Memories to Burn
Yes, that really is a pedal steel guitar conveying sadness over the “Death of a Clown.” Even more amazing is Andrew and David Williams’ blood-harmony presentation of said song, Dave Davies’ 1967 solo debut single. But the real kicker is that this magnificent “new” album was recorded in 1995, taking more than 27 years to see the light of day.
Andrew and David come from good stock: Their father, Don, and three of his brothers (including uncle Andy, of “Moon River” fame) formed the original Williams Brothers in 1938. The second-generation Williams Brothers enjoyed success, too — first as teen idols “Andy & David Williams” in the 1970s; then as backing vocalists in the ’80s for artists such as the Plimsouls, T-Bone Burnett, the Cruzados and Brian Setzer; and finally as an “adult contemporary” duo, releasing three albums for Warner Bros. from 1987 to 1993.
“Memories to Burn” is their fourth, albeit time-delayed, album. The lineup comprises pedal steel, acoustic guitar, drums and electric bass, and the 10 songs encompass five covers and five originals (one by the twins and four by Marvin Etzioni, who played bass and served as producer).
“We were working on music in preparation for our appearance in the movie ‘Grace of My Heart,’ ” David Williams told Good New Music by email, “where we played the Click Brothers, a fictionalized version of the Everly Brothers. The movie was directed by Allison Anders with music supervised by Larry Klein, who wrote and produced the two songs we performed in the film.
“That experience lit a flame in us to think about making a country record with the two-part harmonies we had grown up singing. Our frequent collaborator and producer Marvin Etzioni had written some great Everly-type songs and brought in songs by Dave Davies (‘Death of a Clown’) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (‘Piney Wood Hills’). We had already been performing Iris DeMent’s ‘Let the Mystery Be’ for a year or so — first playing it live at the Newport Folk Festival where we were sharing the bill with her. The Robbie Fulks songs were suggested by our friend, publisher Tom DeSavia. We liked the quirky rawness of the Fulks songs and they fit into the Everly approach we wanted to take. For the album, we wanted a diverse and interesting group of songs that would have the unifying thread of two-part harmonies and pedal steel guitar.”
And that pedal steel guitarist who got the call is one of today’s best: Greg Leisz.
“The idea was to just play from the heart and be true to the songs,” Leisz recalled via email. “I always rely on my instinct; it’s really the only way I know how to play.”
Leisz added that he worked with Andrew and David on their third and final Warner Bros. album, “Harmony Hotel,” as well as on “many other memorable projects with Marvin and with the great and sorely missed Don Heffington” (Lone Justice drummer, who rounded out the “Memories to Burn” quintet).
“I had known Greg for years by that point,” Etzioni, Lone Justice bassist, told GNM in an email, “and we can work telepathically. … Of course, bringing in my pal Don Heffington … was a no-brainer. Since I was on bass, Don completed and took any rhythm section he was part of to another level. Going in a more country-tinged direction with Leisz and Heffington — no better choice could have been made.
“Andrew and David brought in songs that they would start singing and playing, and we would fall in. There was no game plan. Let’s play, have fun and not worry about the process of ‘making a record.’ If you’ve got songs that are strong and vocals that inspire, the songs will begin to play themselves. We instinctively listened to each other. We were part of something greater.”
The arresting treatment given “Death of a Clown” surely will put a smile on the face of Kinks fans, as that group had a fascination with country music that peaked on “Muswell Hillbillies” and, to a lesser extent, the studio half of the follow-up “Everybody’s in Show Biz.”
“Country music was a big part of the British Invasion sound,” Etzioni opined, “especially with the Kinks. ‘Death of a Clown’ is from the Kinks album ‘Something Else.’ On their previous album, ‘Face to Face,’ the opening track, ‘Party Line,’ has a definite two-beat country feel as does ‘Dandy’ (which was a hit by Herman’s Hermits). I’m attracted to upbeat songs with sad lyrics. I also gravitate toward the subject of the ‘circus.’ ‘Death of a Clown’ could have been used in the film ‘Limelight’ with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; it could have also been the title of the film.
“If I had the time, I would record an album called ‘Kinks Kountry’ or gather popular artists of our time to each record a country-inspired Kinks song. It would make a wonderful album.”
The Etzioni-penned title track is another delight. The brothers intermittently “slide” their voices in unison, to a slightly higher pitch, creating an effect not unlike switching an LP from 33-1/3 to 45 rpm. Throw in a walking bass line à la Nancy Sinatra’s “Boots,” and heads start to turn.
“I grew up on the Nancy Sinatra singles produced by Lee Hazlewood, including ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking,’ Etzioni told GNM. “Perhaps I played a descending bass part in that style subconsciously.”
One could call it a stroke of subconscious genius!
And then there’s the opening “Tears Only Run One Way,” the first of two Fulks covers [the other being “She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)] — talk about honky-tonk heaven! Or “You Can’t Hurt Me,” another Etzioni number, which positively oozes new-found romantic nonattachment, aided by Leisz’s western-swing stylings.
The brothers’ own “She’s Got That Look in Her Eyes” is one of the album’s slower ballads, and a pretty one.
According to David Williams, it was “one of the earliest songs we ever wrote, probably when we were in our early 20s, heavily influenced by the Everly Brothers. … It had never been performed or released before we pulled it out to be included on ‘Memories to Burn.’ ”
The closer, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Piney Wood Hills,” also is a bit melancholic but speaks of a yearning for nature rather than romance. Certain baby boomers may recall her singing it on national TV in a 1970 episode of the nearly forgotten Michael Parks series, “… Then Came Bronson.”
A lot of what makes “Memories” a great album has to do with its production values: It was recorded live in the studio by Andrew Williams, and mastered by Sean Magee at Abbey Road.
“Andrew Williams is a great engineer and producer in his own right,” Etzioni proclaimed. “I trusted him. Tape captures energy, and that is what happened here; it’s undeniable. Some of my favorite records were cut this way: Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Elvis, Sinatra, The Beatles (check out ‘Twist and Shout’) — the list goes on. You better be on your game, because you’re working without a net. No punch-ins, no overdubs.
1. Tears Only Run One Way
2. Cryin’ And Lyin’
3. Death Of A Clown
4. Let The Mystery Be
5. She’s Got That Look In Her Eyes
6. You Can’t Hurt Me
7. She Took A Lot Of Pills (And Died)
8. Memories To Burn
9. Unanswered Prayers
10. Piney Wood Hills
Total time: 21:05