This was one of those things I thought I’d, well, not phone in, exactly. But I thought it’d just be the regular feature-writing thing, without a lot of access or real insight into the band. And it turned out to be something I really liked, something thought provoking that didn’t work with the normal music feature formula. It’s one of the things I’ve written lately that I like the best.
In 1812, a massive earthquake rocked New Madrid, Missouri. The event was so powerful that reverberations could be felt as far away as Ohio and South Carolina. It made the Mississippi River run backwards. And it has something to do with a modern-day New Madrid, a sort of psych-rock band in Athens, Ga. They’re not sure what. But, asked by a colleague for a “brain dump” of thoughts on their latest, and very good, album Sunswimmer, they opened their musings with this: “New Madrid something about the Mississippi River running backwards sand volcanoes, pretty fire bubbling.” By the end of this article, you likely still won’t know what that means. And that’s okay.
In 1992, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay for the Philadelphia Inquirer that began as a review of tennis prodigy Tracy Austin’s memoir, called “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” In it, Wallace explores why sports memoirs, or interviews with sports stars, are so often disappointing.
“Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievements we Americans revere—fastest, strongest—and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way,” he writes. “We want to know them, these gifted, driven physical achievers … We want to get intimate with all that profundity.”
Well, the same is true of us music lovers, and we’re just as prone to be disappointed as any modern tennis fan is with Roger Federer’s flat affect and dully impeccable manners. The truth is, you and me and anyone else who reads this, we folks who listen to music and hear something in it that stirs us, are doing the same thing. We’re trying to get intimate with someone else’s profundity, and brother, that’s a lot to ask an artist to help you do.
New Madrid is a darn good band. The act landed splat in the middle of Athens’ musical consciousness with their 2012 debut, Yardboat, and proceeded to dominate the local music award ceremony that year, which is no small feat in a town where the branches of the music scene are virtually sagging with ripe fruit. Now with New West Records, New Madrid have grown Yardboat’s jammy Southern rock into a psych-tinged sophomore album, Sunswimmer, with the help of producer David Barbe (Deerhunter, Animal Collective) at Chase Park Transduction studios.
There’s something about Sunswimmer that feels instantly comfortable, like a pair of shoes from the thrift store that someone already wore in for you. Opener “All Around the Locust” reveals singer Phil McGill, drawling with a lazy-tongued twang amid washes of reverb and effects-laden guitar, somehow feeling brisk and lackadaisical at the same time. It’s the sound of last year’s cool, wet Georgia July, when everyone was itching to go night swimming in their neighborhood’s apartment complex pool and spent way too much time cooped up inside. And, with the exception of more rock-driven lead single “Manners,” the tone that “Locust” sets permeates the album—somehow full of vigor, yet relaxed, and probably a little stoned.
This brings us to our own “Tracy Austin” moment. Because as good as this record is, as much as it reminds your humble writer of her own cool, wet Georgia July in the very town where this band lives and records, as satisfying as it would be to know some of the specifics of how New Madrid were able to so deftly capture the time and place of Sunswimmer’s conception (recording it live over just under three weeks to analog tape didn’t hurt) the band is remarkably bad at talking about themselves.
“Regional afflictions, superstitions, music has always been an otherworldy thing for New Madrid. The grotesque and mystical nature of the South—it’s history, it all weaves its way into,” says a snippet, truncated mid-sentence, from New Madrid’s written musings on their own tunes. Asked to elaborate on this intriguing prompt, McGill said, “Being blown away by [long pause] OK, so it’s hard for me to think specifically [long pause] the fervent religiosity of the South…”
This sort of muzzy, non-committal way of answering a fan’s questions about art doesn’t jibe well with our expectations of the artists we spend time on, not in a world where so many people who make beautiful or challenging music are also asked to take the time to be eloquently televisable and quotable and often seem to enjoy it.
That doesn’t change the fact that the newly confident, assertive opening riff of “Manners” makes a listener want to shake her ass a little. It doesn’t taint the easy pleasure of the rootsy-funky “Forest Gum,” which, by the way, McGill can’t seem to decide is or is not related in some way to the movie Forrest Gump. (“Yeah it probably does loosely […] It’s hard to unmarry that idea. That song is a strange one.”)
“I guess a lot of [Sunswimmer’s sense of place and lyrical focus on the natural world] is, like, escapist, “ McGill said by phone, while driving through Kansas’ endless flat expanse. “The natural part is untainted by bad things. On the New Madrid fault line, there was this earthquake. It hit big in the 1800s and made the Mississippi river run backwards. No one really talks about it because the Civil War happened right afterwards. I don’t know if there is a specific place that this record is about. Maybe Athens. There’s a lot of green stuff, a lot of rain, the drive between Chattanooga [where some of the band members used to live] and Athens. Maybe the memory of that is more on this record. None of that is really direct or specific.”
Oh, well. As the band said themselves in an email, “Music is a spiritual thing, it’s unexplainable magnetism, that invisible anchoring force but there’s a lot of stuff to comb through to get there.” Talking to bands about the music they make, or reading what they have to say about it in a magazine like this, is our own way of trying to comb through things, to untangle someone else’s profundity. Sometimes we simply forget: that’s what the music’s for in the first place.