By August Edwards
It’s probably irresponsible to say an album owes us nothing. What business does it have being an album if it does not assume a duty to a listener? Alternatively, a record can be whatever a musician wants it to be. The conversation calls much to question. Is the ultimate power relinquished to the artist, or the audience?
The answer is not so simple and sometimes it comes down to a musician’s own values. Ultimately, an artist sets their own limitations when creating an album—the form itself is a certain restriction. They do decide how much or how little to give to their audience. By extension, artists don’t owe their listeners anything, despite the implicit obligation, because that's not their motivation.
I consider it a gift that The High Desert Playboys have created an entire world with their latest album, Ticker Tape Parade. With a cauldronful of genres—country, cajun, and bluegrass under the umbrella of americana—I was transported into the experience of the persona Clark Andrew Libbey has written.
Ticker Tape Parade accomplishes seamless worldbuilding likely due to the village that it took to animate it. With Libbey at the helm, The High Desert Playboys consists of Ryan Goodhue (piano, accordion), Bud Melvin (pedal steel, banjo), Kristen Rad (electric violin), Mikey Hale (drums), and Kent Malmquist (electric guitar). While the album was recorded at Rio Grande Studios, they were joined by bassist Jared Putnam. This is The High Desert Playboys’s second full length album with Slow Start Records.
There was a brief window of time in May of 2020 that the band could record. “We recorded the basic tracks live in Rio Grande's beautifully restored 300-year-old main room as a six-piece band,” Libbey said. “The room is perfect for our sound...high ceilings, original hardwood floors, a large fireplace on one of the adobe walls, vigas from clearly ancient wood, and a lovely grand piano in the corner. Over the course of six hours, we recorded twelve songs and couldn't have had a better experience. For me, the recordings were surprisingly emotional, as if I was releasing a burden that had been building up in the forced isolation of our times.”
“Our drummer, Mikey Hale, was instrumental during this time...spending exhaustive hours helping me pursue the elusive vision of the songs. Once we exhausted all the extra percussion, choir tracks, church bells, organs, sound effects and backup vocals we could think of, we had the album we have now,” Libbey continued.
Libbey has a voice unlike any I’ve heard. It’s complex and all his own, and its dynamism is emphasized by the lively, unique orchestra that is The High Desert Playboys. “I wanted to write an album addressing the moment when ‘fake it till you make it’ goes wrong,” Libbey said. From an immaculate foundation, Ticker Tape Parade emerged.
Glorious self-doubt swarms in the album. We’re immersed in the life of a persona who resides in americanaland—we follow the good, the bad, the drinking, and the yearning—and everything is bookended by “Ticker Tape Parade, Pt. 1” and “Ticker Tape Parade, Pt. 2.”
“Ticker Tape Parade, Pt. 1” introduces us to our protagonist—the persona that rings through the entire journey. He’s a failed leader that’s habitually destroyed his town, though he truly believes he’s doing well. “Thought that they would throw me a ticker tape parade,” the character cries. Down but not defeated, he maintains a level of delusion that leaves the listener on a cliffhanger while there’s a further descent into this reality.
“Wonder Woman” is romping and foot-stomping. It’s catchy and kind and the lyrics maintain the album’s motif of being a partial observer; perhaps the persona can see others more clearly than he sees himself. “Just Too Sad for a Country Song” feels more upbeat than the title and story convey. There’s a sweet marriage-like relationship between the violin and piano that softens the impending sadness. The unrequited love in this track is palpable; however, the tone of the piece indicates that the persona still has hope, and the sadness hasn’t quite yet sunk in for him.
Following these narratives, we’re hit with an accordion-clad, Bo Diddley beat rendition of “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” by Hank Williams. Similarly, the track “Cajun Life” comes as another small gear shift in the album—it provides a time to get up, shake it out, and let music recalibrate what inner turmoil we might be feeling.
“Why Hangover When You Can Hang On,” hereafter referred to as “WHWYCHO,” begins with a cadence of clinking glasses in a bar setting and then explodes into what sounds like a country classic. I saw this song performed in late 2019 by Darlin’ & the Rodeo Runners (performance art, a clown band) and this song stuck with me since. It’s playful, engaging, and, for me, so memorable.
These three songs—“Jambalaya,” “Cajun Life,” and “WHWYCHO”—are not sequential on the album. They’re interspersed within the personal narrative of this captivating and somewhat tortured persona. The work that the three songs do, dispersed as they are, adds rich texture to this world and legitimizes the layers of genre that are just totally, generously spoon-fed to us as listeners.
“Look at the Size of that Hole,” the delightful yet existential follow up to “WHWYCHO,” features harmonizing kazoos and dramatic rhythm. The "hole," which represents the protagonist's baggage, won't be filled due to reluctance of self-awareness. “I Keep Losing the Things I Been Meaning to Keep” is one of my favorites on the album. This track throws caution to the wind; while there’s a lot of good-natured love coming from the lyrics, there’s a again that self-actualization that falls short due to unrequited feelings. This is cannon to the persona the album has adopted, for the sake of a catastrophic “fake it ‘til you make it.”
“When the Devil Reads Your Diary” is the final surge of hope before descent into delusion. “It’ll be okay / It has to be okay,” he pleads, and bargains, “Don’t you know I’m gonna get my demons vanquished?” There’s so much power in the persona’s unwillingness to let go; vanquishing demons, here, does not completely mean facing demons.
In “Ticker Tape Parade, Pt. 2,” the longest song on the album, the protagonist is banished to a deserted island as punishment for being a failure. On the island, starving and only feeding off of his own madness, he throws himself a parade of his own delusions, the parade he’s always wanted. The song is a fanfare that verges on a David Bowie level grandiosity while sustaining a ghost of a parade throughout. Like our protagonist, the song gently dies.
Hopefully The High Desert Playboys feel the burden of this dark narrative lifted from their shoulders now that they’ve set it free. “The inherent anxiety of creation drives so many artists to try to be better, but it has a price. It's a price that plays out in the often-public mental health issues of many of our favorite artists, and should not be underestimated,” Libbey said.
Ticker Tape Parade is a novel, a village, a breakup playlist, an artist’s worst nightmare come to life. An album doesn’t have to be all these things, but it's what I chose to find in this one—or maybe I needed to find it.