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RECOMMENDATION: Tender Mercies (feat. Dan Vickrey of the Counting Crows)

 

I’ve spent a lot of time with Dan Vickrey over the years– I probably know his guitar work better than any other guitarist, in terms of sheer, “I’ve-listened-to-it-so-many-times-I-remember-what-it-sounded-like-before-it-skipped” repeated listens. I can sing every note of the lead guitar in almost every Counting Crows song: in moments like the bridge before the final verse in “Up All Night,” his guitar is what makes those words so full and haunted. I can’t talk about his music with words that honor how I feel about his work because what he creates in me isn’t verbal: it’s raw and physical and instinctual. I don’t know that there is any guitarist who has created more moments that live in me than he has.

 

And as a huge Counting Crows fan, I’ve known for some time that he had writing capabilities, too; I’ve known “Four White Stallions,” “Mercy,” and “Wiseblood” for years. I didn’t recognize that they were covers from another musical project of his– though the band has been called several things throughout the years, they’ve settled on Tender Mercies and put together a collection of the same name. The band features Vickrey, of course, on guitar and vocals (you’ll recognize his vocals from the harmony parts in Crows songs); Patrick Willingham on vocals and guitar; Kurt Stevenson on bass (who is also a phenomenal songwriter, a trait so many people in this band seem to share); and Jim Bogios on drums.

 

Listen to “Safe & Sound,” “Four White Stallions,” “Wiseblood,” and “Heaven Knows” here

 

Vickrey said that these songs are “the ultimate version of these songs”, and I feel like that’s the best way to describe them. I’ve seen that they’re compared often with Dylan and the Band, and while I can absolutely hear that, it’s also got this undercurrent of Bakersfield country. Though this record is twenty years in the making, the songs feel both older than that and new and fresh: it feels like they waited until they knew these songs before putting them in their final versions, and I think that’s a huge part of what makes Tender Mercies succeed as a record.

 

It’s hard for me not to want to talk about “Four White Stallions” first: I’ve loved this song for years. It’s so cool to hear what it sounds like “finished”, and while it took me a while to get used to a new voice on the track, it’s certainly a beautiful song, and the vocals are a big part of why. The harmonies on, “I’ve got four good reasons why I can’t go back there again,” is so gorgeous that it makes you stop anything else you’re doing to focus—this is a gorgeous song. Some of my favorite lyrics on the record are in this song—

 

“She had skin like a statue, milky white and pure

Carved by an artist whose hand are so demure

And a mind like a sabre, razor-sharp and sure

And God, how I hate myself for still wanting her”

 

The bridge of the song features a breakdown with muted vocals, jangly keys, and a sprawling guitar solo, and ties back together with the line, “Nothing more than a heart still at war.” This song illustrates that well—there’s this pull between being a straightforward broken heart song and something a little more elevated than that, something more pure. This is heartbreak, sure, but it’s a very artistic, very conceptual heartbreak. I love this song so much, and I love this version more than I figured I would. It’s gorgeous.

 

 

To work backwards, though, the record starts with a breathlessly sweet “Safe & Sound,” a song that uses carnival imagery to talk about the way love feels. It’s almost strange to hear this imagery as a positive (re: Aimee Mann “Dear John,” Natalie Merchant “Carnival,” Aimee Mann “Looking for Nothing”– etc.), but it’s done artfully here:

 

You’re speaking softly into my broken ears

Your voice assures me there’s nothing here to fear

And on a night like this I should know

The stars are crystal clear, the moon’s a side show

Looking into the sky you can see

This carnival of emotion inside of me

Spinning round upon the ferris wheel

There’s no words to explain this feeling I feel

 

This overwhelmed narrator sums everything up with the chorus, a simple, “All this time I know that I must be the luckiest man in the world.” Going into the second verse, the instrumentation fleshes out, which is most evident in the great tone of the song—the guitar is tasteful but commands attention. This song also foreshadows the way I come to see the guitar work on the rest of the record– it feels very much a response to the lyrics instead of as a complement to them. This is a conversation, albeit a lighthearted one, to kick off the record.

 

 

In fact, a lot of this disc is upbeat and deals with spiritual matters (going as far as to actually write a spiritual in the vein of “In My Hour of Darkness” with “Mercy,” the almost-traditional, definitely moving ballad), which makes an old favorite of mine, “Wiseblood,” stand out. It explores the spiritual and ethereal realm as well, but in a darker light– there’s an understanding in this song that from the time this character was a child, he couldn’t be saved.

 

I’m an outcast that no one can save anymore

The days of my youth have long gone by now

I was the kind of boy the devil always offered a smoke and a drink to

Or a ride downtown…

 

The build-up to the chorus here sounds, to me, very Black Crowes/roots rock—it’s got the same Exile feel as “Lovin’ Cup,” and then the guitar just shreds. This is a song about a man who fought actively against salvation—and while it uses religious imagery to accomplish that (ripping away from the baptismal hands), by recalling the Rolling Stones musically, it succeeds on several levels. “Wiseblood” is about human nature: people are how they are. And there are no tricks in this song—he tells us in the first line, “I’m an outcast that no one can save anymore,” and as he tells the story, you believe this narrator. Just a fantastic song, and full of that gritty rock-n-roll that makes you feel like you’ve lived some dark past—even if you haven’t. That said, it’s darker than a lot of songs.

 

 

Each song has a different strength: the final track, “Faded Memories,” feels very Parsons-y: simple rhymes that reach profound truths, and all in just a few minutes. There’s the beautiful, lingering portrait of “Angeline,” a woman who has had a hard life but is sure “life’s going somewhere/ And for that, you know that you are better than the rest”; there’s the energetic, Old 97′s-esque “Ball & Chain”; and there’s the beautiful “Riding Blind.” This is a diverse group of songs, but each song stands so good as an individual track that it’s hard to argue with anything here. The music is as good as you would hope, and by using so much spiritual and classic rock imagery and tone, it feels both familiar and sacred, the way all good music should. The pianos aren’t overused, but when they are present, they are breathtaking; and, while I would expect no less, I was blown away by Vickrey’s guitar work. It’s a phenomenal record.

 

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