Moris Tepper "A Singer Named Shotgun Throat" (Candlebone, 2010)
It is as much an indictment of the state of our music industry as it is of Moris Tepper’s sheer bloody-mindedness that new albums by Tepper are not greeted by parades and public holidays.
Having been an "outsider" since his first appearance in Captain Beefheart’s later period Magic Band, (Van Vliet is responsible for the album’s idiosyncratic title), Tepper has worked with many famous names in his career including Frank Black, Robyn Hitchcock, Tom Waits and PJ Harvey. That Tepper still requires this sort of introduction is becoming almost unbearable. Since 1997 Tepper has been writing music and producing abstracted artwork and videos through his own label Candlebone. 'A Singer Named Shotgun Throat' is Tepper's fifth album and represents a sort of culmination and natural progression for Tepper’s solo career.
Tepper’s first two albums were complex, sometimes uncomfortable experimental works that seemed to channel a desire to make as much strange noise as possible with a guitar and with some endlessly inventive percussion. Among the oddities, however, what was most surprising, particularly on 2000’s 'Moth to Mouth' were the beautiful digressions Tepper took when writing more "typical" songs. 'Copperhead' and 'Impossible Things' in particular sounded like they’d been written by a Civil War era troubadour with a broken guitar.
Tepper’s ability to find an outlet for his experimental guitar work in more traditional composition was further developed in 2004’s 'Head Off', the title track with its energetic harmonica, shambolic guitar, distorted double bass and rickety percussion even made its way into an episode of 'Scrubs'. Another four years passed before 2008’s 'Stingray in the Heart' which saw Tepper experiment more widely with electronic instruments and samples while continuing to interrogate popular songwriting conventions.
Thankfully breaking his traditional 3-4 year gap between albums, 'A Singer Named Shotgun Throat' was written in one day, recorded live and yet still represents Tepper’s "straightest" and most accessible album. Though the thirteen songs on offer might feature a singer-songwriter and acoustic guitar they sound distinctively Tepper-esque and feature his inimitable vocal delivery and wildly erratic approach to playing the guitar. Turning to the Wild West for inspiration, this is Americana in the same way A Fistful of Dollars was a Western. Every sacred space, every hallowed technique and instrument is deployed and corrupted.
The album opens with 'Redemption Runs From Me' and we are immediately in Tepper territory. Tepper’s tenure with Beefheart and Hitchcock has always inflected his guitar playing with a freeform approach to theory, choosing to play in a way that is entirely unconventional, dissonant and that doesn’t recognise scales, chords, fingerstyle techniques. The messy blues of the opening bars break into an upbeat number with accompanying organ and piano, waltzing bass and percussion. Unlike Tepper’s previous albums, however, this line-up remains pretty consistent throughout. Though Tepper’s musical palette may be smaller, his imagination still runs as rampant as a bolting stallion. 'Pound of Flesh' recalls Tepper’s penchant for songs that sound like meat rotting in the sun (check out 'Buckets of Blood' on Moth to Mouth).
'Indeed' features a piano and is arguably the most "normal" song Tepper has ever written, recalling Nick Cave’s 'Lyre of Orpheus' period. Some unexpected chord changes keep 'Indeed' comfortingly strange. Other highlights include 'The Ballad of Shotgun Throat', an appropriately raucous drunken romp and the bravura whistling of 'Hang Me'. 'Dishonest John' is a beautiful piece of narrative songwriting and 'How Many Ways Can a Rich Man Die?' features a rousing Bowie-like chorus.
At first it might seem a shame that Tepper has taken the turn of so many legendary outsiders and found mid-life succour in acoustic alt-country. Like fellow renegade Michael Gira and his Angels of Light, however, Tepper seems to thrive on the limits of the genre. Iconoclastic and exuberant, 'A Singer Named Shotgun Throat' is accessible avant-garde Americana and must surely cement Tepper’s place as one of the most distinctive and important voices in contemporary music.
Date review added: Monday, June 21, 2010
Reviewer: David Harry
Related web link: Candlebone for Tepper's music and art