“When Pierre started this city
He set the streets just for you and me
But he never could have had all this in mind
And if you’ve got the time, I’ve got the time….”
“I’m Your Mark,” (Will Saulsbery)
From his early days in the Frustrated Bachelors, through his days doing dirty work as a substitute high school teacher, to his current work in St. Louis’ Money for Guns, Will Saulsbery, the band’s principal writer and lead singer, has never yearned to get the hell out. As a nearly lifelong Missourian (like Will), I can testify that that is, in fact, a yearning one hears frequently, particularly from artistic types. I can definitely understand such a yearning; often, particularly when my mind drifts to our state’s legislature, I feel the state name should be spelled “M-I-S-E-R-Y.” What I like about Saulsbery and his band is that, in their music and words, they capture fairly vividly what it’s like to live here, without condescending, which, for all our growing resemblance to dubious states that shall remain nameless, would be a dick move.
Paradoxically, though, part of what makes one a Missourian is the desire to escape, however temporary that desire might burn. The album begins with “Dead, Drunk, and Pretty”‘s persona lost in a dream of New Orleans (are the referenced “gutter punks” from the dream, or on St. Louis streets?), and ends with a drawn-out, dope-sprung dream of El Dorado, in which a lover uncomfortably comforts his junkie paramour with the likely-doomed idea of cutting and running from St. Louis’ radiating gateway. It’s hard not to notice, though, the telling, unifying details that evince an admirable rootedness: of interstates out of Kansas, of hawks’ eyes, of trains (three references, not sure if one is a MetroLink), of the founding father Pierre Laclede, of cold-eyed live burials, and of straight-out declarations like “I can’t wait to see St. Louis again”–without its “TV or the gunmen.” I wonder if all of this is all that Missourian, or if it’s U.S.A. circa 2015. I think it’s Missouri. “The Catholic kids drowning this town” of “I’m Your Mark”–which, by the way, lead into another suggestion of leaving–might be the tip-off.
I don’t trust labels as far as music goes. They usually sell the creators short. 21st century Missouri seems most known for Nelly, Tech9 (sp?) and, vaguely, Americana. The former two rappers couldn’t be more different, though they are underrated in how of this place they are; the latter genre has to stretch a little to incorporate The Ben Miller Band, whatever Mark Bilyeu’s up to, Kentucky Knife Fight, and this group of ne’er-do-wells–just to name a few I know well. Kansas City, St. Louis, and Columbia all have their bohemias, but, from my experience, they don’t seem rooted in this place. What feels Missourian about Money for Guns is the touches of Americana, especially Dr. Todd Jones-Farrand’s mandolin, which doesn’t always do the usual things (check out his runs and comping on the at-times-punk-jazzy “Red High Heels”!), without the abandoning of a straight-ahead Midwestern kid’s love of straight-ahead rock and roll. Epitomizing this strategy (that seems like a cynical word, and I do not mean it that way) are the album’s two lead cuts, the title track, and the flat-out beauty quoted twice already, “I’m Your Mark.” I wouldn’t call a daringly extended piano-fueled coda “Americana”; I’d call it guts and growth. And vocals are sure enough music, as well; Saulsbery’s tenor has matured considerably from American Trash, where at times he seemed to be trying to catch the elusive (but fading) tail of Conor Oberst’s hyper-emotive star. On 21st Century Life, he’s content to let the natural tears (rhymes with “bears”) in his singing convey the matters of his Midwestern heart. I find that Kyle Kelley’s baritone changes of pace need a little work, a little nuance. But I don’t remember him taking verses or leads on the debut, so perhaps all he needs is time.
I really like this album. I can tell you from three listens that “Dead, Drunk, and Pretty” (the production of which shows up the rest of the album a shade), “Red High Heels,” and, especially, “I’m Your Mark”–a definition of the heart of the Midwest if anything I’ve heard is–are worthy of your downloading if you are just wanting to tire-kick or dip your toe in the Money for Guns pool. I would lay down a Jackson that the album will grow a layer of intensity performed live, so look for them in your town. And, thinking about the band’s (and the, um, auteur‘s) future, I will also wager that the opening out of this record into the wild air of the state’s streets, highways, and rails, from American Waste‘s dank and dangerous club interiors, indicates creative minds focused on more than just the song at hand. That is the sign of artistic endurance, folks.