June of 2012 sees the release of eccentric Austin musical outlier Walter Ehresman’s 14th solo album, fittingly titled Life Outside the Tent. Filled with a wide variety of styles coupled with incisive lyrics spread across ten new original songs and several bonus tracks, the disc features forward-looking rockers, a goth-pop orchestration, political ska, a post-punk angular gut-punch, an Irish pub rock worker’s anthem, West African sunset music, chilling social commentary and moments of heartbreaking confessional poignancy.
“After a while,” Ehresman laughs, “the numbers become unreal....Has it really been 14 of these albums?...I don’t even know how to think about that number.” Indeed, the startling diversity of material on these releases is hard to attribute to one artist, but then again those familiar with Ehresman’s work know that he is, above all things, a restless musical spirit--always pushing his own boundaries and looking for new sounds and ideas, never wanting to repeat himself.
The new album is rich in its level of detail, with more layered vocals and other embellishments than ever before. They create a wide sonic panorama, especially rewarding when listening through headphones. “This is the first album where I was able to use my new digital workstation, which doubled the number of tracks available to me as compared to the gear I used for my previous albums going all the way back to the late 90s,” Ehresman tells us. “I’ve never believed in adding more tracks to a piece just because I can, but on the other hand having extra tracks available allows more instruments to be put down in stereo, which makes the song sound more spacious....I’m also able to put in little details here and there that I just didn’t have available space to do in the past.” The end result is almost like an orchestration at times, the sound bigger, fuller. Does that make Life Outside the Tent Ehresman’s “Sgt. Peppers”? “Oh no,” he laughs, “I wouldn’t say that.....but I do feel like the gear is now allowing me to more fully realize the sounds I’m hearing in my head when I try to capture them in the studio.”
You don’t generally think of the ‘80s when spotting influences on Ehresman’s work, but there’s no question that the listener will detect big doses of late ‘70s/early ‘80s post-punk and new wave on this album. The references never feel gratuitous or forced, though. All the songs sound first and foremost like Walter Ehresman songs, albeit with seasoning that roves into some areas not previously much explored in his work. And Life Outside the Tent is much more of an electric guitar-centered album than any of his previous solo works.
Track #1, “Aqua Girl,” is unlike anything Ehresman has ever done before. He laughs, “One of my friends said the song sounds like a cross between very early Cure and the band Interpol.......I don’t know about that...it sounds more like The Byrds to me......regardless, I like the way the vocoder vocals weave around the guitars and drums, creating this swirling, almost disorienting effect.” If such a feeling is induced in the listener, Ehresman freely admits that it reflects his state of mind at the time he wrote the song in 2010. “I started that year in a relationship that I thought would last the rest of my life, and by mid-March had been shocked by a betrayal that left me alone and bewildered,” he confesses....”This is the last song I wrote about her and that whole situation, and the last song I’m going to write about it, but I’m never able to fully get the cathartic release when I write about these traumas until the song is actually recorded and finalized.”
The song wasn't recorded until December of 2011. Why the delay? “I always felt like I would need some other players to really get the sound right on this one, and that sure turned out to be true,” he explains. “It wasn’t until the following year that I was able to arrange a recording session at Million Dollar Sound Studios here in Austin, which is owned by my friend Kurtis Machler....He’s a wizard with the latest Pro Tools technology, and I knew this song would be a big production that would hugely benefit from his skills, taste and experience.” Machler also provides the bass guitar underpinning, while long-time Ehresman cohort James Rader lays down tight and tasty drums as well as background vocals. Ehresman drives the song with electric and 12-string acoustic guitars and a trippy solo spot made up of two interwoven Ebow guitar tracks panning back and forth across the stereo field.
And then there’s the vocals. “This song contains three different vocoder tracks,” Ehresman recalls. “A modern vocoder is essentially a keyboard that has choirs in it but which also has the ability to have a microphone plugged into it so that what is sung is controlled by the notes played and then blended in with the choir patches.....On one of those tracks, James sang into the mike while I controlled his pitch with my playing on the keys....which was sure a first for me!” The end result is an intriguing song that really works as an opener to the album.
