For every songwriter willing to churn their guitar with some chutzpah there are at least 1,000 others with no idea what it means to have guts. On his first three studio albums Lee Miles ( lo.automatic) seemed to be building up to something bigger; with his fourth studio album, 1000 Lions, Miles has found what it takes to be his best creative self: it's called nerve. The nerve to sound exactly how he wants to sound despite knowing that most folks in his postal region won't value what he's doing. The nerve to write with a perspective that nine out of 10 people wont understand. The nerve to be swagger. The never to finally, after over a decade of growth, do it how he knew he should've been doing it all along. Call it the spirit of Jandek.
First and foremost, 1000 Lions showcases Miles' new, timeless vocal style. It's rough and raw, but, similar to modern artists like Jay Farrar, Todd Snider and even Bruce Springsteen, Miles' voice has a coarse, masculine tone that can't help but reveal itself as vulnerable and fraught when appropriate. This new, passionate, folk-friendly vocal approach better compliments Miles' intellectual, poetic lyrics, which, until now, have been the focus of his work. The focal point here, however, is Miles' mastery of the DIY approach.
Played and recorded almost entirely by himself (though co-produced by guitarist/engineer Jon Keller) over the span of a year in his apartment, 1000 Lions matches the sound quality of Elliott Smith's first few albums with it's organically produced, acoustic-based format. Sure, there are banjos, whistles, claps, harmonica riffs, backing vocals, tambourines and even a rare drum kick or two, but, similar to Iron & Wine's debut album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, the spotlight here is on the artist, his guitar and his craft. The flourishes are all subtle and appropriate, working as support for Miles guitar playing, which jumps from style to style all throughout the album's 50 minute duration.
Comprised of 13 originals, 1000 Lions starts off strong with "Oh My Eyes," a song that will surely make listeners think of Elliott Smith, before heading into "Pestilences," which immediately brings to mind "Gulf Shores," a similarly sun-drenched song by Miles' hero, Will Oldham. These two artists – who just might be the two best songwriters of the 1990s – are clearly Miles' influences, and for a lesser artist than Miles, having such unique influences might prove detrimental. Not here. Miles' craft is so developed and genuine that his music can stand with said artist's work, rather than in the shadows. That said, another track, "Wait For Thee," also sounds quite a bit like Oldham, though easily better than most of Oldham's output since 2003's classic Master and Everyone, which would sound just right if played in tandem with Miles' album.
Other standout tracks include the Springsteen-spirited "Incident at Lonoke County," the ramshackle, banjo-driven "Tenochtitlan," the middle class anthem "1,000 Pieces" and "Wolf and Guarder," all of which support Miles' often dark themes of murder, loyalty and frustration. Though it may not always seem deliberately noticeable (attribute that to Miles' knack for cryptic, poetic songwriting), Miles is passionate about the United States' troubled political landscape, and it's all over these recordings, but not in a Neil Young Living With War dated-on-the-day-it's-written sort of way. Miles is smarter than that, and the political aspects of 1000 Lions are dealt with in a timeless, universal and gutsy manner, just as they should be.
Miles' last official studio album, Bear, was good, and so was his covers-only 2006 release, Leaves That Are Green, but this album is better. Much better. So much better that anyone familiar with Miles' past work may as well forget ever hearing said past releases. This is an artist's album; it could've been released 40 years ago or 40 years from now and it would still sound just right. It's not perfect, there are slight missteps here and there, but as a whole, 1000 Lions is a luminous singer/songwriter album, full of heart, brains, passion, love and hate. In a word, Mile's latest offering is masterful. It's also gutsy. And beautiful. And about 997 other things.
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