Natural Child Okey DokeyNatural Child: Still Ain’t Stoppin’

By Jay Armstrong

“To ‘give style’ to one’s character that is a grand and a rare art! He who surveys all that his nature presents in its strength and in its weakness, and then fashions it into an ingenious plan, until everything appears artistic and rational, and even the weaknesses enchant the eye—exercises that admirable art.” – Friedrich Nietzsche – The Joyful Wisdom; Sanctus Januarius – 290.

At what point did the Rolling Stones go from being the band on the fringe of the collective all’s peripheral radar, growing further from their derivative beginning with each album, until WHAM! they were THE STONES?  It may not be Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones Records 1971) but we are certainly getting into Let It Bleed (Decca Records 1969) territory on Natural Child’s fifth record Okey Dokey, the album which is likely to go down as the best of the year and, albeit arguable, certainly in the running for their strongest album to date. Before all you blowhards start spewing vile purest hot air over the blasphemy of comparing anyone to the Rolling Stones, I hear and sympathize with your argument, at some point though we need to stop cutting down bands simply for circling in on the imagined hallowed territory we as a cynical generation refuse to allow from any sound modern. Though if you demand a more comfortable comparison we could just as easily concede to Okey Dokey being on point with Fighting (Vertigo/Mercury 1975) era Thin Lizzy if Phil Lynott had been more into New Riders of the Purple Sage.

Having tastefully avoided pigeonholing their sound, Natural Child could have continued on making “Chris’ Blues” knockoffs for the rest of their short lived relevance, favoring instead the more important path of taking all the insight and progress earned along the eight years of road-worn hard living and allowing the maturity found in those lessons to speak through each album with the noble air of transformation. The concept of a “developing band” has been unjustly antiquated, we now expect every artist who dares stand before us to consider themselves having arrived at their destination rather than calling us to join them on their ongoing path to somewhere. To do it without going in the commercial sellout, desperately seeking a single for monetary gain, aspirations we have allowed ourselves to be let down by with countless other bands possessing half the potential of what these guys continue to demonstrate is in itself one of the nobler convictions we have witnessed in this dystopian wasteland of strangled talent at the hands of capitalism.

On Okey Dokey we see the band officially setting sail from rock n roll’s golden calf label Burger Records into the often daunting territory of self-release. This move might be a nightmare for lesser collectives, being the second hardest working band in the country (Banditos barely sliding into first after Natural Child took the last six months off to flesh out this release) makes this move logical for the torch bearers of hard work and functioning alcoholics everywhere. Could they have picked a more pivotal record to leap into the unknown with? If you look at what made each previous album stand out, not the songs themselves but the underlying asterisks our souls hone in on as for what gives these dudes the mystic charm absent from otherwise equal peers, all of that is brought to the surface as a statement of ‘this is what all the work has led up to, this is who they are and exactly who they want it to be’ and, unlike the general “take it or leave it” scoffing most other substantial rock n roll bands shout into the world, in their trademark fashion these guys show up to the party with a lit joint in hand and a wild “man you won’t believe what just happened to us” smile on their face. This record embodies that sweet lovin’ good time which comes along every once in a while as a reminder that it has been a long strange trip and life is still worth living.

Not much is more drab than reading over album reviews. A play by play of mediocre grandeur expressions of uninspired nothingness on how a bass line swells into a wash of reverb or whatever bullshit way people (I’m judging myself here) attempt explaining a batch of songs when forgoing the gut wrenching failure of someone trying to impress us with their imagined grasp on musicianship by listening to it ourselves and figuring the damn thing out on our own would be far less painful. That being said, we are weeks out until Okey Dokey is a tangible reality, being on what is easily my twentieth listen through and having nothing better to do with my time than wait, here is why this record stands above the rest of this year’s noise.

 

 

 

Opening with “Sure Is Nice” sets the tone for an ideal afternoon sitting around getting stoned with best buds and babe crushes. The vocals minimal, soft spoken, managing to embody the exact vibe of the best moments of your lifeor making an ideal ethos for the utopian outlaw hippies to aspire towards, ya know, whichever way you feel obliged to look at it. The days of 1971(Infinity Cat Recordings 2011) and sweaty ruckus rock n roll seem to be cliff noted in the past to be revisited nightly on stage but this dog’s found something worthier than the rehashing of old tricks to put on display for the future. “NSA Blues” is a short pointed critique at the Edward Snowden world we have come to accept as reality, their humor coming off the cuff without contrived importance.

Rubber fully hits the road on “Out of Sight,” coming in on the line, “they say it’s not that bad…giving up,” isn’t exactly backhanded, more of a surface critique of the other side, the nine-to-five spouse and a yard resignation we see from so many of our once wildly untamed friends. No one shows up live the way these guys do, Natural Child are the Crème de la crème every single show, when Dances With Wolves (Burger Records 2014) came out I wrote “they are the only band I’ve ever seen play what a crowd needs as opposed to what a crowd wants,” (Onstage Magazine: Feb. 2014) this song is as close as it gets to recreating the soul binding togetherness of seeing these dudes on stage at your favorite spot, probably the first on point representation recorded to date at doing so. Growing older, these sentiments take on a more personal tone than they did nine years ago when first getting into these Nashville outcasts, their sound seems to age with us rather than being marginalized by the changing tides of our hearts, I’m more likely these days to put on a record as smoked as Okey Dokey than I am to put on say a Reatards or Les Sexareenos album which once was the purest escape I could find in those long gone brutally outspoken days of the past.

