By Chad Nance
The motorcycle boots are dusty and the hair gray these days, but Doug Davis continues to set the professional bar when it comes to locally created music here in Winston-Salem. The River Running Slow is a new 6 song EP from Davis and his band The Solid Citizens. It is the second EP out of a promised four to be released by the band and is an expertly produced collection of thoughtful songs that is reminiscent of the mature, craftsman-like work of Jeff Lynne in the late 80’s for artists such as George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and super group, The Traveling Wilburys.
Davis produced, engineered, and mixed the EP. He also played 12 String Guitar, percussion, piano and handled lead vocals. Susan Terry appeared on Viola and backing vocals. Her husband Lee Terry played electric guitars and Ken Mohan and Dan DesNoyers handled bass and drums respectively.
It is Doug Davis’ 12-String guitar that gives the first cut, “It Wasn’t Me,” its REM jangle and keeps things interesting throughout the complex arrangement. Susan Terry’s work on Viola gives “It Wasn’t Me” its heart and soul. Her work here provides Americana atmospherics to Davis’ lyrical narrative in much the same way the Viola was used in John Mellencamp’s “Lonesome Jubilee/Big Daddy” period. The way Terry’s playing is mixed in feels slightly disconnected from the mix as if Davis, Mohan, DesNoyers, and Terry’s husband Lee were playing along as she is being broadcasted out of a radio that was sitting on a stool in the middle of the room.
Davis’ arrangement feels like Elvis Costello filtered through Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Davis’ lead vocals on “It Wasn’t Me” have all of the South Florida vocal inflections and Dylanesque tonality of Petty at his peak. The 12-String and Lee Terry’s workman-like drive on lead guitar swing with a kind of practiced carelessness counter-pointed by Davis’ lyrics, which are a catalog of the damage human beings can do to one another over a lifetime. Davis’ words drip irony while bluntly acknowledging that, in the end, we’re all sinners and have come short of the glory. There is a world-weariness here- like a man who has come far enough in life to realize that holding grudges is pointless, because no matter what someone else has done to us there is no way our own behavior has never dipped deeply into the rotten. Atonement and forgiveness are possible, but in the end it will always be hard for us to ever truly get our heads around how many of our friends, lovers, and family we’ve smoked right down to the filter.
“Who was it came along and stole your lollipop
Who was it spun you like a cheap little top
Who was it digging up your sandbox paradise
Who was it took away your sugar and your spice
It wasn’t Me…”
“True North” is a deeply introspective and hopeful (without coming across as insipid) song carried along by Davis’ cinematic arrangement and full mix. Lyrically the song provides thoughtful depth and the poetry on display is more graceful than it might be. The mix is full bodied with Davis layering in the guitar work up front into a dense and intricate vehicle for the overall melody. If there is a flaw here, it is that there just isn’t enough space between the band and Davis’ singing which buries some of the vocal and compresses an experience that could have been more expansive and epic were it not for the restraint shown in the recording. As with other songs on the EP, they sound intimate, but also slightly stuffy and over-full. Lee Terry’s work here is a stand out. He does much of the heavy lifting up top while DesNoyers and Mohan provide a solid foundation for the song to hang on.
Lyrically, Davis is engaged in a similar introspection and emotional purging heard in “It Wasn’t Me.”
“Isn’t worth much anymore
Would you still recognize
The things you’re fighting for”
Davis writes as a man coming to terms with the brutal reality that life turned out nothing like we ever thought it would. All the broken promises, the conflict, and the inherent bitterness of our lives begins to look like wasted time in the broader perspective of a life lived. The only way it seems possible to build up any head of steam is to drop the emotional burdens we’re carrying and light out for new territories without pulling a Lot’s Wife and finding ourselves dying slowly, calcified by our own anger and pride.
Kirk Vernon’s saxophone jumps out from “By the Time I Come Home,” pulling the song along and acting as a clear signal that Davis is aiming for something with a little more funk than the other songs on the EP. The Motown trappings and Davis’ able and soulful vocal do not feel dirty enough, however, to feel authentic. Terry’s somewhat mournful Viola actually hurts this song in context, adding a brooding layer of Americana melancholy which is too much of a cushion for the song’s R&B pretensions. There is nowhere for the song to get grimy and the rhythm feels smoothed out and slick when the listener longs for something with a little more crunch. Well produced, “By the Time I Come Home” is professional to a fault and could use more raggedy man road dirt.
Davis’ vocal is nuanced and clean, but simply doesn’t feel like it’s carrying enough bottom to truly reach the effect he is trying to achieve here. The lyrics, themselves, don’t feel like they fit with the rest of the EP. Sentimentality without at least the threat of the complications found in real life does not necessarily fit Davis’ instrument well. Much of the delicate elegance that permeates the EP overall is lost here because our narrator no longer seems to be buttressed by self-knowledge and a tolerable dose of good-humored self-loathing. He is much better asking thoughtful questions about the choices we’ve made than he is at pining or crooning.
The fourth song on “The River Running Slow” is a lilting and gorgeous companion to “It Wasn’t Me” titled “Raise You Up.” Warmth, humor, and understanding are the atmospherics here built, once more, on Susan Terry’s expansive work on the Viola. Not simply used to create brooding Americana symphonics- Terry’s work is out in front of the guitars rollicking cheerfulness bringing a maturity and bold splendor to Davis’ heartfelt pleading.
Mohan and DesNoyers provide a solid foundation for Davis’ more nuanced singing. Mohan’s drums stay up high providing a sharp through-line on which he’s able to provide softer fill in a way that does not boom or show off, but explores the toe tapping bottom of the song. Mohan allows the base-line to bounce in a back-porch country way that also manages to fill in the silences and spaces without turning on the gas too hard. Restraint is virtue and The Solid Citizens’ secret weapon is the reliable and tight work in their rhythm section.
Davis’ vocals and lyrics on this song feel like a man settled into his particular groove. As a singer Davis seems to have found his personal voice for this recording. Less stylized than his work on “It Wasn’t Me” and “By The Time I Come Home,” Davis is able to bend notes and phrases confidently, painting with softer brushes and bringing a subtlety to the performance. Davis’ singing is all pro, but allowed the room to crack and strain in a way that feels immediate and truthful to the song’s message of forgiveness and self-flagellation.
The” Damnedest Thing” is the best song on the EP. The arrangement is complex and full like the others on the recording with the Solid Citizen’s rhythm section supporting the intricate architecture of Davis’ composition. Davis’ vocal here is confident in its voice. With shades of Jackson Browne, and sardonic phrasing reminiscent of Randy Newman’s, the lyrics carry the melody with highlights from Davis on piano.
In recording and mixing The “Damnedest Thing,” Davis (John Piffner is credited with recording the piano parts) allowed the sounds of the musicians moving around, of piano pedals being pressed, and other studio noises onto the track, which give “The Damnedest Thing” an authenticity that has felt absent from other numbers on the EP. Davis’ craftsmanship and professionalism are unassailable throughout, but on this last song he seems to finally relax and just let his insightful lyrics and playful spirit shine through.
The River Running Slow is a mature, thoughtful, and solidly professional piece of songwriting and recording craft. It communicates the hard work and struggle it takes to get reach the point in your life where your accumulated wisdom has started to catch up with your artistic ambitions.
Photos by Carissa Joines taken at the EP launch party at The Garage.
Read CCD‘s review of the first EP in this series HERE.