Pat Metheny: American Garage (ECM 1155)

 

Pat Metheny Group
American Garage

Pat Metheny guitars
Lyle Mays piano, oberheim, autoharp, organ
Mark Egan bass
Dan Gottlieb drums
Recorded June 1979 at Longview Farm, North Brookfield, Massachusetts
Engineer: Kent Nebergall
Produced by Pat Metheny

With American Garage, the Pat Metheny Group solidified its signature sound. This album, the group’s second, took the Number 1 spot on the 1980 Billboard Jazz chart and spawned a legion of followers. Its virtuosic blend of jazz and roots rock evokes the heartland like no other and has withstood its own commercial success relatively unscathed.

The album opens with a wide view of the open road, and we are in the passenger seat. Metheny’s glistening guitar licks take the wheel, relishing the roar of Lyle Mays’s lively keyboard support under the hood. With Dan Gottlieb’s proclamatory drums and Mark Egan’s sinuous bass in the back seat, we’re good to go. Together, this quartet of talented musicians creates the ultimate musical road trip. There is a beautiful interplay between guitar and bass in the first track, swelling into a verdant wash of backwater splendor. The tone here is almost painfully nostalgic (all the more so for the album’s historicity), as if yearning for something that is only as real as its remembrance. As the car speeds along its journey, we see our collective past just beyond the windshield, somehow within reach. But we also know that as soon as we pull over and step out of the car, there will be nothing to grasp, to hold close, to stow in the trunk or in the glove compartment of our desires. There is only the empty air, the cloudless sky, and the sun beating down upon our backs, as if to say: “You’ve still got miles to go.” But neither do we care, because there is an unbridled joy to the process of travel.

“Airstream” feels undoubtedly like summer, a time of year when obligations melt in the heat along with our inhibitions. The only thing that seems real is the lack of definitive answers, the endless possibility that such freedom entails and which brings us closer to self-realization. It is our most formative season; one in which we observe, live, and learn at our own pace. Metheny captures this free spirit so clearly in his playing. Chord progressions roll off his fingers like change into eager hands at a lemonade stand, and we are reminded of those little moments of independence and security in which, from the merest clinking of coins, we came to assert our agency in a growing awareness of economy. We think also of young love that, while unrequited, also gave us a brief taste of a life lived without obligation. As the track fades out, it leaves behind a trace of itself, a memento of years never forgotten.

“The Search” is the soundtrack for a movie of the mind, a flashback that looks only forward. Alluring piano work lifts the spirits, ruffling the edges of our attention like linen flapping on a clothesline. We bask in the humid air, even as squalls threaten to break upon the horizon. Lusciously harmonized guitar lines blossom in the morning sun with the promise of a new journey.

The title track sounds like a theme song for a show that can never materialize, for its images are supplied by memories. We begin to recognize the value of those times when the self had yet to be formed but during which the future seemed so bright. And no matter how jaded we have become in our lowest points of adulthood, Metheny is here to remind us that it is precisely in these artifacts of sound that we can preserve our tired hopes.

The last track of this all-too-short album is called “The Epic,” and like its title it has an extensive tale to tell. Metheny and Mays both deliver with the most inspired improvisations on the album, drifting across the plains like steel-stringed tumbleweeds. We are driven through an entire day and night of travel. We find ourselves in vast stretches of daylight, but also experience nocturnal visions, wrapped in a sleeping bag under a canopy of stars in the dying embers of a campfire exhaling hot orange into the darkness. Their crackling fills our ears with a cacophony of sound, easing us into the lull of dreams. And in those dreams we relive the entire journey that got us to where we are now. We are drifters, alone and free of earthly bonds, loving every second of life’s uncertainty.

In spite of the album’s title, we always seem to be far from home. Metheny’s compositional talents are given ample breathing room as he crafts rustic yet elegant evocations of a lost America. There’s a small-town feel to the proceedings, a backwater purity that beckons throughout. It is the innocence of a bygone era, which remains here and there in small pockets. And it is through these musical lineages that we string those pockets together with shimmering synchronicity. Like a conceptual jukebox, each leg of the journey that is American Garage spindles a new record into our attentions. The precision of Metheny and his group is extraordinarily clean, shaken dry and stripped of all excess.

Some people say that in every journey half the fun is in getting there. American Garage says all the fun is in knowing that there is no “there” to get to.

Listen to this album on vinyl if you can (ECM has announced a new 180g pressing for 2010). For the technologically unable, the CD will have to suffice. And while the CD may not replicate the experience in quite the same way, at the very least one can get a slightly clouded view through this classic side-door window.

One thought on “Pat Metheny: American Garage (ECM 1155)

  1. I got to see the PMG in 1979 in Burlington, VT in a small church right around the time this was released. It was an event that changed my musical life. Aside from tuned from the PMG “white album” and Bright Size Life, he blew everyone away with an early version of “As Falls Wichita”.

    We’ve seen Pat nearly 20 times over the years. American Garage, though it hasn’t aged with us quite as well, is still a fine effort – and the first song, (cross the) Heartland is desert island material.

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