A few weeks ago in an article related to the Joe Jack Talcum/Samuel Locke Ward/The Bassturd/Coolzey tour, I referred to Samuel Locke-Ward as a “troubadour of the troubling.” Something bugged me about that phrase the moment I typed it. Later I realized that I was cribbing it from an old show poster I’d seen on the wall in Sam’s house, where the wording was “Iowa City’s troubling troubador” — but referring not to Sam, but to Ed Gray. Yep, Ed Gray is the original “troubling troubadour” of our fair state.
A veteran of the avant-folk end of the lo-fi home-taping scene, predating the notion of “new weird America,” Ed Gray built a reputation through sparse cassette recordings interspersing poetic folky tunes with tape manipulation and noise, and live performances in which he would be equally likely, depending on his mood or his perception of the crowd’s response, to assault you with several minutes of feedback, or to lull you with one of his gentle though dark ballads (and equally capable of both by means of playing a nylon-string acoustic guitar with a pickup through an amplifier with a fuzz pedal in between).
The first time I heard a Richard Buckner record I thought I was hearing some new Ed Gray joint that I hadn’t known about. The two men have a similar tone and depth to their voices and some similar melodic mannerisms to their writing. Ed, however, reaches into his upper range more often, and brings along an extra element of mayhem, straying willfully off-key when it suits the expression of the song; and then of course there’s his aforementioned love of the noise. In the height of the ’00s alt-country craze Ed began showing signs of letting his songwriting step out from behind the tape hiss, fleshing out his sound with fuller instrumentation and production on the gorgeous Fresh Coat On The Powder Keg 7″ EP in 2005 and an excellent full-length called The Late Gray Ed Great that followed in short order, of which Kent Williams wrote quite appropriately in Little Village, “It’s a joy to hear folk make such a racket.” The Americana feel of both is unmistakable but Ed worked in enough dissonance on the full-length to stand out from the pack. At points the noisy elements felt grafted-on, not yet fully integrated in Ed’s sound, but the poetry of the tear-jerker songs wins you over.
Whether The Old Bending River represents the completion of that sought-for integration of song and noise I’m not sure. There simply seems to be less noise on it, limited to just enough fuzzed-up electric guitar to keep things appreciably raw, but on the song end this album shines. It sounds as if Ed may have arrived at a fully realized sound that feels right and comfortable to him, and he comes off both more relaxed and livelier than on the tense downtrip of Late Gray. The songs are less tear-jerker and more impressionist, haunted, even raucous at points, with his superb lyrics always a clear highlight. For all the dark imagery, Ed sounds like he’s having a good time making this record.
A couple of tunes — the waltz-stomp “Samson” and the finale “Cold Cold Man” — will remind you a bit of Tom Waits — right down to the hushed spoken vocal over spooky organ that the latter opens with and its wailing sax solo courtesy of Pete Balistrieri. The picked electric bass used throughout the album initially felt out of place on those songs that pull from old-time roots, but I got over it in realizing that it serves to remind that these are modern songs, not merely retreads of well-worn tropes, and thus using a stand-up bass instead would be a bit too obvious, almost hokey, for an Ed Gray record. That point is made even more strongly with “The Old Saw Blade,” which, while pure folk in its structure and melody, derives an important aspect of its atmosphere from distorted power chords and pick scrapes. “Chafe” and “Away” stand up (or sway) with the best of the kind of alt-country ballads they sound like drinking buddies with. While it’s probably unintentional that the title of “Egg Timer Man” seems to reference Mike Watt’s newest work, it’s curious how Watt-like Ed’s vocal sounds on it, and it wouldn’t seem out-of-place if found nestled among the mellower moments of Contemplating The Engine Room. “Bone”, the album’s epic, works a dark, gnarly blues-scale riff for a good long time before building it into the kind of multi-part three-chord ramble that I love Magnolia Electric Company for. But for all the references I can make, on The Old Bending River, Ed Gray just sounds like Ed Gray, except even better than I was accustomed to.
Possibly his best, and likely his most accessible work so far (but there are still a couple of his old cassette releases I’ve never heard), The Old Bending River asserts Ed Gray’s rightful place, overdue perhaps, among Iowa’s finest musical craftsmen. Ed is experienced and at the top of his game here, and backed up by an ensemble that sounds like it’s made up of people who are just as much loyal longtime fans as collaborators. As good as it is, I wouldn’t put it past him to keep on and surpass it yet. But I’m mighty glad not to have missed it.