Conceived in Cuba, born in New York, raised in Florida and variously resident in Los Angeles, Brooklyn and thousands of road miles in between, singer/guitarist Walter Salas-Humara is a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, absorbing and spreading musical influences across the land, planting and nurturing bands and styles in various locales and returning occasionally on his endless travels to tend to them. An unflashy auteur whose roots-rock amalgam drapes country, punk, baroque stateliness and pop in an abiding sadness, the talented Salas-Humara is an unsung hero whose crucial role in one wing of Amerindie expression is hard to grasp from seeing any one corner of it.
After founding and leaving the Vulgar Boatmen in Gainesville, Salas-Humara headed north to New York, where he and singer/guitarist Bob Rupe (ex-Bobs) opened the Silos for business. Working against a tide that had not yet discovered informed urban country-rock, the Silos released three fine, modest records on Salas-Humara’s own label and then, in an honorable but futile bid for major-label recognition, made one for RCA.
The eight short songs that comprise About Her Steps. have a laid-back charm, with the jangly “Shine It Down,” the steel-guitar-drenched “4 Wanted Signs” and the slow, haunting “Start the Clock” standing out.
Cuba forges a more distinctive band personality on tracks as diverse as the incendiary “Tennessee Fire,” the poignant “She Lives Up the Street,” the jauntily hippieish “Mary’s Getting Married” and the regretful, acoustic “Going Round.” This last song makes good use of a string quartet; the rest of Cuba finds Mary Rowell’s violin emerging as an integral element in the Silos’ sound. The Tennessee Fire 12-inch contains the album versions of the title track and “Start the Clock,” plus two previously unreleased and unremarkable numbers.
Lagartija, Salas-Humara’s well-crafted and appealing solo album (which doesn’t sound very different from the group’s work), has contributions from Rupe and includes “About Her Steps.” and “Cuba,” neither of which (despite their familiar titles) have been released by the Silos. The album speaks to the Vulgar Boatmen’s origins; a third of the songs were written by members of that band, including (on the CD) “Heartbeat,” a drastically reworked version of which appears on their 1995 LP. (Lagartija and About Her Steps were later packaged together as Ask the Dust.)
The Silos’ major-label debut doesn’t deviate substantially from the group’s indie efforts, maintaining the earlier discs’ live-in-the-studio feel and confidently unflashy instrumental attack. Rather than exploit their natural accessibility to maximize their commercial potential, Rupe and Salas-Humara seem to be taking pains to maintain the songs’ scaled-down ramshackle charm, avoiding obvious hooks or gimmicks. The pair gives equal play to rockers (“Caroline,” “I’m Over You,” “Don’t Talk That Way”) and quieter tunes (“Commodore Peter,” “The Only Story I Tell,” “Picture of Helen”), and make like a sleepy Sam & Dave on the horn-laden “Maybe Everything.”
The Silos marked the end of the original Silos; Rupe left, and Salas-Humara proceeded with a new collective version of the band, assembling a touring company but using more than a dozen pals to record Hasta la Victoria!, an affecting album that firmly defines his downcast rustic semi-acoustic pop. (Although the rhythm section of the previous Silos contributed to the new album, viola/violinist Mary Rowell — whose own band, Tango Project, made a ’92 LP — has proven to be the group’s only other long-term era-spanner.) Salas-Humara writes simple, quiet love songs of enormous emotional intensity. Eloquent understatement makes the difficult stories implicit in his best efforts resonate deeply. “Find Someone” stands out for its untrammeled enthusiasm; the tangible sense of distance and desolation in “Miles Away,” of disappointment in “Sometimes When I Come Over” and of family complications in “Try Tomorrow” are more typical of the album’s somber tone. Still, Salas-Humara (with vocal accompaniment by Victoria Williams) manages to end on a hopeful note, with the energetically rocking epic “Find a Way.” (The American CD contains two songs not on the original German edition.)
Besides shifting its geographical focus to Austin, Texas (home of Watermelon Records), the Silos added veteran singer/guitarist Manuel Verzosa to its lineup, giving Salas- Humara a valuable creative foil and sending the group in a more rocking direction. Verzosa was killed in an icy road crash while on tour in November 1993; the album he had completed with the group was issued overseas as Diablo, then (with the addition of “Change the Locks” and “Fallen Angel” as a tribute) in the US as Susan Across the Ocean. This uneasy record that can’t seem to locate its purpose (but manages a couple of exquisite songs in the search) contains such devastating originals as the delicate title track, a painful parting memory written from the perspective of a 60-year-old. The unsettling mysteries of “The Sounds Next Door” and the resignation of “Nothing’s Gonna Last” explore other emotional issues. Nearly half the songs are covers, including Austin singer/songwriter Michael Hall’s recklessly restless “Let’s Take Some Drugs and Drive Around,” Pork’s punky “Wanna Ride,” Jonathan Richman’s competitive “I’m Straight” (druguality, not sexuality) and Lucinda Williams’ angry “Change the Locks.”
Maintaining his parallel solo/group existence, Salas- Humara released an excellent acoustic live album, Lean, as a two-thousand-copy edition German mail- order pressing. Recorded as an Austin college-radio broadcast, the club show from the spring of 1993 features a guitarist, bassist, Verzosa on voice and percussion, singer (and ex-Wild Seed) Kris McKay and Salas-Humara’s brother, Ignacio, on maracas. The dozen originals form an ideal retrospective of his best work; it’s a shame the record is so hard to obtain.
Although such Silos family members as Rowell, Dave McNair, J. D. Foster and drummer Darren Hess (lately of Poi Dog Pondering) help out, Salas-Humara plays most of the instruments on Radar, a substantial solo digression with noisy guitar occasionally cragging up more diverse material. As much stylistic experiment as serious songwriting effort, Radar is a dry, edgy undertaking that lays an appealing country carpet for “I Won You Won,” “Ride” and “Get Out,” but otherwise veers off in various challenging offshoots. While it’s easy to embrace the barbed charms of the Neil Youngish “Be Honest With Me” and be haunted by the mournful-sounding “Rejuvenation” (written and recorded with Mary Janes singer/guitarist Janas Hoyt, an erstwhile member of Indiana’s Vulgar Boatmen), Radar as a whole is standoffish, too demanding of patience for instant gratification.
The Setters is a part-time collaboration with then- labelmates Alejandro Escovedo (with whom Salas-Humara shares a deep stylistic affinity) and Michael Hall. For The Setters, the trio teams with producer/guitarist (and Lucinda Williams collaborator) Gurf Morlix, accordionist Lisa Mednick and ex-Giant Sand bassist Scott Garber in a relaxed, handsomely detailed and easy-on-the- ears Southwestern supersession. Not bothering to write anything together, the three principals bring and sing their own tunes: Salas-Humara’s offerings are “Susan Across the Ocean,” “Nothing’s Gonna Last,” “Shaking All Over the Place” and “Hook in My Lip.” Hall does “Let’s Take Some Drugs and Drive Around” (that explains that), “Don’t Love Me Wisely,” “River of Love” and the pensive closer, “A Better Place”; Escovedo contributes “It’s Hard,” “Helpless,” “Tell Me Why” and “She’s Got.” Mostly performed with burnished folky restraint but occasionally delivering crisp rock energy, the album’s pieces fit together as seamlessly as the participants’ well-matched emotional barometers. Even a spooky cover of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” (an Escovedo concert staple) worms its way into the disc without causing any stylistic upset.