Okay, no more pussyfooting or playing it safe; with Heathen Blux, folk-footed songwriter Lee Miles has released an album better than any this reviewer has heard so far this year. Led by unforgettable songs like “The Fuss,” “Catch a Snare,” “Down at the Massacre,” “Peasant Blues” and “Deserters,” Miles has released a lean, levelheaded album of artistic depth and maturity that no one – not even high-cred studs from New York, Fort Wayne, Portland or Bangladesh – seem able to touch right now. Miles has just simply done it. He’s made something that will follow him around the rest of his life. He’s written and recorded an accessible (read: downright lovable) folk album that rings through triumphantly with stark poetics, haunting accompaniments and rarely told truths that can only be described as “fighting words.”
In Miles’ own words, Blux is “about the people who have been forgotten. It’s about treason as the new patriotism; people are sold down the river every day by the folks closest to them.” Blux is about, well, people, society, hope, history and trust. Simple things made cloudy by the folks we trust with the power of our freedoms. It sounds a bit muddy and sad in summation, but, really, Blux is about redemption, revolution and respect – all good, important things. The album is, in frank terms, a modestly recorded and methodically organic singer/songwriter album about one man’s feelings on modern times. Simple. Clear. Hopeful. Unbelievably good.
The lyrics pop to the head throughout Blux, surely, but also prominent are Miles’ thrifty arrangements, meticulous vocals and unlikely phrasings. An artist with many great moments in his past, Miles sounds anew here, as if everything leading up to the release of Blux was preparation or even trial-and-error, especially his vocal style. That said, the song arrangements aren’t convoluted neu-folk art pieces; they’re creative and minimalist, made for interesting, affable listening. Miles takes the slack-y, organic, off-beat sound Will Oldham perfected about a decade or so ago and makes it his own, so much so that Oldham comparisons – save for a vocal inflection here and there – no longer function. The nods to the artist’s heroes – Neil Young and Bob Dylan – still linger in spirit, but Miles has really accomplished something with this record: he’s found a small corner of the songwriter genre that hasn’t yet been captured. For this, Blux almost feels like a debut, or at least Miles’ first proper artistic launch.
Let’s get back to the lyrics. No matter how obscured the themes sometimes are in Miles’ latest set of songs, Blux has an unavoidable political backbone that can’t be ignored – thankfully one that never defaults to the simplistic “go team, revolt!” methodology. Miles sings these fight songs with vocals so detailed and strong that you have to perk up and listen to his conviction as he drops punchline-worthy observations about a dumbed-down society where clever politicians run wild. We, as everyday citizens, know very little about what really goes on; Miles’ writing is always aware of that, landing home the gist – usually through a storyteller approach – without ever coming off as anything other than a sturdy voice for, as they say, “what should be and rarely is.” Most important to this brand of usually wrongly informed subject matter is the clergyman at the center of it all; Miles never once takes a break to indulge in his own character, opting to tell his stories, landing his points in vague, never sensational terms. Lines like “You’ll spill my blood before you take my home” and “The healers make sick, yet they cash in the checks from the drugs they sell” are about as obvious as they get on Blux, making for an album worth studying, living with and – no kidding – believing in.
“Blux is the first cohesive, concise album I’ve done. The sound is rough but very clear,” offered the artist about his recent recordings, all of which he wrote, played, recorded and produced by himself in a modest studio assembled in his girlfriend’s basement. “I was blacking out. I was dizzy and weak; I felt like I was dying,” Miles said about the state he was in during the three or so months it took him to write and record the 23 songs from which Blux’ 11-song tracklist is culled. “When you’re sick and you feel like you’re going to die you lose any sense of wanting to elevate yourself for ego purposes. This album is for the folks who haven’t forgotten that.”
Miles and his band, the Illegitimate Sons, will play an album release show at the Brass Rail in Fort Wayne on Saturday, May 31. The show, which begins at 9 p.m., will also feature live sets by Alabaster Fox, Mister Doctor Professor and Thunderhawk. Miles will be selling copies of his album for $5. Money well spent. (Greg Locke)
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