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In three parts
I. Reshuffling the Deck
II. Ten Daggers on the Table
III. The Songs
I. RESHUFFLING THE DECK
Day after day, pencil in hand, always dressed in blue. Never feeling satisfied. Itchy. Incomplete. Attired halfway between a businessman and a janitor, Pokey LaFarge tries to make sense of trouble he’s seen and trouble he’s been in. This is the Great Why of his unending passion for songwriting. An unquenchable need to be heard in a world where everyone is talking and nobody is listening.
The songs on Pokey’s transformative new album MANIC REVELATIONS demand your attention. Here, you get the feeling this man is constantly reshuffling the deck in favor of some outcome or other. Each chord, each riff shades the stories he sets up in his lyrics. But make no mistake – no matter how the cards lay, he is searching for the purest truth; he loves laying in the muck. Whatever it takes to serve the song. He wouldn’t know what to do if his life were any other way.
Sit with him over a cup of coffee at The Mud House on Cherokee Street in South City St. Louis, and you’ll see for yourself: he easily is uneasy, pushing one squalid thought away to make way for another, sometimes darker one. It’s not that he’s a miserable guy; quite the opposite. To lay it plain: you simply don’t get songs like these without becoming very friendly with the darkness in your head, and with the social distortion of the day. These are the currents Pokey dips into to create his songs.
In conversation, he’ll stare right through you as you speak. They call it the Quiet Eye. It’s that uncanny ability the best athletes in the world have; it’s what sets them apart. Pokey has it too. You see this with pitchers in Pokey’s beloved game of baseball. A guy can look at a complex scene and instantly focus on what he needs to do to get a strike. In a noisy stadium, there’s a focus from the mound to the catcher’s mitt. That’s the game. In a flash, the ball moves at 90-some-odd miles per hour, and the fate of an entire city hangs in the balance. When that pitcher’s focus delivers, a game is won – and a banged up old Midwestern city like St. Louis is instantly elevated to an all-century high.
Taking a sip of his ever-present cup of black coffee (switched out for red wine every day at sunfall), Pokey is the pitcher who breaks his stillness, winds up, and fires off the final strike of a shutout. At the table, he eventually tips his gaze to you, inhales, and launches back into the conversation. In these moments, Pokey’s as likely to agree with what you’ve just said as he is to turn the table upside down.
Knowing that music is as influential in today’s jagged American culture as the country’s favorite pastime, it’s powerful to see Pokey locking into and emerging from his Quiet Eye stance. Again, you don’t get songs like these without a little fire. And when the conversation turns to the heat that brews in his own belly, Pokey leans in, stares straight ahead, and offers this: “The darkness? The anger? It comes out in my singing. With a beautiful lyric and a beautiful melody. It comes out in the passion.”
“All these opinions out there…” he trails off, looking over his right shoulder at a painting of Woody Guthrie hanging on the wall. “It’s about getting people to feel something. Other than anger.”
Plenty of feelings reveal themselves in the 10 forlorn, haunting melodies on MANIC REVELATIONS. Each one of these songs is the culmination of a decade of hard work in what has become something of a bellwether city. And with the release of these 10 songs, St. Louis will have something more than World Series wins to mark a moment in time.
But Pokey has no intention of winning any accolades with his music. He just wants to get more at home with the noise in his head. Comfortable would be nice, but nobody’s ever heard Pokey speak of a dream of an easy life. Those types of songs are for somebody else to sing. Pokey LaFarge makes good truck out of this thing that he pushes against – whatever it may be in a given moment.
“That’s what the record’s about: confronting,” says Pokey. “For me, this whole album is about composing and confronting.”
II. TEN DAGGERS ON THE TABLE
Pokey LaFarge is a musician. He is a storyteller. He is a feeler of feelings. He is a narrator of the messy, unkempt American experience. He sits, he watches, he writes. Everything that’s worth happening happens in his songs. Like the long line of writers and performers he descends from, music isn’t something Pokey does – it’s something he is.
