“Just like said noisemakers on a train hope to serve as an alarm for those on the track, I do hope, however foolishly it might be, to sort of stab a Pulp Fiction-like shot of adrenaline into this strange, glossy-eyed, zombie-hearted people we’ve seemingly become,” Simpson reveals. “I sincerely believe there is something wildly beautiful about people, and I think that it is when we get into the ugly junk, that we find it. This record is a treasure chest of my … stuff.”More
“Starry-eyed messengers and sidewalk prophets are not something I normally give much sway to… but the truth is a 50-something-year-old bearded man named Roger walked up to me, with no knowledge of my dilemma at hand, and said, ‘I have no idea what your plans are, but I have to tell you what I was told in my dream last night – you should make your own genre and not be scared to do what you’re thinking of doing.’ I think I probably stared at him for five minutes trying to wrap my brain around the direct hit he had just delivered. Still has me scratching my head, but it was like, okay, here we go… no more fear… stop staring at the forest… time to walk amongst the trees.”
Up until that portentous day, Nashville songwriter Bryan Simpson, a talented multi-instrumentalist and singer who found success in his previous musical pursuits working with luminaries as diverse as Dan Auerbach and Ricky Skaggs, was uneasy and weary about sharing the deeply personal songs and far-ranging sounds he had been concocting at home for the last several years. Though he was proud of his songs, and eager to share them, he agonized over the idea of putting his music out there, afraid it would introduce old demons and return him to the path of disillusionment he had previously journeyed on. Not to mention, the ever-present tightrope walk that every brave new sonicscapes walks, of deaf ears and disinterest. That stranger with a “message” was just the cosmic catalyst he needed.
While Simpson may not have created his own genre, what he does to pre-existing ones is extraordinary. A result of his insatiable musical wanderlust, or perhaps musical fearlessness, he smashes together disparate genres of varying eras to create a rich, layered tapestry for the intense soul searching of his evocative and poetic lyrics. Traditional rock instruments of electric guitar, bass and drums collide with banjos, mandolins, Dobros, horns, Mellotrons, pianos, accordions, gongs and fiddle, coalescing in a visceral sound that is sometimes soothing, sometimes jarring but always unique and compelling. Maybe not a new genre per se but Simpson’s music certainly might disrupt the modern day algorithms of digital streaming services and come with a requirement to be filed in multiple sections at the local record store.
Realizing that this ambitious new project was bigger than just himself, and as a way to fully encompass his vision and expansive compositions, Simpson adopted the nom de guerre, The Whistles & The Bells. “Just like said noisemakers on a train hope to serve as an alarm for those on the track, I do hope, however foolishly it might be, to sort of stab a Pulp Fiction-like shot of adrenaline into this strange, glossy-eyed, zombie-hearted people we’ve seemingly become,” Simpson reveals. “I sincerely believe there is something wildly beautiful about people, and I think that it is when we get into the ugly junk, that we find it. This record is a treasure chest of my … stuff.”
After hearing Jack White’s Blunderbuss, Simpson began telling friends he wanted to collaborate with the album’s Grammy Award-winning engineer Vance Powell (Kings of Leon, The Whigs). Eventually word got to Powell and at the close of 2012, he called Simpson out of the blue from Iceland. Sessions were set for two days in February 2013 and The Whistles & The Bells formally came to life during that week in Powell’s Sputnik Studio as Simpson called on an arsenal of more than 20 musicians to help him bring his songs to life. “By the end of the second day, we had nine songs recorded,” says Simpson.
“’Canary Cage’ was the song that catapulted to me to write the rest of this record,” Simpson explains. “It was inspired after I saw a man on CNN stand on top of his flattened house in Joplin, MO, following the tornado, pronounce to the world that his faith had not been shaken and that his circumstances would not decide his outlook, his joy.”
“The song “Mercy Please” literally made my brain feel pregnant. I knew it had to be written. I have a garage band recording of me writing it, just letting it run and it’s painful to listen to, me trying to get the song vomited out and working through the ‘I wanna be this but this is what I am, etc.’ But once I got the first verse, it unhinged everything. Every line seemed to unlock other rooms, which were locked tight, that I didn’t think anyone should see.”
It makes sense then that “Mercy Please” kicks off The Whistles & The Bells’ eponymous debut album, a record first self-released by Simpson locally in the Nashville area in 2014 and now receiving a global release on New West Records. The label quickly sought the songwriter out after hearing the song on Nashville’s tastemaking station Lightning 100 and witnessing the reaction it was receiving at home. It’s a song that both exemplifies the record’s scope and Simpson’s “blind man walking approach” that he often takes in his genre-blurring songwriting.
The track begins with a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, loping bass line and the protagonist decrying, “If we are what we eat/ then my future it is scary/ for I have been scarfing down the pages of the devil’s dictionary” giving way to drums, electric guitar, banjo and female backing vocals as he pleads for “just a little bit more mercy please.” As the song progresses, it gloriously unravels – instruments start to detune and slow – before it roars to an exhilarating climax featuring Latin trumpets blasted over frenetic banjo playing and crashing drums. The effect is startling – that of a strange house of cards on the verge of collapse but which always manages to build itself back up again.
Amongst the skillful musicianship, there’s also flubbed notes, dissonance and organized chaos – all there intentionally – to mirror the reality of life. “There are of moments on the album that are difficult and complex and there are moments that are simple and beautifully direct,” says Simpson. “Just like life.”
Song after song, the album challenges the listener to put any preconceptions away and let the sonic mélange of rock, folk, blues, bluegrass, country, jazz and gospel envelop you. “I went back to what inspired me in the first place as a kid, switching between Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Bill Monroe and the Louvin Brothers,” says Simpson. Inspired also by Wilco’s opus, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Buddy Miller’s beloved, Universal United House Of Prayer, the musical experimentation and exploration brings to mind the former while the powerful introspection and conviction reminds of the latter. “Buddy Miller is a huge inspiration to me,” explains Simpson.
The 12-track collection veers wildly from the distorted blues rock of “Skeletons” to the tender love song “Two Elephants” to the soulful “Ghetto Gold” and the old timey, celebratory “Bad Superheroes” and finally to the austere, redemptive closer “Shadow of Death.” While in some songwriter’s hands this could come across as disjointed, Simpson never allows the songs to jump off the track, remaining firmly in control at all times.
“I made this record to document the last few years of my life,” says Simpson. “Me… God… life… death… new life, it’s all there front and center. Whether or not it strikes a nerve with the masses or triggers new explorations of hope, I guess we’ll see. But I don’t believe it will return void. This record comes with a sigh of relief. For now I know I will not fail for lack of trying. Someone said ‘trying to be brave is being brave,’ I’ve done that.”
This is the sound of The Whistles & The Bells.
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