Amoratorium

amoratorium test pressWe didn’t know the song titles on one of our favorite new LPs until this week — that’s because all we had was a test pressing for Brian Laidlaw’s ambitious new project, Amoratorium. He was kind enough to let us keep this copy after it arrived, and we have been enjoying it for weeks for what it is — seven new songs by one of our favorite songwriters.

Of course, we like Brian Laidlaw‘s songs enough to have chosen two to be the first ever released by Hymie’s Records on a 45rpm single last month (check it out here). The new songs on Amoratorium are especially interesting because they’re part of a larger concept album project that Brian has been working on for several years. The album approaches the true story and the mythology of Depression-era outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, and it is accompanied by a beautiful twenty-five page book of poetry published by Paper Darts Press. There is a love story at the heart of Amoratorium, as represented by the first song below, “Will Our Love,” but one set against the Cinemascope background of Depression and death. The setting is ideal fit for Brian’s best work as a songwriter — the album seems at times very similar to the EP he released last fall both in its sound and its subject matter and approach (you can read our review of that disc, Echolaliahere).

Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow were famous when they were ambushed and killed by a police posse on May 23, 1934. It is said that people tried to take off with souvenirs from their corpses, and one man successfully took a lock of Bonnie Parker’s hair. People didn’t really know the real couple, though, but rather sensationalized stories of their exploits in newspapers. The mythology around their story continued to grow up until 1967, when Hollywood cemented the story with a hit film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

Around the same time several records about the pair appeared. Flatt & Scruggs recorded an entire album, The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, and artists as wide-ranged as Merle Haggard, Serge Gainsbourg (with Brigitt Bardot), Mel Torme and Georgie Fame all made hit records about Bonnie and Clyde in the year following the movie’s release. Amoratorium is part of this pop tradition, but also a unique approach to the familiar story.

The album was produced by Brett Bullion in a temporary recording studio set up in a historic, repurposed church in Granite Falls. The Hammond organ heard on several tracks hat set unused in its foyer for seventy years. Although he is not backed by his regular group, The Family Trade, the sound is not entirely different from their records together. Danny Vitali, who had performed on Echolalia with Brian, joins him along with pianist and fiddler Bex Gaunt. The result has the rounded edges and warmth of an old building, but also the rawness of an earlier time. Brian’s portrayal of Bonnie and Clyde is likewise fit to the times, romantic if not romanticized, and not his first recording to recreate a setting in the past –“Hangtown Hymn” from Whiskey With Goliath frames its story in a similarly sepia-toned atmosphere.

Amoratorium cover crop “Nobody but a villain loves a revisionist,” writes Brian in the title poem in the brief book (do books of poetry have ‘title tracks’ in the same way as albums?). A quote from Arthur Penn, who directed the 1967 movie responsible for reigniting the Bonnie and Clyde mythology, is on the first page:

I’d grown up hearing all the stories about Bonnie and Clyde… Everyone knew someone who’d been robbed or kidnapped by them. Any farmer that had an old car that didn’t work, they’d take it out, shoot it full of holes, pour some animal blood on it and show it off as the car Bonnie and Clyde were killed in.

When Bonnie and Clyde were run out of a hideout in 1933 they left behind some undeveloped film and some sheets of handwritten poetry. Their playful pictures brandishing guns and cigars and the slang language in the poems were printed in newspapers around the country, making the couple and their gang famous, if not understood. We haven’t asked Brian why he’s worked for so long on their story but we assume he was in part drawn to the unusual role poetry had played in creating their legacy. The second of Bonnie Parker’s known poems, given to her mother just weeks before she and Clyde were gunned down in a V8 Ford, is the most famous. “They don’t think they’re too smart or desperate,” she writes

They know that the law always wins.
They’ve been shot at before;
but they do not ignore
that death is the wages of sin.

When Bruce Springsteen told the story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, whose midwestern killing spree left eleven dead in 1957, his characterization was eerily cold. That he wrote a song called “Wages of Sin” around the same time, which was considered for Born in the USA and eventually cut, suggests he was likewise interested in the story of Bonnie and Clyde. We suspect somewhere in the basement of a New Jersey mansion there’s a notebook filled with lyrics which fall short of what Brian wrote for Amoratorium. Nebraska was a commercial failure for Springsteen in ’82, but today regarded as an artistic triumph (hard to believe its the same guy we saw mopishly hawk a children’s book about “Outlaw Pete” on the Daily Show this week). The record is also a relic of the early 80s recession, much as Amoratorium belongs to the current ‘economic downturn’ — which really is a bullshit term, considering that economists have been calling the crises of 2007-8 and their aftermath the Great Recession for years. Brian has often used historical vernacular and settings to explore contemporary concerns but not on such a large scale or with such an intimate focus. We heard a love story in Amoratorium first, and the setting second. New things catch our interest each time we play the album.

Amoratorium is one of the most ambitious LP projects to come out of the Twin Cities music scene this year, and we hope it draws some more attention to Brian’s work. We are very excited to have a copy with the book, so that we can read and enjoy the art while we listen.

Brian Laidlaw will perform music from Amortorium and read poems along with Gillian Conoley on Thursday, November 20th at the Walker Art Center at 7pm. It’s a free event. Additional details here.

He will also be performing here at Hymie’s on December 5th along with the Ericksons, who released their new album, Bring Me Home, last month.

  1. Casey’s avatar

    Great, thoughtful review, but it’s Bex, not Ben, Gaunt!

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