This is why MANIC REVELATIONS shines like 10 daggers laying on the kitchen table in his St. Louis home. From that vantage point, in the center of this vast continent, Pokey takes long looks from shore to shore, feeling the direction of social winds, ingesting sights and sounds from all around, observing the news of the day.
And so he was ready for the evening when a sociological tinderbox caught fire. Mere minutes from his front door, night after night, social unrest caused everyone in America to stop and wonder which side they were on. In the face of this upheaval, Pokey took to his studio and began writing. That’s how artists deal with uncertainty: they bleed on paper until the pain subsides. Soon, he found that one song led to the next. He couldn’t put it down. One manic revelation led to another. In the thrall of it all, an album started to appear in front of him.
“The manic revelation is the state where artists create,” says Pokey. “I got to the point in writing these songs where I felt like a house on fire that just kept burning.”
But long before he caught fire, he started on the smallest stage one could imagine: playing by himself on street corners. He moved to the west coast to follow the ghosts of the Beat writers, and Steinbeck before them. He began to ply his craft in the bitter cold of Madison, Wisconsin; in Kentucky, he learned the mandolin; and in the sweltering humidity of Asheville, North Carolina, he learned the fiddle. That’s where he met a few guys who would urge him to come to St. Louis to play; soon after, they would become his backing band, the South City Three.
And now, thousands of shows on four continents later, we find ourselves here, on the eve of release for Pokey’s most powerful album.
“I’ve always felt that the live shows were the best representation of our music,” he says. “Only now do I feel that I’ve made a better record than the live performance.”
This is the one where the style of music recedes, as the foreground swells with evidence of Pokey’s observations of pain, joy, confusion. This one is where his artistic character shines. And where we see that artistic blood on the page, unvarnished and raw. MANIC REVELATIONS is the second coming of an artist who, over the past decade, has taken the workaday approach to building a body of work, and a worldwide fanbase. After a decade of struggle, it’s all paid off here. And it’s all riding on this album.
“A lot of things haven’t gone my way,” says Pokey. “I’ve haven’t become successful in spite of the things I had to overcome, rather, I’ve become successful because of what I had to overcome. It’s all made me better. And now there’s no going back.”
True to this statement, there are no lookback songs on MANIC REVELATIONS. This album is all about looking outward, looking forward – and we’ve never seen Pokey’s observational craft in a more stark relief. This hasn’t happened by chance. Artists who write from real life experience have no choice but to change themselves if they want to progress their art. With this in mind, Pokey has been hard at work pushing out the corners on himself.
“This album is about confronting yourself,” explains Pokey. “It’s about confronting your city, its relation with the world, and all its people. In the pursuit of making myself a better person, I create better art. Which hopefully makes the world a better place. Still, at times, I need to get away from it all.”
III. THE MUSIC
MANIC REVELATIONS kicks off with a cold open.
A crack of the snare and an insistent upright bass riff are the clarion call. From there, “Riot in the Streets” throttles up, ripping MANIC REVELATIONS wide open.
Halfway through the song you realize this story—where the rich and the poor alike line up to riot, or peacefully protest, while TV news anchors somewhat unreliably narrate the scene—is reported judiciously; he isn’t swaying the listener to one side or the other.
“Look, I’m an opinionated person,” says Pokey. “But that doesn’t extend itself into my writing. I’ve always been an observer. Telling a story isn’t always about having an opinion. It’s about painting a picture.”
In “Must Be A Reason,” people fall into and out of—and back into—love. On this song, and all over the album, he shoves in the crying wherever he can. Not because he thinks it’s entertaining. Because he’s lived it. And he knows that others know this sadness, too. On an album filled with personal and cultural pressure release valves, this tune is the one about the politics of romance.
“In a relationship,” says Pokey, “you run out of stories to tell. You run out of excuses. You run out of ways to get her back. Sometimes you’re on the precipice—she’s getting ready to leave. But I always remember someone saying: the only way to stay together is to fucking stay together.”
