Brave new wind

Roll down the windows
Lie back and doze to the song of the wind
in the pines

— from “Gathering Souvenirs”

As any good Southerner knows, that wind is beautiful when it sings. But God help you when it roars.

The same week that Jeff Holmes — singer, guitarist and songwriter with the Nashville, Tenn.-based acoustic-rock trio the Floating Men — celebrated the release of his band’s third and finest studio album, The Song of the Wind in the Pines (Chelseamusic, 1998), he heard that unmistakable roar: an onrushing locomotive, only without the train. But Holmes was hardly dozing at the time. He wasn’t lounging in his car. And he was staying the hell away from all windows.

He was, in fact, crouched down in his basement.

On April 16, one of the twin tornadoes that hit Music City paid a visit to Holmes’ neighborhood while on its way back out of town. And the tree that landed on his house probably kept the roof from blowing off.

If the F3-level twister appreciated the irony, it didn’t let on. But by then, it had said enough: The area around Holmes’ property was a disaster of debris. Emergency workers couldn’t even get to the street for another day.

However, Holmes’ bandmates — bass player/harmony vocalist Scot Evans and drummer Jeff Bishop — were soon crawling over downed power lines and trees, trashed cars and rubble, carting chain saws and work gloves, so the trio could set to work clearing the street themselves.

For a band recently rumored to be on the outs, it was a busy week of proving otherwise.

The Floating Men first surfaced in the early ’90s, phoenixing from the ashes of the rock band the Little Saints (Holmes and Evans are alums.) With the group’s demise, the two began performing as a duo (“the Indigo Girls thing,” Holmes has said) while searching for the right drummer. A year of auditions later, they met Bishop.

The new trio quickly made a name for itself throughout the metropolitan Southeast, purveying a heady brand of acoustic rock that married the literate drama of Bruce Springsteen with the brooding melodicism of Velvets-era Lou Reed, blending sibling-like harmonies and schooled-musician chops. It was Southern rock with a precise, garden-shears facelift: taut with intellect and passion, and stripped of the yahoo baggage. Smoking live shows and an impressive recorded output — Tall Shadows (1993), the Garry Tallent-produced Invoking Michelangelo (1995) and the live, two-volume Bootleg Snacks (1994 and ’95), all originally on Meridian Records, but now handled by Chelseamusic — bred an intensely loyal following.

But at a high cost: At the close of the Michelangelo tour, the Floating Men had been on the road for nearly two of the previous three years.

Tour’s end nearly spelled the band’s, as well. “We were really depressed and really strung out,” Holmes noted by phone from his management’s (happily intact) Nashville office. “For about a month or so there, we just sat around shell-shocked.” The band was playing together very little, and Holmes was doing some solo shows, he notes, “just to keep the bills paid.

“But I was reluctant to do [even] that. I just did not want to be away from home.”

And then, Holmes wrote a dynamic new song, “All the Young Ladies,” which hit the band like a shot of adrenaline. When the weirdly anthemic “A Tall Stand of Pines” followed, soon after, it proved fateful: A fifth Floating Men album was asserting itself. A brave gust of fresh wind had arrived.

And by the time the Floating Men soldiered back into the studio, Holmes couldn’t stop the songs from coming, all of them unified by images of shade trees, but branching in diverse musical directions. From the cavalcade of spry electric guitars throughout, to the candy-delicious horns and raucous chanting on “Pink Lemonade” and the decidedly old-time-country flavors of “Slide Guitar Music,” the sprawling, self-produced, 15-song Pines is an unexpected exploration of fertile new musical ground. But more importantly, it’s a great album.

“We had gotten to the point where we were playing the role of the Floating Men,” Holmes explains. “But we aren’t just a guitar-, bass-and-drums, straight-ahead-rock or pop band. So we approached this record not as three musicians, but as three arrangers.

“The only rule was: If it sounds good, do it — and have fun.”

Lyrically, Holmes has never been sharper, or more honest. While the fiery eroticism that fueled earlier cuts like “Swallowed by the Night” (Tall Shadows) and “Butter in the Sun” (Bootleg Snacks Vol. 2) remains, it’s grown more bittersweet, as on the lovely “Sign of Surrender,” or increasingly entangled with bursts of anger and ache, as in the distortion-laden “Devastated Divorcee” or the sneering “Dead Stallion Carousel.”

Holmes’ writing has always been rife with shadows, leading you back into darkness — where Eve’s fabled apple drips beads of remorse and regret — and into a playground of sex, alcohol and drugs, where the swing sets all creak with hints of mortality.

But this new music turns the shadows around, drawing you gently out into light, into the sweet, fleeting rays of sun that filter through backyard shade-tree branches rustling in the summer breeze. Honey, pass the iced tea: Middle age is turnin’ out OK.

Holmes’ rich, pliant voice — a mix of cavalier swagger, full-moon howl and throaty croon — still smolders and smokes, but now it rings with unsullied hints of tenderness, too.

“The characters in Michaelangelo were fighting maturity kicking and screaming,” he observes with a chuckle, “while the characters in Tall Shadows were trapped in youth hell. But [Pines‘] characters are looking for the sweetness in maturity and adulthood. All my characters have always looked for the sweet spot, but I think these guys have found it.”

… often in their own backyards.

“The recurring shade theme is a metaphor for home,” Holmes explains. “I think humans have as powerful a homing instinct as golf-course alligators. You can hog-tie ’em, throw ’em in the back of a pickup truck, drive ’em 15 miles away — and the next day, they’ll be right back in the same place they started.”

Which is another way of saying that Holmes may be repairing his battered Nashville house only to put it on the market in the next few years.

“I’m anxious to get back to home,” he confesses.

“Where I come from [originally], if you pull up to a stop sign and there’s a tractor coming at 15 mph, two miles away, you make a sandwich and wait. That’s the pace of life I’m accustomed to.”

Holmes grew up in the rural, upstate South Carolina town of Enoree. His great-great-grandmother is pictured, in fact, on Pines‘ front cover, sitting in a straight-backed, wooden chair in a tree-shrouded yard on the old family homeplace.

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