Jeffrey Foucault Brings His Dark Lyrical Americana to the Rockwood

by delarue

On one hand, Jeffrey Foucault is the type of songwriter you see on Mountain Stage. He pretty much lives on the road, playing respectably midsize venues, something he’s been doing for the better part of ten years. But his moody, mostly slow-to-midtempo songs are a lot smarter and more interesting than most of what’s passing up and down the Americana highway. As befalls most songwriters who take their lyrics seriously these days, his twangy rock is heavily infused with country and blues, in the same vein as Steve Earle or James McMurtry. But where McMurtry will wind a yarn, Foucault spins off one image after another; where Earle heads for the country, Foucault goes off into growling Neil Young territory. He’s playing the big room at the Rockwood on March 5 at 7 PM on an intriguing doublebill with another lyrically-inclined Americana guy, Peter Mulvey.

Foucault’s most recent album Horse Latitudes doesn’t sound anything like the Doors, nor does it have artwork by Turner. Recorded in a whirlwind three-day session, it has some absolutely brilliant playing from an all-star cast: the ubiquitous Eric Heywood on pedal steel and lead guitar, Morphine’s Billy Conway on drums, Jennifer Condos on bass, and Van Dyke Parks, of all people, on keyboards.

The title track opens on a slowly swaying, dusky note  anchored by fingerpicked guitar and Conway’s meticulously ominous, boomy rhythm, with a simmering Heywood pedal steel crescendo on the way out. Foucault drawls a litany of doomed, surreal imagery:

Singing into the belly of a whale
Leviathan’s ribs, a drowning jail
The desert at the bottom of the sea
The devil with his finger on the scale

Pretty Girl in A Small Town makes it clear that Foucault spent some time listening to Nirvana at some point: “You used to walk to get away, there was nowhere you could stay,” begins this chronicle of frustration and isolation, themes that recur throughout his work. Starlight and Static sways moodily as Foucault eulogizes a nameless rocker he felt a kinship to: “They all thought they knew you, and I wanted no one to know me too.” He follows the bleakly skeletal acoustic vignette Heart to the Husk with the brooding nocturne Last Night I Dreamed of Television, with more Turner imagery over  marvelously stygian drumming.

Goners Most evokes Richard Buckner at his most minimalist as Foucault memorializes a teenage romance that never had a prayer. Everybody’s Famous contrasts Parks’ surrealist organ with Heywood’s casual savagery: with its enigmatic, Leonard Cohen-esque anger, it’s the best song on the album :

Everybody knows it, they saw your billboard in the rain
They heard your mama crying and you forgot your own real name
And she voted for your heartbreak and she smiled at your shame
Everybody’s famous
Everyone’s the same

Idaho paints a wintry tableau as Heywood’s steel sizzles and burns; then, on Passerines, Foucault juxtaposes considerably more ominous imagery over a slow, minor-key Tonight’s the Night groove. The album ends with the gently fingerpicked two-guitar reminiscence Tea and Tobacco and the unexpectedly upbeat, honkytonk-flavored road song Real Love. Foucault’s popularity is a welcome reminder that there’s still a sizeable audience for low-key, lyrically-driven rock that requires close listening. It also raises the question of how many other Jeffrey Foucaults there might be out there, battling their demons in song and pondering where the hell they’ll get the money to go out there on the road so they never have to come back.