I’ve consumed an awful lot of Mexican food with Super XX Man’s Scott Garred, which has a lot to do with spending three music-packed days with him in Austin during annual music festival South by Southwest (see “Super Double SXSW Man,” WW , March 22, 2006). Just one of the festival’s 1,300 bands, Garred’s Portland-based folk-pop group stood out to me for one simple reason: The man can write songs. After our Austin trip, I began to understand the inspiration behind those songs: good company.
Over enchiladas on our last night in Austin, Garred told me, “I’m the quality of the people I surround myself with.” In Portland, that group consists of his wife and accordion player/pianist, Michelle, longtime friend and guitarist Zach Boyle, and the band’s heavenly voiced flutist/drummer, Ali Wesley. On Friday, Super XX Man will celebrate the release of its 10th album, X , a collection of songs Garred has written over the past decade. But this collection is more than a retrospective, it’s a reimagining.
Take X’ s version of Garred’s seemingly lighthearted personal anthem, “Usual Way.” The original, from 2004’s My Usual Way , has a nice, shuffling beat and lo-fi sound, but, played with the careful consideration of his current band, a new depth is revealed. When the song breaks to reveal only Garred singing over Michelle’s drawn-out, eerie accordion, the quietest part of the songâ€”a biting order: “Don’t doubt my faith/ Don’t doubt my savior/ My grace/ Don’t doubt my outcome…my outlook…my place/ In this life”â€”easily becomes its loudest. It’s this respect for Garred’s songwriting that makes the songs on X special: If love had a sound, this would be it.
Opening track “Collecting Rocks” (from Collecting Rocks, 2003) is a strolling conversation between lifelong partners. The refrain, “Oh, my darlin’, darlin’, darlin'” is repeated in Garred’s reedy, earnest voice until Wesley chimes in, singing, “Remember, boy, they’re heavy,” in an angelic, knowing tone. All the while Boyle plays a bubbling, fluid guitar part that mirrors the ebb and flow of waves crashing on the beach.
Self-released in ’95 on a cassette titled Vol. I , “I Can’t Figure Out These Bottle Caps (I’m a Lonely Guy)”â€”inspired in part by Texas’ Pearl beer and a Steve Martin movieâ€”features finger-picked acoustic guitar dancing around lyrics of disenchantment. Yet Garred sounds as if he’s smiling on the “Yeah, yeah, yeahs,” showing the understated hope present in all his songs.
“Garage Apartment,” from ’01’s Vol. V, displays Garred’s ability to combine deep melancholy with a sense of humor. First he begs, “I need another chance/ I want another chance/ To be with you” for a whole minute and a half over Boyle’s haunting guitar. But though the song depicts “a lonely way to live,” you can’t help but smile when Garred repeats the phone number from the “For Rent” sign as not to forget it.
Perhaps the crowning jewel of X , though, is Garred’s reworking of “Amazing Grace,” simply titled “Grace,” from My Usual Way . Wesley and Garred softly sing of music’s ability to encompass your whole body: “Lies around my earlobes/ Lies around my ankles,” while Boyle’s guitar whines in the background and Michelleâ€”who will be eight months pregnant at the band’s CD-release showâ€”sprinkles piano all around. The effect is hypnotic and achieves exactly what “Grace” praisesâ€”the way a song can take hold of your heart, just as Garred’s do. And that’s why I keep returning to them, because sometimes all you can do is follow your heart. – Amy McCullough
Do a Google search for Scott Garred, Super XX Manâ€™s alter ego, and the first thing that pops up is not a Super XX Man site, or even a Silver Scooter (Garredâ€™s other, rockier band) site.Â Itâ€™s the website of Marylhurst University, specifically a student profile done on, yes, the same Scott Garred, once a student at Marylhurst in the department of Music Therapy.Â A little more research (thank you MySpace), and we can find that heâ€™s currently working as a music therapist in the maximum security wing of a hospital.Â And yes, this matters, because it puts the music of Super XX Man into a context that actually makes sense.
Now, typically, when you hear of someone calling their music â€œtherapeuticâ€, it means theyâ€™re using it as a means for catharsis in some way.Â Itâ€™s a term often reserved for the most painful, literal pieces of music, violent explosions or humble confessions that allow artists to express their darkest thoughts in ways healthier than doing harm to themselves or others.Â Itâ€™s a term thatâ€™s been applied to Nine Inch Nails, Xiu Xiu, and Jarboe, all of them artists renowned for exposing their souls to levels skirting uncomfortability.
Rather than bearing the entirety of his soul and forcing us to experience his pain along with them, Garred chooses to take those innermost thoughts and wrap them in pleasant, quiet folk songs, an approach that is likely far more suited to any location whose name includes the words â€œmaximum securityâ€.
X is, appropriately, Super XX Manâ€™s tenth release, all of which he has released with volume numbers, tracking his recorded output (his first two demos are Volumes I and II, the EP that followed was Volume III, and so on).Â It also marks the tenth year of Garredâ€™s recording as Super XX Man.Â Combine all of these tens with the fact that the letter â€˜Xâ€™ figures prominently into Garredâ€™s superhero pseudonym, and itâ€™s understandable that Garred should be feeling nostalgic.Â And so, X is created as therapy for that nostalgia, visiting the past, rethinking it, and embracing it.Â X consists entirely of songs that Garred has recorded before, now re-recorded with the members of Garredâ€™s touring band, including his wife and accordionist extraordinaire, Michelle.
