Tommy Alexander is the Portland mystic who may have made the best album of 2020. WAVES has become an essential part of our quarantine kit for it’s easy pace, Tommy’s calming baritone, and it’s shockingly prescient lyrics. For the past few years Tommy has been putting sweat equity into his independent booking agency Pilot Light, amassing an incredible roster of live acts, and helping them get out on tour. Booking at venues all over the northwest Tommy is one of those industry lynchpins who rarely get to stand in the spotlight, as they are busy helping others. In his enlarged, kind heart, though, Tommy Alexander is also a folk singer who deserves some shine.
Life is a trudge through a world we did not create, or ask to be born into. Humans are freaky arrangements of stardust shot out from the big bang, commingling as chance collections of atoms, nurtured by conditions impossible anywhere else in this ever expanding, empty universe; we are flesh bags animated by electricity that flows in such excess from our brains that the leftover electrons buzz around our skulls, swarming into a steady stream of stray signals known as the mind. For all our scientific advances, psychology tells us that the mind is completely separate from the brain, and it’s exact purpose is still not known. For most people the mind attempts to catalog and organize and impose some will on the passing of time, a sort of app for accessing the filing system of the brain. Because of it’s indeterminable nature, and it’s internal existence, though, most people simply compartmentalize or internalize what happens in their mind. But what if everything you go through personally is meant to be shared?
WAVES opens on the line “I been sittin’ alone with a troubled mind, thinkin’ bout better times / I’m pretty sure it’s too late to start this over…” loping along on backfire snare and an amplified acoustic riff, bemoaning stagnation. In early December 2019Tommy traveled to Enterprise, Oregon with various other Portland luminaries (TK & The Holy Know Nothings, to be exact) to record at OK Theater with Bart Budwig. He couldn’t have possibly known when he cut this, or the jam “End Of The World” that it, or something close to it — was right around the bend. That particular country-folk song is a presentiment to several points of view for what to do when…well, what seems like the end of the world nears.
But back to the mind: What if the refuse of failed relationships, decaying social contracts, and our own, crumbling, corporeal, carapaces are the compost fuel for the continuum –or betterment–of human life? What if lashing waves of guilt, anxiety, and depression are normal human experiences like happiness, togetherness, and success? What if we mistakenly imposed a value on success? What if failure holds the same secrets, and the same weight? What if you could offload it, organize it, source it, exchange it, craft it –all of it– into meaningful works of art? What the value of lived experience was the fact that it came and went in waves at all?
It seems like Tommy’s own hard working nature, musical contributions, and constant crafting have done just that. “Stone Fox” and “Whatever You Say” “WAVES” sit right in the middle of his album like the thesis statement I’ve been trying to write about his work. A brawler, a bawler, and a ballad about different levels of relationships — admiration and rock’n’roll, lived-in love and country-folk, and the title track: a woozy folk ballad for the worn. Where most artists catch a snag on trying to achieve a sound, Tommy lets the sound represent the song. Helped along here by Taylor Kingman (backup vocals, guitar), Adam Witowski (guitar, piano), Mike Coykendall (synth, bass, drums) Ian Wade (bass), Buddy Weeks (drums), Bart Budwig (trumpet, engineering), and Jon Neufeld (mastering), the album shapes up as the work of other talented, if unheralded, utility players from the Northwest.
So much of WAVES will continue to accompany you after just one listen. “Tears” plays like a jukebox jingle, ready to spring on you when –inevitably– things get worse, and you find new ways to cry. “I Blame Myself” will be there when you lie down, and when you wake, encouraging you to take responsibility for what comes with the new day. As Tommy Alexander ends WAVES, it’s mystifying how he could’ve presaged the current collective mood with the short “Doing Things Together”, singing “Doing things together sure beats doing things away from you, yes it’s true I’m missin you tonight…”
I’m not much for prophecy, but my mind surely wants to categorize this as an album to help us through hard times. Lately it seems everyone is experiencing loneliness, and despair, but they’re also finding ways to create opportunities for their community. Tommy Alexander’s WAVES comes from the few important things we’re left with when illusions crumble: a chance at self reflection, the opportunity to be of service to others, and lived experiences that make good art.
** Currently, this is scheduled not as a public event, but a live stream from the outdoor stage at The Sou’wester (weather permitting). If you are a guest staying with us, the show may be audible. **