Rave new world

Tom Faulkner explores his musical horizons

History abounds with the sort of mythical real estate that inspires song: Oz, Atlantis, heaven and hell, even Atlantic City. Unto each has been written some form of musical tribute or another, from the dope-heavy "Way down below the ocean" stanza during Donovan's "Atlantis" to countless evocations of Paradise and Hades to Judy Garland and Elton John raving about a yellow brick road.

But only Tom Faulkner's Texico--a sprawling state of mind that melds Cajun, Texan, and New Mexican seasonings with rural acoustic blues, pop balladry, country, and folk-pop--is a territory whose borders are solely melodic. Try to imagine a Metroplex consisting of Santa Fe, Austin, New Orleans, and San Antonio, presided over by mayor Flaco Jimenez, superintendent of schools Cyril Neville, and town little-league coach Joe Ely.

Or you could just listen to Faulkner's masterful album, Lost in the Land of Texico, which is located at the crossroads where the singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer, now 45, reconciled the close-but-futile rock star dreams of his youth with a wildly successful yet accidental career as a jingle writer. Conde Nast Traveler--or Rolling Stone--might say Texico is a pleasantly familiar yet strikingly unique bit of musical geography unlike anything you've heard before.

Those who haven't listened to the album--released on Faulkner's own Serrano Records--are part of a slowly diminishing population. Already, Lost in the Land of Texico has been picked up by Japan's Kaigan Records, is being distributed nationally in the United States by Abbey Road (a branch of Alliance Distribution), and has been the subject of much speculation by a variety of national recording labels and stars. No less than Emmylou Harris, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell--calling out of the blue from his car phone--and famed record producer Keith Olsen (Fleetwood Mac, Foreigner, Heart, Santana, the Grateful Dead) have waxed ecstatic about the album.

All have had the same cautionary advice for Faulkner as sales start to soar and major labels start sniffing around: Don't change a thing. The record is finished--perfect the way it is--and don't let the suits take it and add hip-hop arrangements to it, have the Chemical Brothers remix it, or get Ozzy Osbourne to duet on it. None of those people would really fit into the land of Texico anyway, and, by this point in his career, Faulkner isn't inclined to pander to major-label tinkering. Texico sounds the way it does for many good reasons.

"Logistically, the songs put you in a certain place," Faulkner says from behind his desk at Tom Faulkner Productions, the wildly successful jingle company he never meant to build. "Depending on the song, a listener might imagine South Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, or old Mexico. Or, for people who know anything about New Orleans, 'River on the Rise' certainly suggests Louisiana and the strong musical spirit they have down there. But in the end, the songs all stylistically overlap. They had to overlap, because that's what pop music does."

To listen to the whole album is indeed a sort of travelogue chronicling Faulkner's experiences; basically of the hop-in-the-car-and-cruise variety. But, inasmuch as many of these voyages are separated by dozens of years, various states of mind, and sundry purposes, they all have a pleasantly yellowed quality, like postcards from an old and beloved college roommate who eschewed the real world and hit the perpetual highway.

The title cut, for example, is about waiting for a storm in a border cantina. "There was an angel of darkness and an angel of light/Put a hold on all my calls/I'll be lost in the land of Texico tonight," Faulkner sings in his distinctively gritty but wonderfully pretty voice--as behind him the music percolates with the rhythms of Lyle Lovett and Mingo Saldivar playing with a second-line Mardi Gras rhythm section. Meanwhile, the lush lyrics of "River on the Rise" evoke a springtime night of partying in New Orleans underpinned by a free-flowing, Top-heavy (as in ZZ), slow Texas shuffle.

The entire collection of tunes is similarly constructed: "Angelina" is the best gringo ballad the Texas Tornados never wrote; on "Fried Chicken Skin," Leadbelly waxes nostalgic for Popeye's; "Nobody There to Love Me" is gospel music for wistful single folk sleeping in on Sunday morning; and "When You Call Upon the Heart" and "Sign of Love" are the hauntingly lovely bookend pieces that might serve as twin national anthems for Texico.

For all the disparity in subject matter and feel, Faulkner is absolutely aware of the recurring musical motifs amid his thematic wanderings; he designed it that way. "There were three unifying threads I wanted to run through the album," he explains. "My voice has got to be the number one thing, and it's got to carry me through. I also wanted a bottleneck slide throughout, and I wanted a sympathetic drummer, whom, in Dan Wojochieski, I have."

Faulkner also relied heavily on a blues-based roux. "Eric Clapton playing the blues," he says, "isn't my cup of tea. But he applies the blues to what's indigenous to him on 'Tears in Heaven' or 'Badge'--and that's what I did. I applied blues with the music of South Texas--Steve Jordan, Flaco, Mingo Saldivar--along with New Orleans, where I was born, and with the Hendrix and Beatles stuff I grew up listening to. And along with the mood of the songs and the geographic logistics of the material, well, it's just what happened."

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