As one might expect, the strength of the songs is often proportional to their age, with the newer ones being better developed melodically and lyrically.Â Opener â€œCollecting Rocksâ€ (originally from Volume VI, Collecting Rocks) is a lovely little song where Garred actually sounds a bit like Conor Oberst in a mellow mood (spoken-word tangents and all), and the added vocals of Ali Wesley provide a nice, conversational counterpoint to Garredâ€™s questioning lyrics.Â â€œUsual Wayâ€ (from Volume VII, My Usual Way) is a beautiful bit of looking to God while searching for oneself, and â€œGraceâ€ (which actually appears in two forms on My Usual Way) is given its most reverential treatment yet, appropriate for a song that starts out by toying with the words of a familiar hymn.Â The subtlety and emotional depth inherent in these songs is obvious when compared to the updates on early demos like â€œHearts and Starsâ€ and â€œI Canâ€™t Figure Out These Bottle Caps (Iâ€™m a Lonely Guy)â€â€”both of which sound like cute song ideas, but they donâ€™t exactly develop into actual songs.
Even so, itâ€™s obvious that the instrumentation added by the rest of the band has helped even the barest of Garredâ€™s song skeletonâ€™s.Â Despite her cheeky liner-noted label of â€œPolka Queen of NE Portlandâ€, Michelle Garredâ€™s accordions are just about as understated as accordions can possibly be, actually providing more subtlety than, say, Scottâ€™s experiments with recorders on previous albums.Â The light percussion and steady bass on the songs where they actually appear is just enough to fill out the songs without making their presence too obvious.Â Mr. Garred has obviously found a nice, quiet, subtle band to match the aesthetic of his songwriting.
All of this basically points to the idea that if youâ€™re one of those souls for whom listening to someone sing quietly about what he sees when he curls up into the fetal position, X will be a right fine listen.Â Despite the presence of a supporting cast, something that Super XX Man hasnâ€™t dealt with much in the past (at least on the studio releases), X also sounds like the best approximation of what Scott Garred has always hoped for from his music.Â It probably wonâ€™t excite you much, but even the steeliest of souls might find themselves tapping their toes or smiling at the occasional cute turns of phrase.Â More aromatherapy than EST, X may not cure what ails you, but it will numb the pain a bit.Â Sometimes, thatâ€™s enough.
Scott Garred, Super XX Man, writes and plays straightforward, melodic music. Exemplifying Thoreau’s simplify, simplify, simplify mantra, Garred and his bandmates play what needs playing and leave the rest behind. With an acoustic guitar, accordion, flute, harmonica and unabashed sincerity, their new album, X, lifts the spirit and, on occassion, uses humor to remind us of the joy music and life can bring.
A few of the articles I’ve read about Garred compare him to Willie Nelson, one of my favorite artists (and someone I saw in concert last month). While X’s sound doesn’t remind me of Willie, I do understand the comparison. The simplicity and honesty that encompass Garred’s music reminds me of classic Willie Nelson albums like Red Headed Stranger. Maybe this is one the Nelson albums Garred references in A Garage Apartment, the fourth track on X.
X opens with Collecting Rocks, a graceful song with the accompanying vocals of Ali Wesly, whose voice is warm and so so sweet. The album then transitions from a song about love to a song about falling out of love. The vocals on Up Up Up remind me of a somber Tom Petty, and the melancholy is somehow reassuring.
Usual Way is an odd, endearing track. With an accordion and one goofy banjo scat, the song ambles along and then segues into lyrics I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t see coming: Don’t doubt my faith. Don’t doubt my Savior, my Grace. Don’t doubt my outcome. Don’t doubt my outlook. Don’t doubt my place in this life. And then the accordion kicks back in and the track wraps.
A Garage Apartment makes me sing a telephone number. I’m not sure how it does it, but it does. “458-4492 458-4492 458-4492” And then there’s a song about bottle caps. It might sound weird, but, just like the rest of the album, it works.
Moving forward on the record, Grace is haunting and slightly-discordant; Coulee City is upbeat, with a country-music feel; and Stroll On Through New Orleans has a chorus that makes me sing along: bum bum, bum-bum, bum bum, bum-bum.
See You In The Evening closes the album with brushed drums, Ali Wesly’s vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica and what I think is a xylophone. Blended together like a good fruit smoothie, all of these components end the record with harmonizing perfection.
Super XX Man is a misnomer. This is a name for a wrestler, or at least a heavy metal bandâ€”not a folksy singer who loves to tell us about how much he loves simple things. But oh wellâ€¦thereâ€™s no changing it now; Super XX Man (actually Scott Garred) has been making albums for ten years and I guess heâ€™s pretty set in his name ways.
X is a very strange album. I was confused by the occasionally creepy stalker-type lyrics that went along with guitar strumming and ambling lines like â€œbum, bum, bum, bum.â€ But then I read the press release and it all started to come together. Garred works as a music therapist at the Oregon State Hospital maximum-security wing. There is something very therapeutic about calming music that contains very honest lyricsâ€¦sometimes too honest. If part of my band consisted of my wife, I wouldnâ€™t want to put in lines like â€œI donâ€™t want to be married anymoreâ€ (â€œUp Up Upâ€).
X is reminiscent of the simpler Rilo Kiley songs, but the male-female vocals are reminiscent of The Lovemakers, The Brunettes and Joy Zipper. Atop the guitar strumming, there is brushed drum, flute, accordion, and harmonica, supplied by the other people in the band: Michelle Garred, Zach Boyle, and Ali Wesley.
If one doesnâ€™t get too caught up in the lyrics, X is a very relaxing album. So let your brain stop its worrying, get a nice drink in your hand, and listen to some Super XX Man.