Some songwriters try to immediately bowl you over, and others use more subtle methods to slowly creep under your skin. Nels Andrews fits into the latter category.
Andrews, 28, constructs somber, thoughtful songs that capture the current societal mood of isolation and alienation. He sings a lot about drinking, but his poetry is subtle and striking, often using repetitions.
His song “Barefoot Child” begins like this: “If I was a boy soprano / I’d quake, and I would tremble / If I was a boy soprano / I’d be drunk on communion wine.”
Onstage with his band The Ex-Patriots, Andrews projects a larger-than-life image with a seething violence bubbling just under the surface of his performance. His cowboy boots drive his heels into the floor with the beat. His music is gritty stuff, pure American alternative country. The overall effect of his art is riveting.
Born in Oakland, Calif., Andrews grew up in a military family. He spent most of his formative years in San Clemente, Calif., and got his first guitar when he was 14. He lived in Utah for a year, skipped a grade, and moved to Upstate New York to attend Bard College. He never felt comfortable and dropped out after one semester.
“I’ve always felt like I slipped through the cracks of all the kinds of systems I’ve been put in,” Andrews said. “I think there’s all kinds of people slipping through the cracks. Those are the people I pay attention to.”
He spent a year living in Saugerties, N.Y., playing music at open mic nights in nearby Woodstock. He hitch-hiked around the country and worked on a fishing boat in Alaska. Then he moved to El Rito, N.M., to study woodworking. He moved to Albuquerque in 1998, and began to devote himself to music, studying theory and technique.
Andrews released his first, self-titled CD early this year. A hauntingly sparse collection of six songs, it was recorded by Omar Rane at the Tone Palace Recording Studio in Taos. The entire CD was recorded, digitally edited and mastered in one afternoon for $60.
Utilizing the talents of guitarist Ben Harrison, drummer Rod Parker and occasionally bassist Johnny Cassidy, the band creates a signature sound that takes up where Uncle Tupelo and Sun Volt left off. Harrison and Parker first played with Andrews at the open mic at Sprockets pub. Parker said Andrews is still making the transition from folkie to bandleader.
A good example of a character in an Andrews’ song is the first-person narrator of “Denim Scarecrow,” which is on his CD.
“There was a guy I noticed, he was always dressed in clean denim, starched and pressed, on crutches,” Andrews said. “He was kind of in amongst the vagrants, but not; and he was still clean and he kept himself together, and what I kind of pictured from that was a casualty of this kind of Albuquerque experience. I never really met the guy or talked to him, but I created this character as a representation of that idea, that kind of feeling and that kind of alienation.”
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Andrews counts legendary Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt as one of his main influences. He also credits Tom Waits and Raymond Carver as inspirations, and said he learns from writers “who let you interpret or come into the song on your own terms, they don’t try to force too much down your throat.”
The Ex-Patriots are still a new band, in the early stages of its development. Several of the members are going through life transitions as Parker and his wife just had a baby, and Andrews recently moved in with his girlfriend. Cassidy chose to sit and watch the band’s last concert at the Launchpad instead of playing, because several rehearsals were cancelled. Yet, the trio of Andrews, Parker and Harrison sounded like a well-seasoned act. People in the audience sang along with the opening number, a song by Robbie Fulks called “She Took a Lot of Pills and Died.”
Audience members responded to all of the Ex-Patriots’ songs with enthusiastic applause. The highlight of the set was a new song called “Sunday Shoes.”
“That one’s a real shit-kicker,” Parker said.
With the new member of the Parker household, an Ex-Patriots tour probably won’t happen any time soon. Andrews said the main focus of the band right now is to get their songs recorded.
“We’re gonna set up a recording place right downtown, and bring in guest musicians.”
Andrews will perform Friday at the Blue Dragon Coffee House with Cole Raison and Jason Daniello at a song-writer’s circle, which starts at 7:30 p.m. He will also open for Nathan Hamilton at Burt’s Tiki Lounge Saturday at 10 p.m. Both shows are free.