 

“Now and Then” embodies wasting away at a dream where most days the only people still believing in their journey are cramped together in a box on wheels watching mile by mile pass in search of forgoing the basic live-to-die wasteland of suburbia madly burn burn burning to continue almost feeling alive. It is as much of a homage to the boundaries they pushed in their sound in the more country direction on Dancin’ With Wolves as it is a swing your mug song, seeming momentarily as if it will be the pivotal feel good track of the album then “Transcendental Blues” comes on and the realization of how substantial this album is shaping up to be begins settling in. The song’s cadence could allow them to get on with anything and we would feel good about it, lucky for us they use their developed craft as a staple to what makes them unique; taking us on a four minute hilarious documentation of the slackers search for some mystical form of zen. “If I can’t find my mantra baby I know everything’ll be alright” is a line I’ve caught myself singing over and over whenever I assume the rest of the world is out of earshot. This is one of those albums which reveals itself to you over multiple listens, the first time through I would venture to say I missed the point on this song in particular, finding it more filler than anything else where now it stands out as my favorite (at least as far as the upbeat songs go). I suspect the experience will not be a unique one, if you find the first listen less than inspired give it a secondthere are a whole lot of expectations these songs have to chisel away at to be seen with proper eyes. Okey Dokey doesn’t just grow on you, it creates an insatiable thirst to devour it song for song on repeat.

A reoccurring duality surfaces throughout Natural Child’s career as they seek a balance within their internal pull of creativity; shifting from west coast garage psychedelia to border hitchhiking lyrically cornerstoned Gram Parsons/Willie Nelson reincarnations, the pendulum swinging dramatically between extremes from record to record, this is their first valid attempt at finding solace between the two. The instrumental title track “Okey Dokey” works to split the album between the essentially different directions; the second half  an even further stretching of the legs towards their growing strength in storytelling, showing us with finality just how conscious their minimalist approach is. Oh how easy it is to cast down judgement on a sound you assume is simple, which is precisely what makes these dudes incredible, the derivative core they strut around in has more skill than thirty speed metal bands could ever arrogantly dream up combined. Fooling us into believing what they do is basic when they manage to create insanely complex songs under the guise of subtlety should not be brushed over, just look at Denney and the Jets, a band I certainly adore, the difference between good and great could never be more apparent than listening to their latest single, “I Love Taking Drugs With You,” and then playing “Juanita” with its Dave Dudley embodying lyrics and southern drive worthy enough to make .38 Special cry, a song had it been on Dancin’ With Wolves would have made that album complete on a Jerry Maguire level, the difference between the two bands, as with between Natural Child and pretty much every other band of this last decade, is similar to that of Black Sabbath and Spooky Tooth. Playing traditional blues inspired rock n roll wasn’t any more unoriginal for Buddy Holly or the The Yardbirds than it is for these guys.

My heart grows increasingly excited as each song recedes into the next, opening our eyes to having finally channeled their entire soul onto a single record; the appreciation for existence, the whole “I mean, what else am I going to do with my life” ethos, the regrets from always moving on, the self-destructive tendencies which dominate the travelers being, living in the moment all the while watching the years wash over in a haze of “where did it all go,” the friends we’ve had, the love we have lost, the love we have pushed away, the solemn realization that for good and bad we are well into this trip left only to ride it out and hope for the best; all of it takes form on Okey Dokey. More often than not we can shake the weight of it all from our shoulders, the realization that there is no blame only acceptance, the sadness and wallowing in one’s self typically detached with a simple wisecrack or a friend’s smile, yet from time to time it all becomes this wet blanket of indulgence creating an emotional stigma between us as individuals and the rest of the community we belong in. “Self-Centered Blues” takes its cue from those deflating moments the same way Nikki Sudden did on “Out of Egypt” and Townes did on “High, Low and In-Between,” finding a comfortable place beside both comparisons as an equal.  From the moment the organ and guitar come meandering in the song owns you with its matter of fact swooning sadness. If there is one truth which crystallizes with age it is that every once in a while these sad somber disillusioned moments sneak in through the cracks of our contrived happiness for us to sulk in, completely aware of how insignificant and, for the most part, self-inflicted (or at the very least self-allowed) these crippling melancholy indulgences are at the core. It isn’t a song we expect Natural Child to jump into at Barracuda on a Saturday night but, given the reality that these guys are long overdue for graduating up to hour-and-a-half set status, there is a togetherness underlining the experience which could be a strong inclusion on future sets. Next time you find yourself drifting out the miles late at night, your friends passed out into infinity giving the moment a breathe of importance as you roll down the window to light your last cigarette, put this song on and feel the universe settle into the rear view as you take stock of the cursed beauty of all that brought you to this exact place in this exact time.

“Benny’s Here” is aptly titled after their keys player who is given six minutes to meander around in his typical stoners haze before the vocals briefly sneak in to immediately recede once more into a spaced oblivion, giving way to the closing instrumental track, “It’s A Shame,” with its long overdue grasp of the charismatic charm they portray live which before now they had failed to properly document for the annals of the band’s history.

Natural Child’s ability to avoid being devoured by middle-America’s thirst for substance in the wake of the shallow insubstantial lives the sheep subscribe to is one of the most beautiful gifts the universe has given us, we all suspect someday it will be the case no more for these Nashville buds, it is terrifying to imagine them no longer being our band but with record after record of mind blowing perfection it seems inevitable, I’m thankful just to have been able to keep them to ourselves for as long as we have. Okey Dokey gets here on September 16th, clear your schedule, it calls for baking up some weed brownies, actually making plans with your homies, inviting over some babe you really connect with but never get to chill with, and vibing out on an end of summer late afternoon trip of perfection. I haven’t listened to an album on repeat for this long since I was thirteen, it is an absolute dream. Pre-order it here or grab it for yourself when they head out on tour next month.