Saturday, December 5, 2009

GARY HEFFERN GIVES CONSOLATION There's an Elvis Costello song called “Man Out of Time” and that title is always one I’ve thought applicable to Gary Heffern. His voice, his pensive songs, and his outsized personality suggest a simpler and earlier era. Like the struggling men and women in the short stories of Raymond Carver, or the figures sitting at diner stools in the paintings of Edward Hopper, the characters in Heffern’s songs exist in a noir-ish netherworld of an uncertain time but one that surely is not ours. They drift and struggle in a place where the simple concept of consolation exists as a salvation.
Heffern is a songwriter’s songwriter, which is one of the reasons his work has always commanded so much respect from other musicians. Many stellar names contribute to Consolation including musicians from such noteworthy bands as the Screaming Trees, Young Fresh Fellows, Love Battery, Walkabouts, Built to Spill, Motels, Mad Season, and Tuatara, among others. Even when Heffern is singing with Alejandro Escovedo or Mark Lanegan, both of whom take vocal turns here, these collaborations come off as a further explorations of the Heffern’s worldview.
Nine of the thirteen songs here are Heffern originals but even the four covers have a melancholy. On “All His Children” Heffern takes a forgotten song from the over-looked film “Sometimes a Great Notion,” and turns it into an anthem of longing. Considering that Heffern’s voice is at times reminiscent of both Johnny Cash and Nick Cave, it is no surprise to see him take on a Merle Travis song, or to take a refrain from Gram Parsons. Still, Heffern’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up” is such a re-imagining that it now sounds like it came off Nebraska rather than Springsteen’s 1973 debut.
In Heffern’s own songs there is a constant struggle between darkness and light, between failed dreams and reckless prayer, between a world where all hope is lost and one where a consoling friend offers a sliver of deliverance. Even on a song as haunting as “(I Am Your) Destroyer,” which sounds like Iggy Pop could have written it, there is still a core of sweetness among the ruins. “That’s the Beauty (Of the Little Things in Life)” truly rings with a ghost: It was written in Seattle’s Comet Tavern on the very night that Gits’ singer Mia Zapata went missing (and later turned up murdered). Not only a remarkable time piece, “That’s the Beauty” demonstrates Heffern’s skill at creating a story arc that celebrates the fragility of life at the same time it bemoans it. It’s the kind of re-framing that is uniquely Gary Heffern and part of what makes Consolation a career-defining album. Charles R. Cross


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