|The Pollies. Jay Burgess, second from left, in ugly hat.|
By Kevin Broughton
During its print heyday, No Depression magazine made playful fun of the genre of music it had helped define. Each issue would contain a mini-mission statement, the first half of which varied. It might be “shining the light on alt-country,” or “examining alt-country,” but it always concluded the same way: “whatever that is.”
Alt-country, roots rock, Americana…all have been used to attempt to classify or categorize a sub-genre of music that continually evades the pigeon-holing. Hard to define, but not unlike a Supreme Court Justice’s self-definition of “pornography,” most of us know it when we hear it. But what happens when the edgy becomes mainstream?
“It seems like here lately, Americana is being taken over by folks popping up trying to sound too Americana,” says Pollies front man Jay Burgess. “Maybe it’s subconscious. And don’t get me wrong, we don’t have a problem being classified as ‘Americana.’ It’s just…” he trails off.
Fitting, as the Pollies’ second album, Not Here eludes any neat classification. Steady, poignant songwriting, tight arrangements and artful production are the constants that make it a compelling record, regardless of classification.
The album, a joint distribution between Single Lock Records and Thirty Tigers (Jason Isbell, Avett Brothers, Jonathan Tyler) opens in a big way. “’Jackson’ is a song we’d been working on and playing for about a year,” Burgess says. “When we got to the studio, we wanted to go back and make it bigger and symphonic. I knew we wanted some strings and a Mellotron in it.” And symphonic it is, along with much of the album, owing to the production’s vision.
Pollies keyboardist Ben Tanner – who splits time with Alabama Shakes – is, like Burgess, a recording engineer. “Ben and I have been friends a long time. I couldn’t make a record without him,” Burgess says. It’s hard to imagine Not Here without him, especially hearing “Paperback Books,” a longing, ethereal tune that manages to evoke a big, sweeping Pink Floyd sound with just enough pedal-steel lonesome twang.
It’s obvious Burgess and Tanner had definite ideas of the sound they wanted to capture when they went in the studio. There’s a purposeful, deliberate feel to the whole record, reminiscent of what Chris Bell and Alex Chilton accomplished on the tragically under-heard Number One Record from Big Star.
The varied arrangements give Burgess ample opportunity to showcase a wide vocal range. Other critics’ comparisons to Gram Parsons aren’t overstated, particularly on the coincidentally named “She.” His voice can be edgy or melodic, but it’s always poignant.
Burgess, like mentor and friend Isbell, hails from tiny Greenhill, Alabama and is part of the latest generation of Muscle Shoals-area musicians eager to make their marks. (Note: Birmingham music journalist Blake Ells has written a fine book, The Muscle Shoals Legacy of Fame, that chronicles the continual, multi-generational torch-passing of musical legacies; find it.) The common link between Burgess and Isbell was Mr. McCombs, the school music teacher. He left the two with a musical bond that lasted.
“Jason’s always inspired me,” Burgess told Ells. “To me, he’s always been that popular. When he blew up, it was almost like it wasn’t anything new to me. He was a big deal already.” On Isbell’s first couple of solo tours, he made room for the Pollies (or Burgess’s former outfit, the Sons of Roswell) to open shows when possible. It was instructive. “I saw that someone like Jason could have a bad night. I was lucky to see first-hand that not everybody sells out every show.”
The Pollies will have their chance to sell out their own shows on the forthcoming tour. The album’s been finished almost a year, recorded, ironically, outside the friendly confines of Muscle Shoals. “Dial Back Sound in Water Valley, Mississippi offered us a little bit of a deal,” Burgess says. “We wanted to make sure everybody playing on the record was in the same room. We slept at the studio.” It made for an old-school recording experience.
“It’s crazy, but we didn’t have a computer in the studio,” he says. “It makes you use your ears. You can look at the knob all you want to, but you’ve got to turn it yourself.”
The finished product is worthy of the studio that’s cranked out some great work by Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Blue Mountain and Jimbo Mathus, and has taken on the moniker “Muscle Shoals West.”
But regardless of the place, another page has been turned in the rich history of the Muscle Shoals Sound. The Pollies have skin in the game, and a record that leaves no doubt they’ve arrived.