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Will Used Man For Sale Phil Gammage Lounge His Way To The Top?

Photo: Marc Travanti
Photo: Marc Travanti

80’s post-punk outfit Certain General’s co-founder and guitarist Phil Gammage has been carving himself out an interesting career, especially as of late. Having released three albums in the last three years and set to release a fourth in October, Gammage is proving that with age comes productivity.

Having released two of his four recent albums Keeping The Blues Alive and The American Dream (2014/15) with John Sinclair, as well as hitting a European tour with Certain General, Gammage’s ability to play nice with the other kids is long established.

Being prolific is one thing, it show’s drive, enthusiasm, follow-through, among other admirable qualities. Maintaining an audience, cultivating a following, and then building upon that fan-base is another kettle of chips altogether. For starters, one needs to be able to adapt just enough to be seen to be trying new things, but not too much that it alienates the pre-existing following.

And while Gammage’s yet to be released Used Man For Sale has yet to stand the test of his fan base, the fact that within the album itself Gammage dons so many genre-hats could certainly challenge his listeners.

Genre melding stylings such as blues with folk or country with roots does not sound so outside of the box, yet somehow Gammage makes it feel as though it is. In fact, touching on all four of those genres and wrapping it up with a little bow called ‘americana’ has not only been done, it’s been made famous a hundred of times over. Band’s as recent as The Alabama Shakes, Mumford and Sons, First Aid Kit, The Avett Brothers, Neko Case and My Morning Jacket all seem to blend americana to their benefit and success. The aforementioned recent bands have no doubt drawn influence from successful acts such as Neil Young, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Bob Dylan, or Dylan’s band for a spell, The Band evidence americana’s staying power.

So why then does Used Man For Sale sound like it’s missing something?

It’s certainly not the music itself, the guitar work, the harmonica, the drums; the keyboards are all top shelf. There is no denying that the sheer quality of musicianship displayed on tracks like “Arms of a Kind Woman” and really the album at large is exceptional.

With a level of production that is almost too crisp for the style of music at play, perhaps a fraction of the onus can be placed on the studio; but not a lot.

Gammage has no shortage of experience to draw upon as an excuse, making the difficult task of finger-pointing the (perhaps) intangible void on the new album a tough one. In addition to the a live album recorded with John Sinclair, Used Man For Sale marks Gammage’s eighth studio album to date as either a solo artist or with his band, Adventures in Bluesland. Adventures in Bluesland the band, having been named after an album Gammage and the players on the recording agreed as their handle to their collective project; a project that has spanned two albums thus far. Add to Gammage’s nine album count another 12 releases with Certain General, and ‘used man’ becomes as a pros pro as it is elusive to the listener.

The concerns about Used Man For Sale are two-fold. Firstly, when asked why he wanted to play blues music (presumably due to being known for his work with the post punk / new wave Certain General sound), Gammage is quoted as replying with “ It’s simple, direct, heavy, and soulful. Why would I want to play anything else”?  But that very simplicity could well be the catalyst for techniques once valuable, no longer resonating the way they way they would need to now. The same reason a prospective chief is often first tested with cooking an egg, the seemingly ‘simple’ task of egg cooking reveals to the keen eye volumes about one’s proficiency in relatable nuances in the kitchen.

What becomes apparent very early with “Used Man For Sale”, is the lack of hardship or emotion in the voice that we have come to expect out of a blues practitioner. While I have little doubt that Gammage has seen things go down in a lifetime living in New York, the feeling he has lived a particularly hard life is just not prevalent. If Gammage has been through the gauntlet in his days, then his ability to transcend that pain over a recording has been lost somewhere along the way.

Now, it may argue that it’s sad that someone would have to go through real life pain to make art, which is valid on an intellectual level. However, in a world where there are so many that have lived a life in the gutters and made it out, in part due to their expression of music as a coping mechanism, those with a shortage of emotive voice are at a detriment.

Secondly, perhaps a reason the voice on Used Man For Sale lacks the emotional transcendence expected of my blue-person lays in the fact that in addition to blues, country, folk, roots, and rock and roll stylings on the record. Gammage has executed a predominantly lounge style vocal technique on Used Man For Sale. A lounge style fromage homage to Chris Isaac or Elvis Presley that results in the stripping of any weight or emotional feel conveyed on what is an otherwise very well played, groovy sounding blues and roots LP.  

The down tempo on much of the album, most notably on “Arms of a Kind Woman”, “Maybe Tomorrow”, “I Beg Of You”, “Ride With Railroad Bill”, and “Feeling The Hurt” continuously flirts with an expected tempo, but commendably dangles the carrot just out of reach by never outright conforming to it.

“Believe I Leave” is an example of Gammage’s lounge style vocals actually working quite nicely with the down tempo themed album.

“Lost in Loserville” has two unconventional harmonica parts within it. One of the harmonica parts as an outro, the other the equivalent of a solo that, coupled with the vocal duet on the track make the cut quite a treat; despite the overarching Elvis impersonation vocally through most of the song.

With a lot of aspects to applaud about Phil Gammage’s Used Man For Sale LP, such as overall musicianship, grasp of multi-genre playing styles, production, and use of back-beat to accentuate the off-beat (often combined with the drummer catching the end of the beat admirably), if you are a fan of lounge singing, Used Man For Sale is for you.

Of the better qualities on the album (whether they work or they don’t) is Gammage’s cavalier like attitude to try different elements unabashedly.

Like much in life, the usefulness of each experiment is subjective to the listener’s tastes.

Gammage’s latest offering Used Man For Sale is set to hit the virtual and physical shelves October 4th in both digital and compact disc formats. With no plans on the LP being released on the medium Gammage would assumedly prefer (with such a throwback piece) as of yet, vinyl. Having the at-home listener experience the record on a medium with built-in value added warmth, would only serve to benefit the soul of the record. Don’t be surprised if by the time you read this, preparations are underway for the retro sound of Used Man For Sale to be pressed onto vinyl. With many of the record players being built now having USB and Bluetooth capabilities Used Man For Sale, like much of today’s digitally recorded music would only increase in audible value with the sound offered by the once antiquated platform.                                

Two final takeaways from Used Man For Sale: The last track on the album “Staring Out Our Window” is pirated rubbish if an extra bold ‘Inspired by “Cars Hiss By My Window”, (The Doors)’ is not plastered on the liner notes and even mentioned prior to the song circa Tech N9ne on” Strange 2013”, from the Something Else album. The original “Cars Hiss By My Window” had two alternate names,” The Walking Blues” and “The Bastard Son of Jimmy and Mama Reed”. If Phil Gammage has his way the fourth title would have evidently been “Staring Out Our Window”, clearly lacking the Aldous Huxley / William Blake poetic originality of Mr. Morrison.

Lastly, anybody who took the name Adventures In Bluesland from the blues scene where Babysitting Blues was performed by Elizabeth Shue in the 1987 Chris Columbus film Adventures In Babysitting, and made it not only an album name, but the name of his or her band, is alright in my books.

Possessing all the makings of a rad-ass film, Shue made me want a babysitter as a kid, the dude with the hook and the giant rat-cat, plus the first appearance of Thor in a feature film (Second being 1989’s The Trial of The Incredible Hulk)? Hells yeah, you name your band after that.