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Lou Ford returns with wizened world-view, stellar new disc

These days, everybody in the music biz gets another whack at the piñata. Fresh out of rehab? Prison? The fog of obscurity? Don't sweat it, here's your career mulligan and a Behind the Music special.

click to enlarge GET TOGETHER: Lou Ford - CHRISTOPHER EDWARDS

But amidst the ego-jerking second acts and Filthy Lucre shakedowns, there are fruitful comebacks worth toasting. For the original lineup of locals Lou Ford, their first record in seven years -- Poor Man's Soul -- was strictly a case of unfinished creative business.

"I think there was a spot inside of each one of us that knew this would eventually happen," says bassist Mark Lynch.

Betting on those odds could have earned you beaucoup bullion when the original Lou Ford lineup imploded.

Let's wind the narrative clock back to October 2000, when Alan Freed's Radio, the band's second full-length, is being greeted with huzzahs from across the critical spectrum. Mojo, the don of British rock magazines, loves it, and fellow UK glossy UnCut awards it 4.5 (out of 5) stars, calling it "an unexpected gem." No Depression, Billboard, Magnet -- they're all on board, too. Even the culture mavens at Pitchforkmedia.com approve, praising the band's "straightforward, soulful and satisfying music."

Unlike Sad, But Familiar, Lou Ford's 1998 self-released debut, Alan Freed has a U.S. label (Cargo) with distribution clout, and a German imprint (Glitterhouse) with tentacles throughout Europe. Regional tours expand across the country, and there is talk of a Euro tour. Higher profile opening slots appear, like a Mercury Lounge date with Alejandro Escovedo that impresses even the stodgy New York Times.

Lou Ford seems bound for bigger things.

But from inside, the view is less idyllic. Like virtually every other act herded into the "alt-country" corral, the band bristles under the marketing label; there's as much Big Star and Beatles as Hank Snow and Gram Parsons in their musical DNA. And all that critical praise isn't getting them any closer to making a living playing music, either.

"You can't hand your landlord an Uncut review," says singer and chief songwriter Alan Edwards, cutting to the chase with the same precision his lyrics are noted for.

The band's ambivalence toward self-promotion blooms into what Mark Lynch calls a "hate-hate" relationship with the business side of the equation. "I shot us in the foot a lot," admits Alan, who once treated WEND listeners to an improvised, minutes-long feedback blast that Sonic Youth would admire. "At the time, I was probably a little arrogant. Part of it was because I felt the music was like a gift -- it was given to me, how can I make you pay for it?"

Tensions within the band mount, and fractures splinter into hostile chasms. Drummer Shawn Lynch (no relation to Mark) has already departed, discouraged as much by the infighting as the snail's pace of success (Darrell Ussery takes his place on Alan Freed). In 2001, Mark and Alan butt heads; once the former quits, the two won't speak for nearly two years. Even Chad Edwards, the band's other singer/songwriter and Alan's younger brother, admits he spends more time chirping about, rather than talking to, his sibling.

Still, Lou Ford soldiers on for two more years. But new members come and go with disquieting frequency, a reliable road sign for trouble ahead. Finally, after the band's annual July 4 hoedown at the Penguin in 2003, the plug is pulled. Fans disperse and eulogies are written; Lou Ford isn't the first good band to crumple beneath the weight of their own expectations.

"Everybody was telling us we were going to be huge, and it blew up our egos," Alan says. "When you're struggling for something that's always just over the horizon, and people keep telling you it's there but you never get there, it's frustrating."

"You start looking around for excuses," echoes Mark, "and then you start pointing at people instead of looking inward."

So the four original members scatter, forming new bands, marriages, and families. Lou Ford drifts out of earshot, seemingly for good.

••••••••

Regret has always been a defining characteristic of the Edwards brothers' poignant narratives; together with some expertly placed minor chords, it gives the songs their memorably bittersweet tang. "This place is haunted by the specters of men/Who lost their way in life through a woman or a friend," goes the slow-burn bar-fly elegy "Last Call" that closes Poor Man's Soul.

Regrets also fuel the band's reunion. Blinded in part by the brass ring of success, they now see what they took for granted the first go-round. As Chad says, "there's an understanding of what Lou Ford is amongst the four of us that we weren't able to capture with anyone else."

As those realizations sink in, hatchets get buried. With a little additional prodding from friends and admirers, Lou Ford reconvenes for a handful of shows in 2005 that confirm the obvious: There is more music to make. They return to the studio in 2006, armed mostly with songs worked up in Lou Ford Mach 2, but never recorded and new to the original lineup as a whole.

"It was real natural," Mark says of playing together again. "We just let it lie for so long it's a little tougher to get it perfect. But everything feels good, and we know where the pocket is."

Recorded over six days, Poor Man's Soul will be released on Jeff Lowery's local label, Lookout Mabel Records. Most impressive is how natural the new record sounds as a follow-up to Alan Freed, as though the seven years between hardly happened at all -- fitting for a band's sound that's always been praised for its timelessness.

Much has changed in the music business since Lou Ford's first incarnation, but so have the band members, and they have no plans to pick up right where they left off. "Hopefully with this Internet and MySpace jazz, we won't have to play our asses off at every little shit-hole for a $20 paycheck and $30 bar-tab," Shawn says.

"We'll step it up some," says Mark, "but we're not going to quit our other things and devote all our time to this. We know better now."

At least this time they'll go down fighting together, not each other.


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