Any query of whether or not Curtis McMurtry’s new album “Toothless Messiah” would deal with the sociopolitical situation of America is answered proper out of the gate. The opening observe is titled “1/27/17,” and its first line asks: “How are you adjusting to the brand new regime?”
“I completed the track on that day,” says McMurtry, explaining that Jan. 27, 2017, was when Donald Trump restricted travel to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries. “It was a whole response to him signing the Muslim ban, which is nearly arduous to recollect now. However I used to be performing that track the entire time he was in workplace.”
It appears becoming, then, that the Feb. 5 launch of “Toothless Messiah” comes simply a few weeks after Joe Biden turned president and immediately reversed that travel ban with considered one of his first government orders. The album is the primary full-length launch in 4 years from our Austin360 Artist of the Month for February 2021.
What unfolds after the stark and temporary spoken-word first observe is a report that explores “totally different views on the identical state of affairs,” McMurtry says. “Some folks need to withstand, some folks need to go together with it, some folks need to run, and a few folks need to hold their heads down and fake nothing’s occurring.”
In observe two, “Meals on the Desk,” the narrator asks: “Why ought to we battle if we are able to nonetheless run and conceal?” The refrain of “You Want Me to Betray You” captures a personality who’s much less fearful and extra skeptical: “My academics taught me to not belief my academics.” Then there’s “The Cavalry Is Right here,” which instantly dashes the optimism of its title within the track’s second line: “However they’ve already surrendered.”
A major revelation about “The Cavalry Is Right here”: “I really wrote that line when Obama was nonetheless in workplace,” says McMurtry, who turned 30 final 12 months. “I bear in mind writing these traces when the Bush tax cuts ended up getting continued, as a substitute of expiring. And I do not blame Obama essentially for that. However collectively, Democrats would not battle to finish them. It was a irritating time.”
This underscores an necessary level about “Toothless Messiah.” Whereas it’s framed across the final 4 years of the American expertise, McMurtry says he doesn’t take into account it an album particularly about Trump. So who’s the toothless messiah, then?
“I used to be pondering of weak leaders,” he solutions. “It’s Trump plenty of the time, however I used to be making an attempt to not make it express, as a result of I wished to speak about dictatorship and authoritarianism extra typically. As a result of he is not the primary or the final.
“I additionally wished to reckon with the concept that some folks had been projecting a savior the place I used to be seeing a monster. And that is going to occur once more, on condition that 30 to 40 p.c of the inhabitants appears to desire a dictator.”
Early responses to the album’s songs point out McMurtry might have hit the mark he was aiming for. “I do have followers which are Trump supporters, they usually’re projecting one thing fully totally different onto the songs they’ve heard from it,” he says.
“In a approach, I am puzzled,” he provides. “However I believe that a part of what I used to be going for is that individuals see what they need to see. There is likely to be part of me that kicks myself for not being extra express. However that was the thesis; that was the train.”
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“TOOTHLESS MESSIAH” can also be an train in brevity. Its 14 tracks collectively clock in at slightly below half-hour, ranging in size from 0:49 to three:07.
“I believe being concise helps the entire report, actually,” McMurtry suggests. “It is not as a result of I believe folks haven’t got the eye span for one thing longer. However I used to jot down longer songs, and now I am bored of them. So I attempt to make one thing that may keep within the second, even when the second is 2 and a half minutes lengthy. That makes it a bit extra piercing.”
A good larger a part of what makes these songs work is the music that accompanies the phrases. McMurtry is a singer-songwriter, however he’s not your garden-variety guitar-strumming troubadour. Although he’s performed guitar so much through the years, on “Toothless Messiah” his main devices are banjo and its ukulele-hybrid cousin, the banjolele.
“For this report, my purpose was to not play acoustic guitar in any respect, and I achieved it,” he says. “I simply felt that I’d hit a wall on the instrument — that I used to be not progressing, and I used to be bored with the way in which I performed it. So I wrote the songs on banjolele and banjo, and on resonator guitars that I hold in weird low tunings.”
A lot of the music revolves round interplay between McMurtry’s banjo and the cello enjoying of Diana Burgess, a member of classical-indie crossover band Mom Falcon. The 2 musicians are companions in each music and life. McMurtry says their collaborative rapport was an enormous a part of what made “Toothless Messiah” work.
“It’s like having somebody who can learn your thoughts,” he says. “It permits me to jot down songs on the banjo, understanding that the cello goes to make the banjo sound much less abrasive. It is an unbelievable energy understanding that I can flesh out one facet of the chord and he or she’ll maintain it down.
