The last time we heard from Chris Flemmons, his emotional safety valves were wide open, and his first full-length album fronting The Baptist Generals — “No Silver, No Gold” — was one cathartic blast of anger and pain expressed in a distinctive, genuinely anguished, yet melodic nasal howl over the ramshackle, lo-fi accompaniment of percussive acoustic guitar, cello, organ and slapshot drums.
That was 10 years ago.
Flemmons and the Generals haven't been heard from since, at least on record.
Until now. The Denton, Texas, sextet has just released its long, long-awaited sophomore effort, “Jackleg Devotional to the Heart,” after a lot of devoted fans had written Flemmons off as an indie-rock version of Harper Lee.
But Flemmons is quick to point out he hasn't been idle all that time.
“Some of the songs were written in 2005,” he said of the 11 originals on “Jackleg,” the first version of which was recorded and then shelved that year.
“It sounded like another indie rock band,” he explained.
On the first album, the music was like a punch in the gut, a drunken-sounding style of threadbare instrumentation borrowing from folk, country, blues and punk influences, with emotionally raw lyrics and vocals drawing comparisons to artists as diverse as fellow trippy Texan Roky Erickson and Howlin' Wolf. In short, it is challenging yet rewarding listening.
“The album that I put out 10 years ago, ‘No Silver, No Gold,' was a collection of songs that I'd written after my father's death.” Flemmons said in a phone interview from his Denton home. “He died of cancer. Those songs were very difficult to play for like three or four years. I mean, to go out and play those songs, because I'd written most of 'em from '99 to like 2001 ... when I wrote those it was cathartic for me.
“My father passed away in '99. He was a writer for the (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram, and it was just somethin' that I ... Writing the music was just something that allowed me a little bit of escape while he was dying of cancer, and it was one method besides alcohol for me to deal with the grief of him passing away.
“Once my mind was past the larger, harder part of the grief it was hard to keep playing those songs.”
It took Flemmons a while to find the inspiration to write new songs, and Baptist Generals gigs were becoming fewer and farther between.
Meanwhile, the singer-songwriter became embroiled in local civic issues involving a developer who had bought a special piece of land in a culturally valuable district of Denton called Fry Street, sometimes called the “6th Street of Denton” after 6th Street in Austin, considered the musical heart of that larger city. The guy wanted to tear down a structure that had been built in 1910 and put up a CVS drugstore. Flemmons' efforts, along with other citizens, to fight that plan took up 2½ years of his life.
“So I got in a bunch of preservation concerns, that was after 2005,” he said. “And I'd also in 2005 decided I wanted to start a music festival here, and for four years I did an afternoon party in Austin on Wednesday that was a Denton showcase.”
Denton, a college town located just north of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex on Interstate 35, has long been a kind of mini-Austin in the alternative music world, a birthplace to such esteemed underground acts as Centro-matic, Brave Combo, Bowling for Soup, Eli Young Band, Neon Indian, Slobberbone and Midlake, to name but a few.
In 2009, Flemmons moved his showcase to his hometown and established the 35 Denton music festival The growing event, held every March, is now 5 years old. And once it was up and running, Flemmons decided it was time to face the music, so to speak, and the task of completing “Jackleg,” which he'd been avoiding for so long.
“I left the festival in December of 2011 and immediately I talked to the guys in the band, 'cause I was basically sitting around,” Flemmons said. “I was like, you know, if we're gonna do this, let's do it right now.
“So we worked on the record from late December of 2011 until August (2012), just on and off,” he said.
A new approach
And this time, Flemmons knew that if the album was going to be completed, at some point he was going to have to let go of the master tapes and trust his bandmates to add the finishing touches.
“Well, it was something that I learned at the festival,” he said. “I was far more of a control freak 10 years ago than I am now. Yeah, I had particular things that I wanted, but at the festival I learned that you have to rely on other people. It's too large a production to like try to do everything yourself, and you have to put your trust in other people and trust that they have an understanding of what you're trying to do.
“So it wasn't that they had to wrest the album from me. ... I told them if we're gonna make this, you guys step up, and you all are the ones that schedule the times. I really just wanna show up and feel it and work on what I'm supposed to work on. And the album production's been a whole different experience for me. It's been really positive. It's the first time in the studio that I didn't feel hamstrung by time considerations and production concerns and stuff and, yeah, everybody stepped up. Like it was somethin' that they cared about, you know?”
Thanks to producer Stuart Sikes (Loretta Lynn, Cat Power, The Walkmen, Modest Mouse, The White Stripes), co-producer and collaborator Jason Reimer and longtime Generals guitarist-keyboardist Peter Salisbury, the production is cleaner, the rough edges have been smoothed off a bit, and the general tone of the album is more upbeat than the first record.
Yet the arrangements remain eccentric, adventurous, unpredictable and habit-forming, with the usual variety of exotic instruments (guitarrons, vibraphones, waterphones, marimbas) enriching the textures of every tune, from the vibrant strum and drive of the opening instrumental “Machine en Prolepsis,” through the Crazy Horse-grunge of the rollicking “Dog That Bit You,” the primal rhythms, orchestral swell, spacey keyboard effects and crystalline acoustic plucking of “Turnunders and Overpasses,” the glittering vibes and thundering drive of “Broken Glass” and the ambient feedback and noise that gives way to the peaceful, folky, unexpectedly tender love ballad, “Floating.” There's even a mellow, coffeehouse-style acoustic cover of Barry Gibbs' life-affirming “Morning of My Life” that makes one suspect Flemmons has started popping potent antidepressants.
The Sub Pop press release accompanying the album quotes Flemmons as calling this his “love” album, but he denies ever labeling it as such.
“It's a bunch of relationship songs, but ... I don't necessarily call it a ‘love album,'” he said. “I mean, I know that's what's in the publicity but ... These songs, I'm really excited to finally go out and play 'em live, because I think the record has kind of a subdued quality compared to the last one, in a sense. The last one's got a little bit more drunken bombast to it, you know?
“But these songs have a lot of life in the live presentations that I can't wait to get out and show that part of it.”
The fans have certainly waited long enough. And he promises Oklahoma City — or maybe Norman — will eventually be added to The Baptists Generals' tour schedule.
“We've played in Bricktown before, yeah, years ago. We did that two or three times. We usually do Norman or Oklahoma City, and we did that several times during the cycle for the last record from like 2003 to 2006. So I'm fairly certain we'll be coming through there.”