Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cortez, The Distressed Hillbilly

Thanks to Aaron Thomas, a native of Southwest Louisiana, who brought by Cortez del Mar's recent CD You Did This To Yourself.

With a little imagination, you can see this CD as a musical portrait of the gothic backwoods mischief of a bunch of inbred country musicians who spend many long nights drinking Everclear and listening to albums by American Music Club. You pick up the vibe from such lyrics as "Here's to something sinister" ("Bigger Skies") and "You know I'm a little crazy" ("Sugar Skull"). And the "Cities of Gold" line "Just wait till I get you alone" doesn't sound like a promise of tender romance.

Gothic content notwithstanding, what makes the whole shockabilly approach work is that our skewed singer is relating tales that come from the hard living of real life. In "All Smiles," he sings to his lover about "all the pain there in your chest." In "Cities of Gold," he reveals the kind of honesty that only comes from people who've given up the effort to put up a good face: "I'm not sorry or sad. Should I lie?" Those are the kind of lines Johnny Cash felt compelled to growl out now and then.

Mar's recent CD You Did This to Yourself. I had the idea this band was from Lafayette, but I was mistaken. Thomas says most of the band's members live in Sulphur (right across the river from Lake Charles).

In the CD, Cortez leads with its strongest suit: a soaring, euphoric minute-long instrumental intro. Beautiful hooks are layered on by electric guitars and keyboards. It ends abruptly, and the audience is introduced to the distressed hillbilly vocals that will be its companion for the next 45 minutes. Think of the voice of Mark Eitzel after he's been through one of the prodigious drinking nights he's always writing songs about; or imagine Chris Isaak taking the mike right after he's chugged a couple of bottles of cough syrup.

Though there are lots of change-ups (which I'll describe), the default sound on the disc is a downbeat, quiet, steadily paced country-tinged rock with a melancholy cast. Departures from the default sound include "Sea of Sound," an upbeat power pop number with lyrical hooks that could have come straight off a 1980s SubPop record.

"Cities of Gold" starts as a mix of mariachi, a Cash Ballad and "Ghost Riders in the Sky." This chirpy little gem about personal and shared misery ends up with some good, creepy off-key guitar string plucking, weird off-key piano tinkling and what sounds like — of all things — a French horn solo. Compare this ending to the off-kilter cabaret music beginning of "Burning Whiskey River," with its fine Link Wray-style electric guitar decays.

I don't know whether Cortez fits into the postrock category. You can hear some of the crazed hillbilly stuff in Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But aside from that, I don't hear a lot of overlap. Don't buy this disc expecting to hear a Mogwai or Sigur Ros record. As for the shockabilly vibe, this disc sounds closer to the sort-of mainstream shockabilly of The Reverend Horton Heat than the psychodrama shockabilly of Shockabilly. The bottom line: if you're interested in avant country rock ballads on real-life topics, you'll want to have this recording. If you want to listen to country rock ballads about idealized life, just turn on the radio to any station that doesn't have an angry guy talking on it.

CDs like this one indicate there are almost amazingly talented bands right here in Lake Charles, La. But they don't stay here long. They don't have venues to perform in and thus can't build a big support base.

Of course, Lake Charles always has the option of embracing and supporting bands like this. Hell, for all I know, pigs always have the option to fly. But I don't expect to see a pig flying in my lifetime. Whether they fly or not, you can keep track of the band's progress on its site Did This to Yourself

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