Carey Wolff’s I’m Still the Darkness

By Ken Shimamoto

I’ll admit I’d kinda lost the Carey Wolff thread since Woodeye folded the tent, but when Velton Hayworth informed me that Carey’s new CD was out, I got intrigued and surfed straight to Carey’s Myspace page (the tendril of Murdoch’s evil empire that’s given loads of unsigned musos ‘n’ bands a web presence on the cheap – talk about your mixed blessings) to hear the MP3s there. The actual CD gives you two more songs; you can cop it from Carey the next time you see him play out.

I’m not ashamed to say I wept when I heard “Nineteen Years” for the first time. Granted, I’m a sucker for its absent-dad theme – been there, done that. Still, it worked on me in unexpected ways that had more to do with the lyric’s plain-spoken quality than any fancy discursive foofaraw. For a fella who’s so hung up on litterchur, Carey’s own voice (in the literary sense) is remarkably free of artifice. In fact, a more emotionally direct songwriter would be hard to imagine; he just puts it all out there, in a way that resonates for all kinds of folks. Hell, I’ve seen him reduce whole rooms full of people to tears that you wouldn’t think were susceptible to that sort of thing: strong men, tough rockaroll brawds. But somehow, he manages it damn near every time.

A lot of us couldn’t believe it when he pulled the plug on Woodeye and are mighty glad he’s seen fit to bring ‘em back for one last hurrah at the Wreck Room (on April 21st, with their old compadres Daddys Soul Donut). And he walked away for the most un-rock’n’roll of reasons: family, school, etc. But you get the impression that Carey Wolff could give a rat’s ass about meeting anybody’s expectations for what a heart-wrenching singer-songwriter mofo is supposed to do. He confronts his demons everytime he picks up a pen or a guitar, but the rest of the time, he’s just taking care of business – finishing school, growing his family, tending bar at Malone’s. He might dig Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., most of all, but there’s nothing droll or whimsical about his own work. And you get the feeling he’s just hitting his stride.

Listening to the songs on the new CD, it’s apparent how much Carey’s grown as a writer these past couple of years. I’m Still the Darkness is clearly the work of a mature artist who’s comfortable within his idiom and is using it to spin stories of greater subtlety and richer detail than the work he made his name on. He’s expunged most traces of Rawk from his sound, which as a practical matter amounted to purging bassist Graham Richardson (always the most rock’n’roll element in the quartet) from the Woodeye lineup, since Kenny Smith (who plays drums) and Scott Davis (who plays everything else) are both present here. They’re the most sensitive and sympathetic of accompanists – just ask Kevin Aldridge or Jason Eady – and they’ve always done right by Carey’s songs; they continue to do so on this disc. Instrumentally, the counterpoint to his vocals (which have never sounded as controlled and effortlessly expressive on disc as they do here) comes from Scott’s lap steel or Katy Cox’s fiddle (also heard with the Maybelles and Sean Kershaw & the New Jack Ramblers) rather than wildman electric guitar. It all sounds totally organic, though, not like some contrived “roots” move.

On “Nineteen Years,” the sound is stripped down to just voice and guitar, with only a sweetly singing fiddle added to frame the singer’s advice to his son: “Find the love of your life and be swept away.” “Untold Stories” is a dark, brooding number with swirling organ washes that help build the song’s tension. The lyrics examine a long-time loser through clear but compassionate eyes: “What makes you go to work, what makes you beat your kids, what makes you lift your skirt, what makes you want to pay?” “Scorched Earth Policy” overlays acoustic guitar, mandolin and fiddle ornamentation on the story of a dry season (on more than one level), while the protagonist of “When I’m Nobody” takes self-abnegation to self-abasement (“Found my world reduced to the surface of your skin, and I lost my faith when I forgave your sins”) over music that sways like a drunken boat.

The disc’s title comes from “Million Stars,” a banjo-and-fiddle driven honky-tonk shuffle that’s the closest thing here to a Woodeye song, wherein Wolff compares himself to an old love: “I’m still the darkness, but you’re a million stars.” “This Old Man” is Carey’s rumination on Growing Old Together a la “When I’m Sixty-Four,” with the requisite self-deprecating humor: “Will you still love me when I have to put my teeth in a jar?” The words he sings in the song’s chorus could just as easily apply to his own post-Woodeye state: “Those days are gone, but you’re still holding on.”

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