“Bad Dreams” illustrates a classic “wherever you go, there you are” story: lovers leave home to travel the world. They want to escape the friction at home. Some call this “pulling a geographic.” When they return, it’s clear that changing location didn’t help; the real problem is still staring them in the mirror.
“You realize you’re coming home,” Pokey explains, “to the same problems that caused you to go away in the first place. It’s not the city. You can’t get away from yourself.”
Now, if you listen to only one of these manic revelations, it should be “Silent Movie.” He wrote this one in 15 minutes. 15 minutes! That decade of looking and writing and traveling and playing culminates in this song. And truth be told, we’ve never heard this kind of song from this guy.
“Silent Movie” is on par with the best social narratives of Nilsson, Campbell, Kristofferson. As a lone guitar line drags the song along, Pokey pulls focus on a kid adorned in headphones on a Chicago El train. He may be on his way to school, or he may be on his way home. Regardless of the position of the sun in the sky, the world outside the windows is too much for this kid to take in. “Cover your ears and watch the world go by,” Pokey sings, “That’s how we survive.” A clarinet drizzles a saddening pattern over the entire scene, and we begin to wonder: where are we headed if a whole generation is growing up feeling this way? Shoving in the sadness. The song goes on: “Growing up is a scam / The truth is a lie / Better off staying a child / Till the day you die / Stay inside your mind / Or go outside and find a place to hide.”
“The song is about shutting out the noise,” says Pokey. “Coming up with your own soundtrack, in this country where there’s more questions than answers, it seems.”
Never feeling satisfied. Always dressed in blue. Diving into the darkness. Turning the table upside down. Wherever you go, there you are. Fucking stay together. Better off staying a child. This album is an epoch for Pokey LaFarge. You feel it all over these 10 revelations.
“Now I’ve found my groove,” says Pokey. “I don’t have to overcompensate anymore. Nobody looks and sounds like me. And I’m OK with that.”
“Recording in a foreign environment like Berlin, I was inspired to experiment with more cinematic, psychedelic sounds,” says Sam Doores, “but I also wanted to combine that with my love for old school New Orleans R&B and folk music. Recording this album was an opportunity to explore the space between those worlds.”
Written on-and-off over the course of several years, Doores’ captivating self-titled debut is classic and contemporary all at once, blending traditional southern roots with adventurous sonic landscapes as it reckons with heartache and loss, love and gratitude, fresh starts and, ultimately, a whole lotta change. Doores’ timeless ear for songcraft and easygoing delivery combine here to yield a sound that feels instantly familiar, full of comfort and warmth even as it breaks bold new ground. The performances are infectious in their ease, simple on the surface but built on foundations of deep emotional and harmonic complexity that belie their amiable exteriors. It’s a dynamic that Doores is quick to credit to producer Anders ‘Ormen’ Christopherson, whose chance email sparked the entire project.
“Before Hurray for the Riff Raff or The Deslondes took shape, I was in a band called Sundown Songs alongside Kiki Cavazos, Alynda Segarra, Pat Reedy, Jessie Camerdiener, and Ross Hartman,” says Doores, who’s called New Orleans home since 2006. “Anders found our music a few years later and sent me an email saying he was opening a studio in Berlin, and if I ever came through, he’d love to record together.”
As chance would have it, Doores was just about to head to Europe at the time with The Deslondes. Hailed as “burgeoning stars” by The New York Times, the band came together as Doores was transitioning out of Hurray for the Riff Raff, and their singular sound mixed the gritty folk and country of old Alan Lomax field recordings with the electrified soul of early Stax and Sun Records. The group’s 2014 self-titled debut was a breakout hit, praised by NPR as “energized, elegant and new,” and their 2017 follow-up, ‘Hurry Home,’ earned similar acclaim, with Rolling Stone calling it “a gritty, grimy mix of early rock 'n' roll and lo-fi R&B.”
