By Chad Nance
”They hid the deepest answers just above my head
But the knowledge I expected was not there
They must have changed the alphabet while I was gone.”
– “Wayward Moon”, Susan Terry
“Echo Reverse”, the newest album by Winston-Salem’s “The Near Strangers” features a grand, cinematic vision that defies easy classification. Must we put a name to it? Americana, country & western, jam band, pop, a little punk, and even symphonic come to mind, but none seem to do complete justice to this recording. “Echo Reverse” feels like the soundtrack to a film I’d really like to see.
Made up of lush instrumentals counter-pointed with finely crafted songs, “Echo Reverse” occasionally feels like a lament, isn’t afraid to be just mad, and never once drops into cliches or played out tropes. This is a mature album that lyrically challenges the listener to pay attention and keep up. The joyful and ironic surrealism of Susan Terry’s lyrics marry perfectly with husband Lee Terry’s sometimes brutal honesty. “Echo Reverse” is a complex album that functions as a real conversation between artists, friends, bandmates, lovers, and partners.
The Near Strangers begin their 13 track back and forth with an instrumental number written by both Terrys. “McFaddin” serves as a muscular Overture with Lee Terry’s rolling guitar work pulsing strong while Susan Terry’s violin moves with a graceful urgency above tightly arranged strings as Dan DesNoyer’s drumming pushes the song forward with a truly dedicated insistence. There is joy here along with an almost literary sense of foreboding.
“Lost Parade” follows ‘McFaddin”’s bombast and portent with a warm, mellow opening that feels like driving in a gentle rain. Lee’s vocal is all tired wisdom and road weary angst easing in with what might be some of the best opening lyrics in years:
“You might be a criminal. I think the damage was minimal
You had to be beautiful didn’t mean anything”
There is a wistful push back against cold cynicism and the sharp realities and complexities of relationships. Not just romantic relationships, but how we relate (or don’t) with one another in all aspects of life. At the front end of a collection of songs that act as a conversation, Lee Terry is telling us that communication is breaking down these days. Nobody listens to anyone anymore.
“Say your piece and I’ll say mine, keep on talking till the end of time
We end up getting nowhere, it doesn’t matter to me”
There is a full moon imagery of wheels of fire spinning in the dark of night and the parade that can no longer find its way. The singer can’t seem to find his way either, but he isn’t ready to fully surrender.
Susan Terry’s playful ukulele is followed quickly by her voice which is at times wickedly teasing the listener and hiding a certain sadness underneath the surface charm. “Wayward Moon” is a Buddy Holly-like abandon to the arrangement that lilts along while Terry’s lyrics come at the central conceit sideways with poetry that is both impish and pointed.
“There is a classroom with a clock which would take a thousand years
For the hand to point to three
Now in a hour babies carry printed business cards
Who been messing with my watch?”
“Somebody Like You” has the same vibe as the best of Elvis Costello’s work and is simply a beautiful love song free from pretension, cynicism, or irony. Again communication provides a solid through-line for the songs.
“”If I had the breath to say all the words that you could hear
It might take the rest of my days, but I’d never see another tear”
“Somebody Like You” has a friendly arrangement that allows Lee Terry’s voice to ride inside of a warm, rhythmic pocket created by DesNoyers’ work on percussion and Sal Burnette’s steady, expressive bass. On top of all that is right about this song… you will find yourself singing along on the first listen. This is a powerful single that feels right at home on the album as a whole.
Susan Terry’s “Pre Echo” is an almost baroque violin piece that is all gothic atmosphere and would feel at home with Jack White’s work on the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack. Here, on “Echo Reverse” it becomes an instrumental break that features Susan talking to herself as her violin has its own, plaintive conversation before handing off to Lee Terry’s guitar with Dan DesNoyers laying quietly on the cymbals creating a gunslingers opening to “Live Like This” which is another blast of Lee Terry’s poetic candor.
Shenna was a punk rocker, and so is Susan Terry on the album’s best track. “Nature Says Hey Hey Hey” is a grimy rocker that is scuzzy in all of the best ways. The production and the mix is a tonal change for the album, but Susan’s lyrics remain puckish with lines like:
“I wasn’t wearing old jeans
Sipping hot liquid beans
Stepped into a sunbeam
He had a luster azure
Quite an allure
He cocked his head to the side and he said
Nature says hey hey hey”
Burnette’s bass crawls along the bottom of this number with Lee Terry’s guitar work pushing everything forward with a focused, rocker’s indifference. “Nature Says Hey Hey Hey” is simply a great song and feels like it closes out the first half of “Echo Reverse” with a rattle and hum before we settle back down into an Americana, instrumental groove with “Autumnal Expatriate” another track written by both Terrys. While the song is well written and produced, it almost feels like waiting in an elevator for the doors to open. At this point every song has been so strong that I felt a little let off the hook by “Autumnal Expatriate”.
“Crooked Road” another rocker, this time written by Lee Terry channeling Tom Petty’s laid-back, South Florida delivery. “What if We Said” is a return to the lyrical themes obsessing this collection reinforcing the absolute focus coupled with a spry agility that the Near Stranger’s exhibit in their finest moments. The music is sumptuous here, the arrangement going through moods and atmosphere, but keeping hold of “Echo Reverse”’s central conceit- we don’t listen to one another and are cursed to repeat the same mistakes over and over because of it. The trick seems to be staying just outside of the spinning circle and retaining enough self awareness to go with the acceptance that has a grim resignation, but it never apathetic.
“Echo Reverse” ends with a three punch combination that will leave you with a goofy grin on your face, a little relieved that the Terrys didn’t give you some grim, sneering, denouement because we are squandering our time talking at rather than to one another. This closer begins with a return to the sometimes ironically buoyant Susan Terry fronting “Harpo” with Brian Wilson-like guest vocals from Doug Davis and a credit for barking that simply reads, “Professor Harponius J. Wiggle Bottom”. One assumes all of his contracts are in good order and he was well compensated for his rather elegant barking.
This delightful number is followed by the Country & Western greatness that is Lee Terry’s “Come on Down” that would be at home with the works of Townes Van Zandt or the late Guy Clark. Once more Terry’s lyrics are profoundly open and honest as he sings a closing ballad whose every truth has been properly earned in the songs that have come before. Jeff Shu’s melodic pedal steel brings a haunting quality to this song which feels like a good, old fashioned altar-call.
As if to send us on our way with a smile on our face, Susan Terry bids us farewell with a light and airy instrumental that is held aloft by the playful spirit of a toy piano played by Rebecca Wyatt. (She did double duty on “Echo Reverse” providing a deep and soulful cello when required.) “Dragonflyby” carries us along cheerfully like a cooldown lap.
“Echo Reverse” is an expansive album that creates a shared intimacy by maintaining focus on its core ideas, telling us the same story over and over again with the eloquence of a shared perspective. At the end of the album we are left entertained and thinking, which is all an album really needs to do. Even while “Dragonflyby” played me out of the album the closing lines of “Come on Down” continued to echo in my mind… as they should.
“This for, the ones you’ve lost, and this is
For the ones you’ve found
Took our chance, and paid the cost now
It’s time to come on down”
This album will be officially released at an event at the Garage on June 25th. Learn more about this release HERE