In their previous music lives leading Lou Ford, Alan and Chad Edwards won praise for their music's capacity to cut to the emotional chase. In a typical critical response, The New York Times' Jon Pareles raved about the brothers' "surly, neatly phrased breakup song[s]" that turned "accusations into aphorisms."
The three Lou Ford LPs were colored by the brothers' shared influences — Louvin Brothers harmonies and Big Star melancholy — and worked in various shades: as mournful pop, bleeding-feedback rockers, broken-man ballads or strutting honky-tonk. Uneasy questions about regret, guilt and resilience added lyrical depth, and the songs delivered country commiseration and rock catharsis in equally potent doses.
But back then, the surliness Pareles noted bled beyond the songs, suggesting the whole enterprise could slide off the rails at any moment, Replacements-style. Cocky about their songwriting and bred on punk's distrust of the music business, Lou Ford's shoulder chip fueled both biting songs and internal dissension. Courtships with Merge Records and Yep Roc Records ended as abruptly as some gigs did. Band members came and went. Seams began to show and wear. Something had to give, and in the early 2000s, it turned out to be Lou Ford.
But the Edwards brothers are back, with a new moniker — the Loudermilks, the government name of Ira and Charlie Louvin — and a new eponymous album. The release party is on March 15 at Snug Harbor. The digital music landscape may have changed dramatically since Lou Ford's flame-out, but the brothers' songwriting skills haven't.
Joined by former Lou Ford members Shawn Lynch (switching from drums to bass) and keyboardist Jason Atkins, as well as ex-Jolene drummer Mike Kennerly, the Edwards return wiser and maybe a bit chastened, ready to give this music thing another shot with what they consider their best LP and band yet.
"We walked away from the groundwork of something that, in the right hands, could've been grown into something a lot more substantial," Chad says. "I was determined to come out of that whole experience and learn from it and turn it into something positive."
The Edwards' songs thrive in that gray space between reality and our expectations; the music is, in the realest sense, about coming to terms with disappointment. That's what has always given their music its mournful edge and redemptive power. From that angle, nothing's changed since Lou Ford's vault-clearing final release, 2006's Poor Man's Soul.
"Don't you follow that Northern light/Stare up at the starry sky/You can wish 'em upon 'em all/Just sit back and watch 'em fall/They'll go one by one, the damage is done," Alan sings on "Watch 'Em Fall," the country two-step that opens their new LP with flat-picked acoustic flurries, shuffling brushes, pedal steel and a full shot of fatalism.
As an opening statement, the track fits right in with the brothers' catalog. But sonically it presents a break from the past, when the band always entered the studio as a two-guitars-bass-and-drums rock unit. In that configuration, the vocals and any additional accents tended to get overpowered.
"When we were conceptualizing the Loudermilks, we wanted a clean start doing something a little bit different," Chad says, explaining the debut's more acoustic feel.
But that blueprint took a while to gestate. For Chad, Lou Ford's demise coincided with the breakup of his first marriage, a one-two gut-punch that helped fuel the haunting "Darkness of Hell" on The Loudermilks. Over baleful, Alan Price-like organ parts, the barbed-and-tangled guitar lines embody depression's vice-grip — "If hell exists, then this is it," Chad moans from inside the maelstrom.
Chad wrote the song for Hard Times Family, the band he formed with Kennerly and Lynch in the wake of Lou Ford's collapse. Though an LP's worth of material was recorded, it was never released and the band simply faded away. But the experience proved valuable for the younger Edwards and key to shaping The Loudermilks.
"[Hard Times Family] for me was a recovery process; I had to have something to focus my life on because most of it had gone away all at once," he says. "It was a growing experience, too — I'd never fronted a band. I'd always been behind my brother, whether it was psychologically for me or just people's perception."
And The Loudermilks is certainly the product of equals. That suits Alan fine, who'd learned from the Lou Ford experience that — among other things — sharing the spotlight might decrease the heat beneath it. "The Plan," a hooky Attractions-style number on the debut, was written about Alan's time in Chocolate USA, a proto-Elephant 6 band led by Julian Koster that also imploded under the weight of expectations. But the song's chorus — "What about the plan? Should've been us, instead of them" — could serve as a mantra for Alan's frustrations during the Lou Ford era, when all those critical accolades led, well, nowhere.
"When I quit playing, I didn't even want to be up front anymore," he says. "Even now, I just like adding guitar and helping [Chad] make his songs."
That songwriting aspect has become a lot easier now. They used to spend $1,200 a day on professional studio time to rush through an LP whose sound never satisfied them. The 10 songs on The Loudermilks were instead digitally recorded at home, at a pace that allowed for multiple takes done to their liking.
That extra care is audible straightaway. Their sibling harmonies shine through in the mix, and the various accents — highlighted by Atkins' keys and top-shelf pedal steel from ex-Nashville sessions player Joe Smith — stand out in strong relief where they once felt hopelessly buried. Some of that, they say, is the function of more recording time and the shift in instrumentation; some of it is just about musical growth.
"Your natural inclination as a learning musician is to fill the holes with sound," Chad says. "Something you learn slowly over time without really even knowing that you're learning it is that, 'OK, if I don't play here, or if I cut the rhythm in half, there's more space, and everything breathes better.' We're all a lot better at staying out of each other's way."
Now all that's left is navigating that tricky gray space between The Loudermilks and their guarded but hopeful expectations. If there's any justice in the music world, they'll finally meet up this time.