AMY RIGBY The Old Guys
Emails to Dylan and odes to groupies in this excellent comeback album. By Peter Watts
AMY Rigby is a songwriter who needs a theme, something to kick against, an idea or concept that she can bounce around and tackle from a dozen different directions. The Old Guys is about looking back at people and places, particularly the heroes and heroines who have inspired her. In the wrong hands that could turn into a tiresome and worthy list of influences, but Rigby is too smart, honest and witty a writer to fall into that trap – this is, after all, somebody who once wrote a song with the title “Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?”. Instead, she imagines an email from Philip Roth to Robert Zimmerman, celebrates groupies, dreams of being Walter White, writes a touching tribute to an ex-boyfriend and has a dig at her hometown of Pittsburgh (“Andy Warhol’s dead and in the ground, it’s the only way they can get him back to town”).
It’s been more than a decade since Rigby’s last solo album. A member of Matador-signed ’90s trio The Shams, she released her debut solo album, the excellent Diary Of A Mod Housewife, in 1996 and produced five more LPs over the next decade. She wrote about her life as she got older, scrutinising her development through her thirties and forties, offsetting the discomfort with self-aware humour. Then in 2006 she teamed up with (Wreckless) Eric Goulden and moved to France to “grow vegetables”. The pair released three albums together but Rigby’s singular voice disappeared, even after the couple returned to the US. It was the song “The Old Guys” that inspired Rigby’s comeback. It was recorded when drummer Greg Roberson of Reigning Sound was working with Wreckless Eric and asked if Rigby had anything they could record. She had “The Old Guys” up her sleeve, and the experience of recording it prompted her to complete an album. The title song is the thematic centrepiece of an album about age and experience, places you’ve been, people you’ve lost, dreams you have forgotten, artists you have loved.
The theme is fleshed out over the surrounding tracks. “Robert Altman” is an intimate love song to the film director set against a wistful melody embellished with the strange Mellotron-like sounds of the Swarmatron, an instrument made by her friend and neighbour Brian Dewan. Its sense of reserve contrasts with the Springsteen/Spector vibe of opening track “From [email protected] to rzimmer[email protected]”. Big chiming guitars introduce space and depth, reflecting the ambition of the content – an email from Philip Roth to Bob Dylan written after the latter won the Nobel Prize for literature, which explores the nature of writing and audience, creation and performance, envy and respect. It sounds great, particularly when you consider the album was recorded at Rigby and Goulden’s home studio. Rigby credits Goulden with creating the crisp, clean sound – the ghost of Stiff looms large – while musical support comes from a rotating cast of drummers. Goulden is able to get a lot of sound out of a small team and informal space; on piledriving album finale “One Off” he builds a scaffold of fuzzy guitar and soaring harmonica around Rigby’s strong vocal. The acoustic “Slow Burner” has a backwards, Radiohead feel while “On The Barricade” has bursts of passive-aggressive guitar.
Rigby’s heroes aren’t just big names like Roth, Dylan and Altman. Some of them aren’t even real – on the clanging “New Sheriff” she has revenge fantasies in which she reimagines herself as Walt White, Tony Soprano or Nucky Thompson when “some sack of shit crosses the line”. She also sings about place on “Playing Pittsburgh”, an excellent song about the “hometown blues”, with Rigby using humour to salve the saltiness as she remembers the “the memories” and sense of ambition that sent her to New York: “I’m playing Pittsburgh tonight... I came to share my gift; but I feel like Carrie before the bucket slipped.”
Two of the best moments come when she delves into personal history. “Bob” is a beautiful tribute to the long-lost boyfriend who introduced her to the CBGB scene. It features a suitably melancholy horn accompaniment and the refrain “I can’t help thinking about you when I hear this kind of song – happy sad, happy sad.” More upbeat is the dreamlike psych of “Leslie”, a celebration of backstage women who have “no ex-lovers, just additional ones”. Written more in awe than judgment, it’s an example of how Rigby can approach a familiar subject and make it seem fresh and interesting thanks to her wisdom, fresh perspective and gift for arresting couplets.