By Eleni P. Austin

“You said you liked L.A., but that’s bullshit, I heard different from your brother, he said your ends don’t meet and it never rains, it’s driving you crazy/We waged a war with time and it’s ended, every day I was wounded, it’s like I’m not living here, if you’re not dear.”

That’s Laith, attempting to outrun heartbreak on “L.A.,” a track off his solo debut, Lightning. Laith is something of an enigma, wrapped in a riddle. The Texas native grew up in a tight Houston community surrounded by cousins and grandparents. By high school age, his family had relocated to Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Bored and slightly homesick in his new surroundings, music was his only companion. Honing his guitar skills, he drew from childhood inspirations like Clifton Chenier, and the more incendiary sounds of Lightning Hopkins. Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan. By age 15, he was tearing it up on any stage that would have him.

When he began to write his own music, his songs straddled the line between the sacred and the profane. Pretty soon, he ditched Colorado for Olympia, Washington. Turning it up to 11, he began fronting an indie band there, because he “didn’t hear anyone playing Country or Folk or Blues music in Olympia, and I wanted to play some loud, sassy shit.” After nearly 15 years sharpening a sound he will neither dissect nor define, he has unleashed his debut record, Lightning.


The quiescent opener, “L.A. Interlude,” is a gauzy piano instrumental that splits the difference between Honky-Tonk grit and painterly notes that recall “Love Is All Around,” Sonny Curtis’ iconic theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It quickly folds into the aforementioned “L.A.” Laith’s laid-back drawl is bookended by liquid arpeggios, plaintive piano, pliant bass, airy backing vocals and a tambourine shake. Attempting to assuage heartbreak, he takes to the road, wending his way from California and Arizona to Colorado and Espanola, he questions his choices and yearns for a connection; “Have I wasted my whole life wandering, wondering if you left me or I left you, in that morning sun/Did you do what’s right by you, cause I’m holding all this damage done, my life’s not fun….and I’m coming undone.” On the break, a sidewinding, slightly Psychedelic guitar meanders through the arrangement, magnifying the moody disconnect.

Laith’s music consistently colors outside the lines. “Texas Birds” is a bit of a Dylanesque ramble. Banjo-riffic acoustic notes, wily bass lines, mildly dissonant piano, thready bass and wah-wah electric riffs are wed to a scuffling shuffle-rhythm. Jabberwocky lyrics display a bit of ADHD, endearingly leap-frogging from topic A to topic Q; “A building is built so now it falls, till it’s head pokes through some rain clouds and he moves in with his Ma, Babe, I ain’t no building, but I’ve known a building, he’s an old buddy of mine/He’s a buddy in the bathroom stall, crying so loud I had to laugh out, now I’m walking myself home, in the early hours of the morning, when everything’s closed and it’s raining out and I say ay-eeee.” There’s no clear destination, but the journey is rollicking good fun.

Conversely, “Ghost” is a spectral lament that blends mournful acoustic guitar, phantasmic pedal steel, ascending bass lines, spooky piano, shivery backing vocals and a caroming back-beat. An astute observation kicks it off; “Baby, it’s a cruel, cruel world on the interstate, people killing and kissing, Suburbans full of hatred, people never like people who look like them, it’s one hell of a weekend war and it just don’t end,” before circling back around to the heartbreak. As the arrangement winds down, the lyrics (to paraphrase Mr. Mojo-Risin’), begin to wallow the mire, and search for an epiphany; “I said it once, I said it twice, I meant it from the start, when lightning comes, lightning glows on steady, to salvage love, I need some time on your couch, Lord knows I’ve been broken and doused, lightnin’ the only time I feel him, lightnin’ lightning,’ just shinin’ in.”

Meanwhile, “Song For Levon” lands somewhere in the middle. Jangly acoustic guitar, keening pedal steel ticklish piano and thrumming bass connect with a rattle-trap beat. Stream-of-conscious lyrics include this trenchant couplet; “I’ll change my face if it helps, I can be two people at once, I’ve already proved it.” The arrangement ebbs and flows, as the instrumentation expands, gaining velocity, and then contracts with an unfussy grace.

