the dishes.
This song is new to this edition of the record. The narrative of the lyric can be interpreted in several ways (as powerful songs often are), but there’s a personal message in it, and I wear my sentimentality on my sleeve with honor. After my parents divorced my mother met a married a wonderful man. I loved him. All the family did. But almost 20 years into their marriage, Ed began to exhibit symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. And for almost 10 more years, he began to slowly recede from us. To my mother’s credit, she surprised us all by becoming a kind and patient caregiver. I have never felt more proud of my mother, nor hurt as deeply for her, than I was when watching her care for her beloved Ed. And when he arrived at the stage where she could no longer care for him at home, she made a point to visit him every night at the health care unit, spending hours feeding him and preparing him for bed. It became her routine, and I believe she found solace in the repetition of it. As the long progression towards death moved towards its inevitable conclusion, they were both frequently in my thoughts. And so the lyric slowly began to emerge in my head as I worked on new melodic ideas with which to complete the song. Finally, one day while visiting Darleen’s mother not long after she had lost her husband of over 70 years to dementia, I decided to drive to a point overlooking the ocean, where Darleen would often bring her father in his later years to watch the boats come and go in the harbor. And there, the verse came quickly and powerfully. I wrote them down without questioning and decided to allow them to be as they were – a little awkward, but truthful.
Ed passed away during the last stages of mixing this song. I brought a rough version to play for my sister, though never mentioned it to my mother. My sister took the song for a standard romance-gone-wrong story. I provided a little more background info. She asked to hear it again. And cried. So did I. This song is my gift to them both, mother and stepfather, and our extended family, and to all those in the world that know from what this song comes from.
Inspired by a figure in the Portland music scene that seemed to have it all – good looks, charisma for days, a compelling voice, awesome band, major label deal. And he carried himself with ease and without pretense, which only exacerbated my jealousy. How could he be so good and be such a good person as well – especially when I was neither. Tragically, he was killed in an automobile accident while on tour, after the song was written, but before it was recorded.
This is an entirely new recording of the song that originally closed the album. Same basic acoustic guitar part and vocal melody, but with some additional color and texture that I always heard in my head but hadn’t quite figured out how to achieve at the time. The rhythm is provided by a single Cambodian hand drum, the skor, manipulated and layered in multiple takes. One played with mallet while draping a blanket over the drum head, one pitch shifted down an octave, and another pitch shifted down two octaves and bathed in reverb. There’s a scene in the Danny Boyle film Yesterday, where the hero, his girlfriend, and the home studio engineer joyfully create a rhythm bed with toy instruments, rubber gloves, and various household objects. The song is written as a lullaby, gently underscoring that even in absence, or in the face of a sometimes hostile world, love can be protective, or at least the impulse to protect is always present. And sometimes in the face of overwhelming odds, that’s all we can offer. Perhaps the offer itself is more powerful than our ability to fend off the danger, both real and imagined. A more meditative note to end the album bringing all this history into the present.