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 song—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"—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)"—inspired in part by Texas' Pearl beer and a Steve Martin movie—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 Michelle—who will be eight months pregnant at the band's CD-release show—sprinkles piano all around. The effect is hypnotic and achieves exactly what "Grace" praises—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.
Super XX Man celebrates the release of
with Norfolk & Western and Point Juncture, WA at the Doug Fir, April 28. 9 pm. $7. 21+