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Lee Miles Opens His Grievous Heart
By Ben Larson
Fort Wayne Reader
Just out is a new EP from local singer/songwriter Lee Miles, titled Open Your Grievous Heart, on the Sixty Years War label. This is being released in anticipation of a new full-length album, titled Fought and Won, and includes some songs that he couldn’t fit on that album, as well as some songs that were specifically written for this release. “One of my goals with this album was to become a better producer,” he told me. “When I put out [2008’s] Heathen Blux, I recorded it on Garage Band, and I did the very best I could, but I don’t think I did those songs justice. All that’s to say with this new one I was trying to make it a little more accessible, but still for it to keep it’s life’s blood, you know?” What he has ended up with is a collection of songs that sound great, both in their production and in the quality of the songwriting for which Miles is known.
Open Your Grievous Heart is also a much more personal sounding album than his previous releases, and one gets the impression that these songs came more from Miles’ soul than his brain. When I asked him about this, he said “I had all those songs, and they made sense together, and I realized that these are the most personal songs I’ve ever written. That’s one thing that people tell me, that I don’t do that. So I thought ‘well that’s a good thing, that I did this,’ and the phrase ‘open your grievous heart’ came to mind because you can become so aware of [problems] that you become grievous. So I thought that fit these songs really well.”
This is especially evident in the songs “Let You Down,” and “Johanna.” In regards to them, Miles said “I wrote those two songs in the span of about a week. I had written ‘Let You Down,’ and I went from that to ‘Johanna,’ which is like a post-script to the first one.” Arguably the two best songs on the album, “Let You Down” is a hauntingly beautiful lament about coming to terms with the past, while “Johanna” is a decidedly more upbeat song about starting over with a sense of optimism. Both also feature great acoustic guitar work in the vein of Will Oldham or early Elliot Smith, and are both equally successful in making the music match Miles’ lyrics.
Two other themes that pop up on Open… are that of martyrdom and betrayal, both of which come out in the forms of “How Cain Killed Abel,” and “Tourniquet,” a song about being wrongly blamed and punished for another person’s misfortune. I’ve noticed these themes come up with some regularity in Miles’ music, so I asked him what it is about them that causes him to revisit them. As to the idea of martyrdom, he said “I find the concept very interesting, that someone feels so strongly about something that they’re willing to die for it. But the thing I really find interesting is the fact that the rest of the world really doesn’t care a lot of the time, yet they still die for that cause, regardless. There are also people who claim to be martyrs and kill innocent people. I don’t consider that martyrdom, and it’s really a bastardization of the idea, but they call themselves martyrs. True martyrs are people paying the price for something, when other people don’t even realize it a lot of the time. It’s an interesting concept.”
In regards to why the theme of betrayal so often comes us, Miles said “honestly, it’s not something I do consciously. It’s just what comes out. It says in the Bible, ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth flows,’ so what you have in you is going to come out. I also feel that [betrayal] is something that everyone can identify with, even if it’s not on a huge level. There are little betrayals every day, man. If somebody cuts in front of you in line, that’s a betrayal. I hope it doesn’t come across that I’m wallowing in it. From my point of view it’s just wrestling with these issues. I don’t want to fall into the trappings of self-indulgence. There’s no entertainment value in that.”
As for the other songs on the album, there’s really not a weak spot to be had. “Mid Morning High” has some of the best bluegrass-style guitar this side of Beanblossom, with banjo coming in half way through that reminds me of what sitting on your back porch in the middle of summer must sound like. “My Only Son” is classic Lee Miles material — old time folk run through a minor key, with mournful sounding vocals tied around an understated bass line.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask why this album was a solo effort, and not with Miles’ band The Illegitimate Sons, who put out last year’s Farewell to Sister Evelyn. According to Miles, it all comes down to capturing the best sound, while still keeping the heart and soul of the songs. “[That album] was so well produced that it wasn’t indicative of the raw nature of our band. In the future when we record, I want to do live albums to try and capture what the band is all about, warts and all.” So there will definitely be more recordings from The Sons in the future, and until then we have Open Your Grievous Heart, and the forthcoming Fought and Won to enjoy.