“I booked myself an extra week in Berlin at the end of that Deslondes tour so I could meet Anders and check out the studio,” says Doores. “They had just finished it when I got there, which meant I was the very first session. We only did a few songs to start with, but they all felt great, so over the next few years, every time I came back through Europe on tour, I’d visit Anders and we’d record some more.”
For a prolific writer like Doores, Christopherson and his studio were a godsend. At first, he used the recording time to capture songs that didn’t quite fit The Deslondes’ vibe, but when a long-term creative and romantic relationship came to a poignant end, Doores found himself penning an avalanche of personal material that only felt right to record under his own name.
“Writing those songs was my way of moving past it all and embracing the changes happening in my life,” says Doores. “That relationship ended, and then later The Deslondes decided to go on sabbatical. Those big endings were painful, but I knew that no matter how hard it was, the experience would be a positive one in the end.”
Working in Berlin, Doores found himself collaborating with an inspiring cast of characters from all over the world. There was Christopherson, the Danish-born producer; Micah Blaichman, an American guitarist who helped Anders build his studio and ended up co-producing the project; Andres Barlesi, a gifted Argentinean bassist; Carlos Santana (no, not that one), a Spanish keyboard and horn wizard; and Manon Parent, a violinist and string arranger hailing from France.
“Anders’ vision for the studio was to create a space for artists who couldn’t afford formal recording sessions,” explains Doores, “so he only works on projects he really cares about, and that’s attracted a community of musicians who share those same values. Together, they make up this wild international ‘Wrecking Crew’ of sorts.”
Most of the songs on the album began as bare-bones performance by the core band, usually featuring Doores on drums. After capturing the basic tracks on a reel-to-reel tape machine, Doores would move on to vocals next, and from there, he and Christopherson would flesh out the arrangements with a rich palette of colors and textures: sweeping strings, vintage organs, marimbas, ethereal vibraphones, and even an autoharp run through a tremolo amplifier. Once sessions in Berlin had wrapped, Doores brought the songs back to the States for stops in Nashville, where he worked with longtime friend and creative foil Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Benjamin Booker, Phosphorescent), and New Orleans, where he enlisted a slew of friends, neighbors, and bandmates to put their distinctive touches on the recordings.
At times calling to mind everything from Leonard Cohen to Tom Waits, the finished collection shifts effortlessly from brooding noir to joyful celebration. The dreamy “Let It Roll” takes life as it comes, while the tender “Had a Dream” makes peace with letting go, and the soulful “This Ain’t a Sad Song” finds light in the darkness. Heartache is never far from humor in Doores’ writing: he teams up with New Orleans mainstays Tuba Skinny to toast an ex on the swaggering “Wish You Well,” and he alternates verses with his old bandmate Alynda Lee Segarra on the playful “Other Side of Town,” which mixes New Orleans R&B with doo-wop gang vocals in a psychedelic blender.
“I came up with that song during carnival season,” says Doores. “I wanted to write something fun and groovy to cheer my sad, sorry ass up while the world was partying all around me.”
While much of the album works to make sense of hard times (the eerie “Solid Road,” for instance, meditates on bad luck, and the ethereal “Red Leaf Rag” grapples with violence), the collection ultimately emerges stronger and more self-assured for the journey. The slow-burning “Push On” is an ode to community and resilience in the face of adversity, while the stripped-down “Windmills” reflects on fatherhood, alcoholism, and self-worth, and surreal album closer “Nothing Like A Suburb,” originally written for Doores’ sister’s wedding, celebrates the decision to love and commit.
“In the beginning, I thought this project was just going to be a fun way to record some songs that didn’t have a home,” Doores reflects, “but in the end, it became a really important creative outlet for me during a turbulent time in my life.”
The result is an album written as much for himself as for his audience. It’s the sound of heartbreak, of self-discovery, of rebirth. It’s the sound of Sam Doores.
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