Track #2, “Your Supersonic Stare,” is one with a long gestation period. “I wrote the music and 90% of the lyrics back in 2005, but I never recorded it because I thought I’d need a full band to do it justice,” he elaborates.......”As the years went by and I still didn’t have a big band with horns and keyboards, I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to finish that song because I really liked the way it sounded in my head, not to mention that I was afraid I would eventually forget how it was supposed to go....... Finally, last summer I pulled out the lyric sheet with my notes scribbled in the margins, wrote the short rap section to give it a twist and also to flesh out the lyrical theme, and now it’s done and available for your audio canals.”
Both the music and the vocals seem influenced by one of Ehresman’s favorite artists, the UK’s Bill Nelson, who famously fronted the band Be Bop Deluxe in the ‘70s before going on to have an astonishingly-prolific solo career that continues to this day. Ehresman agrees: “There’s no question that the music was influenced by Bill Nelson, not only in terms of composing via harmonized guitars but also through the electronica rhythm tracks being used in a song that otherwise isn’t in that style.....That’s an influence that actually goes way back, and can be heard on albums of mine as early as 2001's Le Cafard.” He continues, “Nelson’s influence is also felt a bit in the lyrical imagery, although really I see the song primarily as a sort of sequel to a couple of Donald Fagen Cold War parodies on his first solo album, The Nightfly.......Those two songs, 'IGY' and 'New Frontier,' took an ironic look at the gung-ho technology fetishism and America-First sloganeering in the time of Dr. Strangelove...... In my song, the big war has already happened and the war-tech fetish is still in full swing as the human remnants live underground, hoping the air filters keep the radiation out, and prove to have learned nothing from the experience…..the Cowboy Mentality soldiers on.” The music is a grooving mixture of futuristic lead guitar lines with old school funk clavinets and envelope-filtered rhythm guitar, all interspersed with electronica drum breaks and even a hip hop section at the break (“oblivious rapping from the bomb shelter,” Ehresman quips).
Track #3, “Ode to Nicole Atkins,” is an upbeat rocker featuring organ and piano, with stacked background vocals, a Bo Diddley underwater drum breakdown, and a gritty guitar solo. “The lyrics should not be taken too seriously in this song,” Ehresman quickly asserts with a laugh. “Nicole Atkins, as you probably know, is a very talented songwriter/performer from New Jersey, and I heard her music for the first time last summer.....I was really knocked out by her stuff--not only her fabulous voice but also the bravery of the lyrics and arrangements.....I’d never written one of those songs about a beautiful, talented famous woman before, and was reluctant to do so here, but then I thought that it would be a fun and harmless piece of music (with no creepy intent behind it!), so I went ahead and did it.”
Track #4, “Unimpressive Specimens,” marks Ehresman’s first foray into ska. “This was actually the first song recorded for the album, and I remember being inundated at the time with images on television of those Tea Bagger idiots, holding up nonsensical signs like ‘Take Your Government Hands Off My Medicare,’ in full-throated cry to shut down programs that they themselves would either benefit from in the future or were actually already benefiting from.” He adds “At the same time, I had been thinking about how the writers’ strike several years before had hipped all the network and cable stations to the possibility of switching all their programming over to so-called reality shows so that they wouldn’t have to pay any creative people to write scripts and act.....in other words, making everything look like a Jerry Springer blooper reel, and catering to the absolutely worst elements of the American psyche.” The lyrics take aim squarely at the Tea Party in all their delusional and venal glory, and venal American pop culture in general, all set to a bouncy ska beat with a killer bass line and frolicking horns. The trombone is played by an old friend of Ehresman’s from back in the ‘80s, Bruce Salmon. “Bruce was kind enough to come in for an afternoon to lay down some ‘bone' parts, and I’m really thankful that he did.....the song needed that lead trombone, and it was a blast doing the guitar duel with him at the end,” Ehresman enthuses. Despite the lack of ska in his back catalogue, this track emerges fully-formed with no hesitancy about it at all. Political commentary you can dance to.
