Billy Sedlmayr's Charmed Life

Musicians whose careers were derailed by personal demons is a very old tale. Write about music and after a couple decades they all begin to have a similar ring: someone got addicted to something and began blowing off gigs, trashing friendships, and generally lying to themselves and everyone close to them. It usually doesn’t end well. And after they’re gone, “far too soon” (to use the usual bromide), everyone thinks about their own issues while tsk tsk’ing about what could have been done and how awash in self-loathing and focused on ending it all the deceased had eventually become.

Every once in awhile an old friend on this path turns it around and I’m very happy to say that my old friend from Tucson singer/songwriter Billy Sedlmayr has done just that. Billy’s come back from years wasted on drugs and prison to make the ironically titled Charmed Life. Ably recorded in Tucson by Jim Waters and mixed by renowned engineer Craig Schumacher, the record is the brainchild of Sedlmayr and producer Gabe Sullivan who is something of wunderkind in the Southwest indie rock scene. Dedicated fans of 1990s indie rock may recognize Sedlmayr for the time he spent in the band Giant Sandworms, with the late, great Rainer Ptacek and Howe Gelb, a seminal Tucson band that eventually became Giant Sand. Billy also played with Rich Hopkins (The Sidewinders), Van Christian (Naked Prey) and Dan Stuart (Green on Red).

A Kickstarter campaign provided the cash for this project which if I had to categorize it fits solidly into the shadowy sub-genre, which may or may not exist, called “desert rock.” Charmed Life leans towards the slow, extra atmospheric spectrum of that movement that somehow tries to capture something of the stark majesty and utter mercilessness of the upper Sonoran desert that surrounds Tucson. Billy’s crusty, craggy singing is appropriately pained. Menace and sin hover in the lyrics while the music sways between bright, Wurlitzer–led indie rock, “Mrs Jones” (with a fabulous tape-delay harmonica part by Schumacher), the louder, harder rock of “Korah’s Rebellion” (with another old friend, the prodigiously talented Andrew Colberg on drums), a dash of mariachi trumpet mysteriousness “Black Grenadine” and a spoken word prison confessional, “Monsoons, Florence.”

Every track on this wondrous comeback works, often because of Sullivan’s production job which features him playing a variety of stringed instruments, especially nylon stringed guitar and the always fabulous baritone guitar whose tones give most tracks a low, ringing emotional resonance. Violins, vibes, pedal steel, upright bass, accordion, theremin and a church bell also make appearances. This precise and inventive mix of instrumental voices only adds to the dark, loose, smoky atmosphere that is this record’s greatest strength. If the desert speaks to you, you’ll hear it whisper in these songs. You may also feel and hear the sound of a life and a musical career redeemed. Bravo Billy!

dalethorn's picture

I keep thinking of Bob Dylan, if Bob had gone this direction, and recorded an album as dark as this one. I hope a lot of people get to hear this.