The best tracks stack back-to-back in the middle of the record. If it were possible for Little Feat and Spoon to create a musical love-child, it might sound like “79.” The song opens with a bit of a bait-and-switch. A hissy click-track (that would seem right at home in a ‘80s porno film) supplies utilitarian rhythm and is quickly supplanted by slashing guitars, frolicsome piano boogie-oogie bass and a twitchy beat. Attempting to explain his wanderlust, Laith unspools a shaggy dog saga filled with “Bayou nights and mosquito bites.” Time signatures shift, loping one minute and staccato the next. Lyrics issue a disclaimer; “Honey, when I talk in that Pecan-twang, and the truth comes falling (like) Louisiana Rain” ahead of the break. Guitars toggle between twang-tastic licks and duck-walkin’ rhythm riffs, atop spiky piano runs, before a final cryptic verse runs out the clock.

Initially, “Gentle” lives up to its title. Whispery keys partner with sugary guitars, weepy pedal steel, slinky bass and a high-hat kick. Torn between true love and touring, lyrics underscore every musician’s dilemma; the comfort of home; “I’m on fire, I’ve been too, too hot on this proverbial ride, so, I’m leaving to get home to you by morning,” or the siren song of life on the road; “Give me highways, give me road signs, peace of mind at a stop sign…” Fluttery pedal steel is (funhouse) mirrored by vroom-y guitar and plinky-plunky piano, as the arrangement zig-zags to a close, Laith casts his fate to the wind, insisting “Give me a sign.”

Finally, on “Texas Wind,” rambunctious guitars, sturdy bass and sunny pedal steel are tethered to a galloping gait. Laith channels his inner-Singing Brakeman and let’s loose with a yodel that would do Jimmie Rodgers proud. Lyrics offer a tart paean to Honky Tonks between Texas and Louisiana; “Blow Texas wind, my blues away I got a head full of ideas I can’t shake…I get my lovin’ down in New Orleans, let’s go dance to a Cajun rhythm, let’s go have us a ball, I can buy you one, you can buy me three, and we’ll end the Hole In The Wall.”

Other intriguing songs include the spatial Country comfort of “Found The Time” and the sardonic piano ballad, “No One’s Ever Going To Put You Away.” The album draws to a close with the expansive title track. Ambitious and grandiloquent, “Lightning” is the record’s true magnum opus. As Laith counts off “1-2-3-4,” piquant guitar nudges Carole Kaye-flavored bass lines that echo the Glen Campbell/Wrecking Crew classic, “Witchita Lineman. Banjo-tastic guitars line-up with agile bass and a kick-drum beat. Feathery piano notes hark back to the Mary Tyler Moore chords that powered “L.A. Interlude.” A grandiloquent slice of Country-Soul, the lyrics are awash with tender revelations like “Ah, behold, life’s never as simple as it is on T.V., like what happened to you and me, in these great halls of history, it wasn’t much of a ‘two-can-land,’ it was hard, it was hell and back again.” Fender Rhodes and pedal steel intertwine as the lyrics chronicle the cosmic, karmic peaks and valleys. As the arrangement kicks into interstellar overdrive, He waves farewell; “Goodbye love, goodbye pain…” Emotionally bloody, but unbowed, the expansive piano-driven coda suggests he’ll be back to fight another day. A moodily magnificent finish to an auspicious debut. This is a solo record in name only. Laith relied on the talents of his backing band, The Texas Birds, which includes Casey Klep Matson on drums, some bass and electric guitar, Kevin Christopher on bass and backing vocals, Merle Law on Fender Rhodes, organ and backing vocals and Erik Clampitt on pedal steel. Special guests included Cooper Trail on piano and drums, Jeff Munger on electric guitar and Sam Wenc on pedal steel. Backing vocals were provided by Caroline Chauffe and Anna Jeter. Kevin Christopher engineered and mixed the album at three different studios, Ruby Machine, Trash Treasury and Heavy Meadow Sound, all located in Portland, Oregon.

Laith has created a debut that defies categorization. Sure, it’s a little bit Country and a little bit Rock & Roll (without that treacly Donny & Marie after-taste), but his approach remains unconventional. Melodies take twisty turns and quirky detours. Rarely relying on sentiment, Lyrics like “The tears that I cry now in this sink will likely be recycled into the water that you drink, if that ain’t melancholy, so sad and a little funny, I don’t care anymore,” display a skewed world view. Ramshackle and slightly shambolic, there is a method to his madness. Lightning strikes, scorching everything that came before.