May 31 2017
This is a nice album. It’s enjoyable. I like it. And I’m thrilled to have such a tepid response to it. And I am thankful as hell this album doesn’t hit me as hard as the first Laila and Smitty. It gives me a sense of hope, and some closure, too. I can’t help but think that Kenny Warren might feel similarly when listening to the follow-up to his excellent 2014 recording.
The trumpeter wrote and recorded that album in the wake of his divorce. Every note of that album resonates with heartbreak and despair and a profound sense of loss. A loss of love, of companionship and also of a willful innocence. Because Laila and Smitty wasn’t just some really good break-up album. Warren focused his own broken relationship through the lens of a different marriage… that of his Uncle Smitty and Aunt Laila, whose enduring bond was something Warren held in childlike fascination during his years in Colorado. It would only be natural for Warren to aspire for the same qualities and similar outcomes of his own marriage. And to have it all come crashing down, there had to be more than present-day heartbreak in play; a sudden and acute feeling of being much older had to have sunk in, and hard.
When I first stumbled upon Laila and Smitty, I was at the outset of my own separation and subsequent divorce. The album was a fist through my chest. The songs have warm tones and a sunny demeanor, but there’s an unmissable sadness to them as well, like the edge of shadow creeping further into the light. The potent imagery Warren conjures up is the vehicle for expressions of loss… and not just of what he had, but also of what he sought to attain. And for me, those motherfucking songs were forcing to the surface every bit of sadness and fear and desolation I was doing my damnedest to ignore or simply annihilate with whiskey. That was bad enough. But what made it worse was I couldn’t stop listening to the damn album, because as much pain as it yanked out of me, the music was so damn beautiful, too. But then I read Warren’s seriously raw and unguarded liner notes, and that’s when I lost it just a little bit. It’s also when I felt a kinship to this album. All that vulnerability the music was bringing out of me, well, it didn’t seem so bad to realize that it came from a similar place in someone else, too.
I also spent some years out in Colorado. It was a miraculous time for me. I achieved a state of existence that I had previously only thought others capable of, and it happened in a place that was so unlike the grim surroundings of Chicago I’d previously called home. But, eventually, I began to accumulate quite a lot of scar tissue in Colorado, and by the time I hit the road and literally walked out of town, I was a shell of the hopeful kid that drove straight at the Rocky Mountain horizon a decade earlier. The world had come crashing down upon me, and I felt every pound of it. The impact was measured as a loss of innocence, and of the belief my future was as wide and endless as that deep blue big sky of high country. And to have recovered from those days and rebuilt a life for myself, which then included someone I loved very dearly, just to lose it all again… it crushed me.
But eventually I got better. Life moves on, and there came a time when I decided to move on with it. I go hiking again. I’m working on three different writing projects (well, four, if you include this site). I get out and live. The big hurt has evolved from a huge sense of loss to a warm appreciation for what I was charmed to possess, even if for only a little while.
That change in outlook corresponds to how I view the second Laila and Smitty recording. It just doesn’t resonate as strongly with me as the first, and I take some comfort in that. It appears that Warren might feel the same. When I asked him about the follow-up, he replied:
“A few of these newer songs still reference that same break up that fueled a lot of the first record’s songs, but they’re more hopeful and they benefit from a couple years of perspective and growth, both personally and musically. They are still, for better or worse, mostly autobio-mytho-graphical love songs.”
And that brings us to another notable experience from both recordings… confirmation.
All of us read into the music we’re hearing. We react to it on a very personal level. Some music is simply a pleasant conversation we’ve overhead via our stereo. But there’s those albums that actually speak to who we are. It can manifest in limitless ways. Perhaps the music snaps perfectly into place with how we’re feeling at that specific moment in time… a sublime day where cloudy skies overhead and a cool breeze and city lights all converge for a cinematic moodiness that makes life feel as magical as the miracle it truly is. The music is the unintentional vocalization of that sensation. Sometimes the connection is more direct, where the vocalist’s intonation of lyrics, a trumpeter’s sigh of melody, the drummer’s intense chatter, a guitarist’s boundless ferocity… some or all qualities of that album might as well be an invocation of the heartbreak or happiness felt at some momentous point in our lives, becoming an indelible soundtrack to a memory that will be bound eternally within its notes.
But really, it’s just us. At least, most of the time.
Once we hear it, it becomes our music, detached from its creator. We feel what we feel, and we attach that significance to the source of the music. That pained sense of loss we feel every time we hear a particular song, it’s so easy to project that upon the musician… that the song is a sign of her own heartbreak, and that’s why the association with our own is a bond so strongly felt. A song’s emotional impact can strain the incredulous notion that it was created specifically for us and that intensely felt moment in our lives… How can we not buy into the suggestion that the song came about from the same kind of moment for the musician?
Life’s most resonant and lasting images are experienced as a solitary event. We may not be alone when they strike, and the event may very well be inextricably woven into the lives of others, but how those moments shape who we are is on such a personal level, connecting with all of the ineffable thoughts and cryptic emotions and singularly personal experiences leading up to it, well, it is a hidden effect, and there’s no way to truly make it publicly understood. Try answering the question who are you with 100% accuracy. You can’t do it. I certainly can’t. But I’ve heard music that does. And when it does, and because it’s impossible to share the reason why, the natural inclination is to crash the solitary interface by connecting with the musician… and that requires believing the musician is in much the same place as we are, and experiences the music in precisely the same way.
Obviously, this is a ridiculous thing to do.
I can’t even get over how many times I’ve been bludgeoned with disappointment to learn that a song I believed to be about heartbreak and loss was actually inspired by a happy vacation or a good time with friends. Or that a song that I believed so fervently to be a deeply contemplative reverie on how truly blessed we are to be alive first came to life when the musician was flipping through coupons in the frozen vegetables aisle at the grocery store when she was struck by the opening notes of a pretty melody. Or, worst of all, when deeply affecting (and misheard) lyrics about never truly being alone are revealed to be a mundane exclamation by the vocalist of being loopy and stoned. It can be a dangerous thing to try to connect with the musician. Watching an interview about the album, reading the liner notes, checking out a transcription of the lyrics… those are risky steps to take with your most deeply felt music. You’re just asking the musician to ruin their music for you.
But that didn’t happen for me here. It turned out that my own experiences with the Laila and Smitty recordings lined up pretty closely with those of the musician. Something solitary became not so much. That’s no small thing.
Would it have changed things had Warren’s liner notes for the first recording or his emailed responses on the second been materially different than my own insights are personal reflections upon the music? No, not really. The heartbreak and loss I felt at the time I hooked up with the first Laila and Smitty album were real and not going anywhere. And the sense of hope and closure I felt around the time when the follow-up album came out was gonna hang around no matter how the music hit me.
But it’s a small blessing to feel like you’re not alone. It’s a massive revelation to realize it was also true.
Your album personnel: Kenny Warren (trumpet, voice), Jeremiah Lockwood (guitars), Myk Freedman (lap steel), Adam Hopkins (bass), Carlo Costa (drums) and guest: Ilusha Tsinadze (banjo).
The album is Self-Produced.
Listen to more of the album at the artist’s Bandcamp page.
And be sure to check out the first Laila and Smitty recording. I wrote about that one as well. Obviously, I liked it quite a bit.