From the very first moments of "Used," which opens Tony Furtado's new album, Thirteen (available now on Funzalo Records), it's clear that the prodigious instrumentalist turned singer/songwriter is a man on a mission. This bracing rocker, with its galloping ZZ Top groove and restless Tom Petty vibe, establishes the album's interlocked themes of "good luck/bad luck/no luck" (as Furtado puts it) on both the personal and political levels, while a phalanx of fretted instruments provides a thrillingly visceral reminder of Furtado's prowess as an ax wielder of the first order.
On Thirteen, this rapidly maturing artist fulfills the immense promise of his 2004 breakthrough These Chains, his initial foray into songwriting and singing. While Furtado's 2005 outing, the literally solo Bare Bones, pushed the technical envelope as he recorded his own one-man tour, the expansive Thirteen reveals an artist with a great deal on his mind and a full arsenal of skills with which to express his thoughts and feelings in a captivating way. "These Chains was my first serious attempt at songwriting," says Furtado, "so it was a trial by fire, with a bit of experimentation. This time I had the chance to go deeper."
Recorded to 16-track, two-inch analog tape during the summer of 2006 at Tucson's Wavelab Studios (a favorite venue for Calexico, Neko Case, M. Ward, Iron & Wine and other cult heroes), the album features an all-star cast including keyboardists Sean Slade (whose production credits include Uncle Tupelo and Radiohead) and Jim Dickinson (producer of the seminal Ry Cooder albums that inspired Furtado to take up the slide guitar), bassist Dusty Wakeman (whose resume includes three previous Furtado LPs, Dwight Yoakam and Lucinda Williams), drummer Winston Watson (who has played with Dylan and Giant Sand) and Wavelab's own Craig Schumacher (Calexico, Case, Iron & Wine), who produced and engineered.
Furtado admits the gathering of heavyweights gave him pause going in. "At first I was worried that it might be a clash of the titans," he admits. "But after we got together and started talking about the material, hanging out and playing, my fears quickly dissipated. Plus, that studio is packed with old instruments, and all the guitars hanging on the walls create a sonic aura. There are some bizarre instruments there that I threw on the tracks."
On this project, Furtado's playing and the considerable acumen of his all-star studio band was fully focused on the 10 Furtado originals and three well-chosen covers that comprise Thirteen. The dreamlike "California Flood," which is "wrapped around old memories of weekends on a boat in the Sacramento Delta," deals in vividly metaphorical detail with a child's struggles to understand the mysterious workings of the adult world. For "Another Man," a bitter breakup song he confesses was based on personal experience, Furtado references the blues epic "When the Levee Breaks" (famously rendered by Led Zeppelin), in effect splitting the distance between emotional tumult and self-mocking irony.
Furtado started the faux-confessional "The Alcohol" while living in L.A. and reading a lot of Charles Bukowski. "It's like a love song to drinking, almost," he jokes. "I noticed I was drinking more when I was reading Bukowski. And one night, after I came home from a drinking session on Ventura Blvd., I wrote a couple verses and a chorus. Months late, after I moved to Portland, I hammered out the rest of it with [acclaimed Nashville-based singer/songwriter] Amelia White."
The album's title song and centerpiece is far more solemn. "Thirteen Below" recounts the January 2006 Sago mine disaster, which trapped 13 men, only one of whom survived. "I've heard so many mining songs in my folk history, and I've sung so many topical songs in the past, that writing and singing it felt natural to me," Furtado notes. By giving the song the textures, cadence and language of Appalachian traditional music, the artist places the Sago disaster in its proper historical context while also giving it the universal resonance of tragedy. Similarly, "Hurtin' My Right Side" is a modern-day take on another roots idiom with which Furtado is thoroughly familiar – prison work songs and field hollers. He adapted the traditional piece, which he describes as "spellbinding," expanding it with a bridge and chorus.
Embracing female harmonies further enrich the overarching humanity in Furtado's understated, quintessentially Californian singing. The blended voices bring an intriguing new dimension to Furtado's renditions of the thematically apt "Won't Get Fooled Again" from the Who and "Fortunate Son" from Creedence Clearwater Revival. Further, given Furtado's thematic focus on luck in both the personal and political realms, these songs, which he'd discovered as a boy while working through his parents' record collection, lock right into place. A third cover, Furtado's whimsical take on Elton John's "Take Me to the Pilot," allows this musically and conceptually dense song cycle to catch its breath before soldiering on.
Most of the songs took shape during an intensive period of reflection and creative outpourings in Furtado's present home in Portland. "The past year has been an interesting time of growth for me," he explains. "When I first moved back, I knew I wasn't going to be hitting the road for a while, so I set up a couple of local weekly gigs to try out new songs and keep my chops up, and I also got some watercolors and taught myself to paint. I used to be a sculptor, so I got a bunch of clay, set up a little shop in my basement and started working that side of my brain. At the same time I was reading poetry and fiction, and I got an iPod and filled it up with music from the Kinks, the Who, Tom Waits, the Band and Elliott Smith, whose music had a big influence on me – the abstract quality of his lyrics but also the catchy, Beatlesque melodies. And every day I'd pick up the guitar to see what would come out. I ended up having a lot of songs to choose from." He chose them wisely.
Furtado, who grew up in Pleasanton, Calif., in the East Bay, took up the banjo at 12 and was hailed as a prodigy at age 19. As he was cementing his reputation as a banjoist extraordinaire, Furtado was also developing himself into an equally virtuosic slide guitarist. And now, with Thirteen, this restless artist makes an exponential leap into the wide-open spaces of mythopoetic America, a terrain inhabited by such personal heroes as Cooder, the Band, Creedence, Petty and Waits. No two ways about it – this heartfelt, multileveled work completes Tony Furtado's ascent from the folk circuit to the big leagues.