David Ramirez – We’re Not Going Anywhere
Thirty Tigers – 8 September 2017
David Ramirez, Texas born, is a fine example of a musician who has gradually worked his way up. Early years in a band with some friends before a stint in Nashville, scuffling for gigs while working in a coffee shop. The gigs weren’t coming, and he was fired from his job, so he threw all he had into a banged up old car and hit the road. By all accounts, he traversed the States playing open mics and house shows, sleeping in the car or, when lucky, a borrowed bed for the night. Eventually, he had banked enough experience (and finance) to release an acoustic EP in 2007 which was recorded in various houses in Birmingham, Alabama, the town lending its name to the EP. His first album, American Soil in 2009, was a step up with a full band backup and Ramirez coming across at times as a fresh faced Springsteen. His relentless touring was beginning to pay off with support slots for the likes of The Civil Wars and, always helpful, one of his songs selected for a TV soundtrack. Another couple of EPs and a second album (Apologies) were still self-funded, but by 2015’s Fables, he’d been signed to Thirty Tigers (home of Jason Isbell, John Prine and Sam Outlaw among others). Fables was his breakout album in the States and also saw him gaining some attention in the UK with his debut London performance selling out and Bob Harris giving him some radio plays.
Along the way, Ramirez has gathered a reputation as a lyrical writer of loss and loneliness with Rock and A Hard Place, from Fables, a fine example of his ability to dredge the depths of misery with a sensitive and poetic hand, at times somewhat reminiscent of John Fulbright. Like Fulbright, Ramirez is not country per se but is writing in the footsteps of the likes of Jimmy Webb, grand narratives with a heart of soul. How Do You Get Them Back, again from Fables, is an impassioned piano ballad with a grand sweep which grips at the emotions.
We’re Not Going Anywhere, again on Thirty Tigers, is Ramirez’s first fully fledged big budget album and is produced by Sam Kisserer who has worked with Josh Ritter among others. Boldly, it moves on from Ramirez’s rootsy sound adding swathes of guitar, shimmering keyboards and synths, an attempt, says Ramirez, to capture some of the sounds of his youth. “We went in with a pretty specific vision: lots of keyboards and some out-of-the-box guitar sounds. I took a lot of notes from the indie bands I’ve been listening to and from the bands I loved growing up in the ‘80s, like the Cars and Journey.” I thought,” Let’s just live in this spacey world for a while and see what comes out of it.”
Spacey is one word for the effects and glossy production on the record with the opening song, Twins, staking its claim from the start with Ramirez’s voice reverberating over guitar effects and wonky synth interjections. For much of the album, the drumming is akin to Jaki Liebezeit’s “Motorik” style and the songs are awash with layers of guitars and keyboards and ultimately it does recall an eighties production. Much of what passed for music in the eighties tended to throw in what was then the latest technology and Ramirez and Kisserer at times fall into the trap they have set for themselves. The primary culprit is People Call Who They Wanna Talk To which, with its dancing keyboards and synths, recalls Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark.
There are moments when the production does click. The upbeat melody of Good Heart gives it a Springsteen like feel circa Dancing In The Dark. Villain finds Ramirez singing in his deepest register, sounding almost like Mark Lanegan, over brooding keyboards and a finely understated drum synth whoosh creating a sinister atmosphere not a million miles removed from a David Lynch scene. The aforementioned Twins strives to achieve a similar effect and although it’s not as successful, it’s still quite an emotive listen as Ramirez basically offers a eulogy to the victims of 9/11. Just as the previous generation had Kennedy’s assassination indelibly stamped on their memory so it goes with the attack on the twin towers which occurred just a week after Ramirez’s 18th birthday. The spur to writing the song, however, was the Presidential election and the subsequent turmoil which rekindled thoughts Ramirez had back then – that America was not invincible and that he felt, “Unsafe and without control in a country that had previously made me feel otherwise.”
The foreboding evident on the opening song is echoed throughout the album. Recording in an out of the way farmhouse in rural Maine, Ramirez and his crew spent their breaks catching up. “We’d take breaks during the day and watch the news and see all the rallies and marches and the disruption and the out-of-control feeling that was everywhere.” Stone Age is the most evident result, a howling diatribe against racial murder and anti immigrant sentiment; it ditches the glossy production for a guitar-fuelled rant that recalls CSN&Y’s Ohio. It’s the most overtly political song here as elsewhere Ramirez retreats to a more personal space although it too is in danger of falling apart.
Time is a Bukowski-like lament, a barfly falling into a black hole, an endless round of failed connections. Telephone Lovers is a fairly straightforward countrified sad song, the most connected of the songs here to his previous albums as he sings of the trials involved in maintaining a long distance love affair. The last two songs are also bereft of the bells and whistles production with Eliza Jane a sturdy piano based ballad dedicated to his grandmother (who was a musician who supported Gene Autry and Ernest Tubb when they played in her neighbourhood). The album closes with Ramirez and his resonant voice accompanied only by piano on the elegiac I’m Not Going Anywhere, a magnificent song that prefigures his demise as he looks forward to some beers in Heaven with some old friends while he remains resolute that his presence here will still be felt.
While parts of the album might raise eyebrows as Ramirez adopts a glossy sheen, overall, his words shine more brightly. He’s an acute observer of the fractured state of the nation, its lost souls and lost ideals but even as he sees discord, he is hopeful for the future as he sings in the life affirming death note that is the closing song. This notion is reflected in the cover art which features two survivors of breast cancer with Ramirez noting that they “Perfectly embodied the meaning of my album’s title: Death, take our bodies, but our presence will remain.” It’s a sentiment worthy of Woody Guthrie and a fine note of defiance.