There is a guy in that there America called Anthony Simpkins, that runs an outfit called GemsOnVHS. He (at least in my mind) runs around the place finding rootsy singer/songwriters, bands and generally cool waifs, straifs and musical vagabonds, in a kind of latter-day Alan Lomax/Cecil Sharpe style, and I, for one, am so glad he does. Once found, he brings their musical outpourings to the world via his YouTube channel, and in the case of The Hill Country Devil (aka Hayden Karchmer) I believe, his record label.
The first/latest offering is the album I am looking at now, 9 songs that are available as a download only, something of a departure for me, as I like to have a physical copy of music that I buy, but hey ho, I apparently need to “get down with the kids” or some such like. Anyway, if like me, you like artwork, sleeve notes etc, you may be be slightly disappointed with the lack of such things, but trust me, that is the only thing about this album that will leave you less than satisfied, because the musical content is nothing less than astounding.
It’s spartan, atmospheric, bleak, moody and at times, difficult. But it is never less than totally mesmerising. I don’t think there are any tracks that have more than a couple of instruments. Most of them are one man and his guitar and voice. But oh, that voice! Karchmer has a voice that sounds like he has a 40-a-day Woodbine habit, between which, he gargles with gravel and Jack Daniels…
Townes Van Zandt once said, when asked why he wrote sad songs, “I don’t write sad songs, I write helpless songs.” Karchmer takes it one step further: his songs reek of desperation, misery and total uselessness. The boy has lived a hell of a life, done some things that he probably shouldn’t have, and been through some stuff that he’d probably rather not have (including being homeless at one point; I hope that’s not the case now) Each and every one of these songs reflects that. And each and every one grabs your attention, pulls at your heartstrings and draws you in, then whispers in your ear “you WILL love me” Put simply, the man is an amazing songwriter, with a fine voice, and a fair bit of guitar playing ability.
I can’t pick a favourite. Simpkins suggests that ‘Kerr County Dopesick Blues‘ is what many people consider to be the best song on the album, and while it is a great tune, my favourite is possibly ‘Glory‘, or ‘Rats Get Fat‘, the latter reminding me of Donovan‘s version of Mick Softly‘s ‘Gold Watch Blues‘.
There isn’t a weak song on this album. If I can find anything to criticise, and I’m really struggling, the arrangement of the last song, ‘Encore‘, features some slightly odd 80s keyboard sounds, which to my mind, don’t quite fit. This is possibly the most uptempo song here though, so it doesn’t detract in any way, and it’s a great way to end a superb album. Overall, it’s sparse, moody, introspective, hauntingly beautiful, and somehow, totally uplifting… all at the same time!
I’m not one for seeing music as a competition, I hate all those lists and compilation things that so many seem to enjoy, and it’s only March but, come the end of the year, I know this will be in my top 3 albums of 2019. It should be in yours too. Buy it, just buy it! And hopefully Anthony Simpkins will carry on investing his time and effort into bringing us great music, and Hayden Karchmer will make enough money to rent an apartment somewhere!
An essential buy.
Nicotine And China White is out now.