Willy Vanilla – “American Neck”

Willy Vanilla - American Neck Cover

Willy Vanilla – “American Neck”

By Jay Armstrong

Willy Vanilla’s American Neck is lighthearted as hell. If only talent were allowed to speak in a space devoid of ego-maniacal ambitions more often. Every song has its own spine, its own strut. These guys aren’t trying to force an angle or end result. They don’t fall in the boring Black Angels rut of being one-sided or even yaaawwwwnnn worse psychedelic. There’s no concern of protecting their pretension, there’s no wall being built song by song to define their cool. Precisely this is what makes the album great. The time other bands spend selling you something, these dudes spend splitting beers and letting the voice of each other equally be heard.

How an album with twenty songs can be so sprawling is beyond me but they do it and the ride is worth taking. American Neck is a a mixed bag time machine of defining sounds from the ever changing shape of Austin we have experienced this century; the house show period of fun loose rock n roll, the opening of the ballroom days and their snotty clever failed relationship songs, the heartbeat country soul of Sam’s Town Point and Hole in the Wall where the well of depth seems to be a timeless spring Townes himself was sipping between pulls from the bottle, the long gone Beerland ethos that whatever you do make sure it sounds like you and no one else, flashes of Trailer Space and the all-in-it-together nothing beyond-us–this—now—-matters. And that only covers the first five songs.

The jerking around makes this a difficult album to throw on in the background. Who said everything we dig has to work well for passing a bowl around on a back porch with a handful of friends? American Neck is meant more for those after high school memories with a golden couple hours to yourself before curfew, when you would head out across the fringes of town away from the herd wrapped in their little plastic lives, losing yourself in cosmic thoughts of self-appreciation and eternal woah that could flash from one optimistic pendulum swing to the negative next with the simple progression of an ideal playlist blaring out of the rolled down window screaming radio. If glory days talk of high school isn’t your bag maybe this album is what you would listen to while painting the garage on a day off or something–seems fitting for that as well. The point being some albums come along you would rather indulge in with a calm mind on a nice day spent enjoying your own being, this is that sort of album.

Willy Vanilla has been a hushed secret, a side project of sorts done by some of the best people; Jon Chamberlain, Marc Hoegg, Dan Shaw, Nate Ulmer and Seth Gibbs. The whole thing with Seth being too sensitive, too soon, to do anything less than ramble love and sadness for a thousand words talking around and over it. I can’t do it…not now. Seth was important to so many of us, a certain sort of gravity, we loved him, he loved us, he had genius talent, and he is gone. If you were one of the unfortunate ones to not have gotten to know him, or if you knew him and choose to sob again today, he has a warm couple of minutes featured on the Hardly Sound Bad Lovers documentary (also featuring Ulmer) and the whole emotional experience of his final weeks can be read via The Chronicle.

Seth’s presence is all over this album, I wish I had the professional constitution to be able to write about the significant stand out parts his skill obviously shaped, I do not though. So let us pretend there are two more paragraphs dedicated to his influence. I can say though, of the stand outs on American Neck the first is “Clean Livin’ Blues” which of the songs he wrote over the years could likely be the best balance we have heard between his cynicism and humor.

My personal favorite track is “Be Kind.” Who can say for sure who is the best lyric writer around? All I know is if someone skips over Nate Ulmer in the discussion they have zero clue what they are talking about. His words lay at our feet beside Ginsberg, Salinger, and Bukowski. His intelligence shapes the experience of anything he has his hands in but avoids tripping all over it the way those contrived revolting Alternative Press bands of our childhood did. His playing feels simplistic and stripped down yet we acutely feel the complexity. Will Oldam with better structuring abilities, Jim James if he was as good as his fans like to believe, that is what we get with Ulmer. There is a lot to be stoked about with this band, Hoegg having a project to hear him in is rad, Chamberlain has been getting me hot and bothered ever since Secret Bad Boys, Shaw keeping his streak of playing in nothing short of solid bands going strong is tight, but none of it comes close to hearing Ulmer’s songs in the mix. If I had it my way we’d kick that SRV paperweight over and erect a better statue in its place. Imagine a world where a bronze Nate Ulmer, swinging cigarette half-shaved face and all, exists. That is the world I strive to live in. Seriously might start a petition. Each song of his echoed around my room over the years has beneath the surface this constant hum of sadness with such depth it would break you in two if it didn’t sound so good. “Be Kind” continues on the tradition of his genius completely. How funny would it be if it turns out Shaw actually wrote this one? In which case I take all of it back, every last word.

“Tell Me” is a late 70’s gem of the best kind– actually, even going back to the first few songs Willy Vanilla put out this is a band which only makes hits. Why harp on individual tracks as though they would ever be a singles driven band? Every song on this album feels like something some random would proudly toss on at bring-your-own-record-night over at Rio Rita. These guys know how to grab your attention over and over again. Even the negative sentiment songs feel positive. Never once are they playing without your foot keeping up from beginning to end. American Neck covers the gauntlet; Thin Lizzy, Tom Waits, Mark Sultan, Dennis Wilson, Badfinger, hell given another album or two no doubt they will ultimately take a T-Rex/Mott the Hoople shape. When I see an album has twenty songs on it, I never would believe anything short of an eye roll would be the case but when you listen through this one you get it, they actually are covering so much ground for it to be necessary.

Who knows what the future of this band looks like going forward, certainly they are close friends so in once capacity or another they will be around still for sure. Seems like the only focus at this point though is to find someone smart enough to put the album out in a bigger way and then go from there. Let’s enjoy what we’ve got and see what happens.

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