“The way in which I take into consideration the banjo and cello pairing is that the banjo is the proper hand on the piano and the cello is the left. So I can do these twinkly decorative issues, however the actual meat of the chord goes to return from Diana.”
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Different musicians who assist to flesh out the noir-ish, typically theatrical sonic template of “Toothless Messiah” embody ace percussionist Mike Meadows (identified for his work with Hayes Carll, Shawn Colvin and others); pedal metal participant Evan Kaspar, who recorded and combined the album at Austin studio Estuary; bassist Taylor Turner, who’s been enjoying with McMurtry since their highschool years; and horn gamers Daniel Fears, Roy Thomas, Sterling Steffen and En Calzada.
ONE MUSICIAN WHO doesn’t seem on the album is James McMurtry, the nationally famend singer-songwriter who occurs to be Curtis’ father. It’s not that they aren’t shut — they’ve all the time praised one another’s work, and Curtis generally subs for his dad’s Tuesday evening Continental Gallery residency gig when James is on tour — however their music has all the time been distinctly totally different.
I requested if rising up the son of an achieved Americana artist consciously motivated him to carve out a method that diverged from his father’s. “I believe I used to be simply drawn to totally different sounds,” he answered. “We listened to very totally different music. I listened to plenty of the music that he listened to, however I listened to greater than he does.
“And that is mainly due to my mother, I believe,” he provides. Elena Heidelberg, who break up from James when Curtis was 10, is an artist who makes ceramic tiles that may be seen in native eating places reminiscent of Home Slice. “She listens to all kinds of music, and he or she uncovered me to plenty of issues that I do not assume my dad had as a lot curiosity in.”
Younger Curtis first confirmed an inclination for locating his personal musical path when he began writing songs at age 4. “I used to jot down blues songs about Godzilla and King Kong,” he says with a chuckle. He started performing round city when he was round 12, enjoying “teen rock” exhibits at venues reminiscent of Ruta Maya and Antone’s.
At the moment, his music leaned extra towards garage-rock. “We’d do some covers by the Conflict or the Rolling Stones, however we had originals as properly,” he remembers. “It was often a bass-guitar-drums setup. I do not assume it was too much like what I attempt to do now.”
The shift started when he began a band referred to as God’s Chosen People throughout McMurtry’s senior 12 months at Austin’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy. “I had the concept that the horns could be the main target in that band,” he says. Along with Turner on bass, “we had drums, trombone, saxophone, trumpet, and Alison Maupin, who would sing and swap between clarinet and baritone horn. It was actually with that band that I began making an attempt to make extra fleshed-out, extra subtle sounds.”
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Currently, McMurtry’s musical adventurousness has turned towards producing. He labored with Burgess on her 2020 album “You Run,” and teamed with Burgess to co-produce a latest EP by budding singer-songwriter Bryn Battani.
“I’d like to do extra,” he says. “It’s a special muscle. I get actually excited by preparations typically, and making a coherent work like an EP or an album.
“Working with Bryn was actually attention-grabbing as a result of she has a pronounced Nineteen Seventies affect on her music, which admittedly shouldn’t be an affect for Diana or me. It was neat to work in some genres that aren’t the place Diana or I might take our personal music.”
WHERE MCMURTRY MIGHT take his personal music from right here is anybody’s guess, however it appears seemingly he’ll proceed to deal with the situation of the world round him. Delicate-spoken and respectful as an interview topic, McMurtry is commonly ruthless and incisive as a lyricist; it’s essentially the most defining a part of his creative persona.
And there’s prone to be loads of topical topics to sort out because the 2020s unfurl. “Toothless Messiah,” he notes, is likely to be about America’s final 4 years, however the subject of authoritarianism, both right here or elsewhere across the planet, will not fade away.
I ask McMurtry if the album popping out after Biden’s inauguration felt like a pure bookend to its subject material. “Yeah, it’s a bit simpler, possibly,” he says. “Or tougher; possibly you do not need to look again.
“There’s additionally part of me that feels very anxious and afraid of what 2022 may convey. However I hope that, as you say, it’s a bookend. That will be nice.”
Austin360 Artist of the Month for February 2021
Who: Curtis McMurtry
File-release livestream: 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, at facebook.com/curtismcmurtrymusic.
Web site: curtismcmurtrymusic.com
New album on bandcamp: curtismcmurtry.bandcamp.com