Track #5, “She’s Like the Khumbu,” is another post-punk number, this time with a sound more like early Gang of Four at their most angular. The song leaps out of the intro lean and mean, with stinging guitars and an aggressive punk bass line (played on an overdriven acoustic bass guitar). According to Ehresman, the song is about a harrowing experience he had in his first two weeks of on-line dating. He refuses to elaborate further, other than to say that the Khumbu Icefall is the first section of the climb up Mt. Everest, at the crumbling end of a shifting glacier, which kills more people than anything higher up the mountain.
Track #6, “The Company Will Swallow You,” is a rousing Irish worker’s anthem, done in a raucous style reminiscent of Flogging Molly. “I was trying to write something that could be used as a inspirational song for the Occupy movement, or even union organizing,” Ehresman laughs. “I have to admit that there’s currently no indication as yet of the song being used for that.....I’m particularly fired up about the fine background vocals from the Wobbly Choir (John Jankowski and Nigel Jacobs), whom I was very lucky to lure across the pond just for this session.” Fast-tempo pub rock with bouzoukis, mandocello, mandolin, and a rowdy fiddle solo from the UK’s Nigel Jacobs. Music to vote by.
Track #7, “Sunset in Djenne’”, will appeal to fans of West African music, especially the late Ali Farka Toure. The song features the Godin Glissentar, which is an 11-string (nylon) fretless guitar from Canada. Swirling around the melody and over the African percussion is the Gravi-Kora, which is an electric version of the traditional African kora (a type of 21-string harp). The listener may feel transported to the dusty plaza in the interior of Mali that fronts the largest adobe structure in the world, the Mosque at Djenne’, glowing red in the African sundown (see http://www.sacred-destinations.com/mali/great-mosque-of-djenne.htm).
Track #8, “Day of the Downtrodden,” has the feel of a dark seer turned loose with an ‘80s Casio. Ehresman tells us the song “is a meditation on what happens when the grossly-overstretched rubber band of cognitive dissonance in a gullible public finally snaps and they realize they’ve been frothingly supportive of the interests of the super-rich all their voting lives, as part of the Big Lie.” A chilling portrait of corruption and bloody revolution. all to a bossa nova beat.
Track #9, “I’ll Walk Out of Here,” was a spontaneous late-night creation that has all the feel of world-weary German cabaret. “I’d been listening a lot to Lou Reed’s 2006 live album and DVD that featured his ‘70s classic ‘Berlin’ played straight through,” Ehresman remembers, “and I think it soaked into my subconscious a bit.” Stark and dark, with late night piano from the cocktail lounge at the end of the world. The track is followed by the beautifully melancholic instrumental coda of Track “10, “I’m Ready”, the melody for which Ehresman says came to him in a dream.
Overall, Life Outside the Tent weaves its way through a host of themes and moods, providing moments for dancing as well as midnight reflection. For listeners who like to be taken on a journey through sound, Ehresman’s new album should provide a fine passport.
But there’s more.
The first bonus track is really an out-take from the sessions for Ehresman’s last solo album, Well.....Let’s Look at Your Track Record, Shall We?. Three different versions of the jazz ballad “Echo Down the Years” were recorded, each with a different lead vocalist and lead instrument. The first two versions appeared on that album, and now the third appears here as a bonus track. For this version, the vocals are handled by Walter’s ex-Delphi Rising and Snipe Hunt bandmate Vic Ramirez, with the leads handled by Ehresman on electric guitar. As in the other versions, piano is played by Max Grossenbacher.
The second bonus track is an instrumental mix of “Your Supersonic Stare,” where you can really hear all the subtle components of the groove.