Saturday, March 26, 2016

David Ramirez - Fables

"Loving a music man ain't always what it's supposed to be," Journey's Steve Perry once sang, in the middle of "Faithfully," the best of all the 1980s power ballads. That might seem like a weird place to start a review for a folk/alt-country record, but it's fitting for David Ramirez, who has often written powerfully and thoughtfully about the toll that life on the road can have on personal relationships. "Stick Around," the best song from David's 2012 LP Apologies, hit upon this subject with particular eloquence: "Maybe I go caused I'm chasing something/Maybe I go because something is chasing me/Maybe I leave because I've yet to find someone/To look me in the face and say, 'stick around.'" In between mentions of logging 160,000 miles on the highway in four years time, and singing to rooms full of strangers, Ramirez hit upon the ultimate dilemma for a touring musician: is it better to give up your personal life? Miss out on falling in love? Forsake your family members? Or is it better for you give up on your dream and your passion instead?

Those dilemmas are blown up to album-length struggles on Fables, the third full-length album from Ramirez, and a record destined to be one of the year's most criminally overlooked. According to a recent piece published by the Wall Street Journal—alongside a stream of the new record—Ramirez noted that Fables is a record about his relationship with his girlfriend. The relationship, which is described in the WSJ article as "serious," grounds the album in a very personal and autobiographical place, and also begs the question: has Ramirez found that person he sung about on "Stick Around"? That person who can "look him in the face" and ask him to stay?

That's the question Ramirez seems to be struggling with on Fables, and it imbues these 10 songs with a certain weight or tension that you don't often hear on albums about falling in love. Because unlike before, Ramirez now has a reason to stay and something to lose, and his songs gain new levels of vulnerability and intimacy as a result. "Harder to Lie" is the album's heart and soul, a song about falling in love, letting your guard down, and learning to be accountable to another person. "I fed you fables and fooled you with words from my tongue/Tryin' to make you think I was a better man than I was/But if you're asking me now, I'll tell you the truth/It's getting harder and harder to lie to you." Falling in love with someone means pulling down all of the walls that are between you. The more time you spend romantically entangled with someone, the clearer they see you for who you really are. So when Ramirez sings "it's getting harder and harder to lie to you," it's not with regret that he can't fool his significant other anymore, but with realization that he's about to let down his last defenses and let someone in.

So much music is written about love, break-ups, and relationships that we can sometimes forget how great those types of songs or albums can be when they are done right. Fables is absolutely a "relationship album," but it's far from a collection of romantic platitudes or sad-person breakup confessionals. Instead of looking at the blacks and whites of love, Fables explores the many greys, examining relationships and the people in them with mature and complex songs that often examine the fearful side of falling in love. Because if you think about it, completely letting your guard down for another person is the scariest thing you can ever do. There are so many things that can go against you, so many things that can go wrong. What if they don't feel the same way? What if you build something up together only to watch it burn to the ground later? What if you aren't the kind of person who can commit? What if the other person isn't who they say they are?

Ultimately, Fables is about the different kinds of fear and doubt that can manifest themselves as you fall for someone else. "Harder to Lie" is sung from the perspective of a narrator who is afraid he won't be able to change his nature to be the man his lover deserves. "On Your Side" plays out as one side of a conversation between a man and the woman he cares for—a woman who, I presume, has been abused in past relationships. "When you look at my face, do you see the enemy?/Someone dark, selfish, and unkind?/Or can you hear my heart and believe it when I say/‘I am on your side’," Ramirez sings, this time as the member of the relationship who is on the other side of the fear. The rollicking "That Ain't Love" is also on the other side of the fear, with Ramirez damning a significant other for "living life like you're in danger of taking somebody's name." But perhaps most effective is "How Do You Get 'Em Back," a gorgeous church-like hymn wherein the narrator fears what might become of him if his lover walks away for good. "I'm losing my mind, ‘cause I'm losing my girl/She's a delicate flower in a desolate world" Ramirez cries over a climactic drum-led crescendo, before ending the song with a rhetorical question left floating in the air: "How do you get 'em back, when they say 'this is the last time'?/How do you make it last when they're gone?"

Most of Fables (as well as much of David's earlier work) is slow acoustic fare, with Ryan Adams being the clearest influence. (In fact, the album's weakest song, "Wild Bones," may well have been borrowed from Ryan Adams' closet, circa Love is Hell.) But with Noah Gundersen in the producer's chair, Ramirez commits to fleshing out his sound in new and exciting ways. Just as Gundersen made the switch from all-acoustic to full-band on this year's Carry the Ghost, he helps Ramirez to build his songs out with big '70s-style electric guitars, rhythmically dynamic drum parts, color-adding bass lines, weeping pedal steel, and even a few flourishes of synth. As a result, Ramirez is able to take his songs to places they've never gone before, as with the Leonard Cohen-esque opening track, "Communion," which builds from a quiet slow-burn into an extended arena-ready instrumental section. "New Way of Living" and "How Do You Get 'Em Back" use the full band to deliver similarly impressive crescendos, while "That Ain't Love" and "Hold On" are confident rockers—the latter sounding destined to be the big showstopper finale on David's next tour.

Then there's "Ball and Chain," which combines the albums themes and full-band textures into what might well be the quintessential David Ramirez song. "God bless the man behind the microphone, goddamn that silver ball and chain," he sings in the chorus, revisiting the love and loathing for his profession that he revealed on "Stick Around." But where that song was a picture of where Ramirez was three years ago, with no one to get him to stay, "Ball and Chain" is a portrait of where he is now, when leaving to go on tour and be the troubadour he’s always been might compromise the life he’s begun building at home. "I refuse to be letters on a marquee," he declares boldly as the song barrels into yet another big emotional climax, "Refuse to be buried on that bandstand." This song, it seems, is the conclusion of the story that Ramirez began on Apologies. In fact, it would almost be easy to read those final lines as a retirement statement, though I don’t expect Ramirez is ready to hang up his guitar just yet. Instead, "Ball and Chain" plays like a vow to be more than just "the man behind the microphone." It’s a declaration from Ramirez that instead of choosing between his personal life and his passion, he's going to have both. And based on how much of a leap Fables is compared to his past material, that decision is only going to make him a better songwriter.

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