Wilderness – Bentley’s Bandstand

“You know a record’s got something going for it when it has two cuts with James Burton on guitar, and it doesn’t even need him to be compelling. Wilderness springs from the environmentally conscious, musically rich interior landscape that defines the singular voice and viewpoint of Randy Riviere (pronounced Ri-veer), whose interesting wanderings have found him occupying a variety of blue collar jobs, serving a stint in the U.S. Army, undertaking an education that’s earned him a master’s degree in wildlife biology, toiling in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, leading an effort to preserve more than 40,000 acres as permanent wildlife conservation easements and earning awards for his environmental efforts. This in part helps explain why the intriguing songs on the aptly titled Wilderness bear such a strong sense of place, a connection to the physical geography of the land and the psychological contours of a restless soul in pursuit of some degree of grace and definition.

“In the nasally rumble of his voice on the first few tracks here Riviere sounds like he might be blood kin to Tony Gilkyson, and his songs have the same restless thrust as Gilkyson’s best work; but as the disc unfolds, Riviere’s timbre softens and lightens into an airy, eerie near-falsetto replicant of the young Neil Young’s voice. Some may find this unnerving, or derivative, but settle in and it all makes sense, sounds right, and wholly Riviere’s. The song titles underscore the importance of location in Riviere’s work-’Ohio,’ ‘Old Kentucky,’ ‘Alkali/Cold Harbor,’ ‘This World,’ ‘Angry Town,’ ‘Three Rivers,’ ‘Rainy Day,’ even ‘Destination Unknown’ and its implied journey. The music informing these numbers is itself a kind of map-the energetic rockabilly shadings and propulsive, insistent rhythm of ‘Destination Unknown’ (and Burton’s chiming, exuberant guitar solo) as the narrator wends his way from the Carolinas to Missouri to Wyoming and beyond; the sparkling, Allmans/Marshall Tucker-like cascading twin guitar lines erupting in ‘Ohio,’ a tense, grinding summons to explore some unsavory history buried by time and blood; the languid, old-timey fiddle-accordion-banjo-mandolin ensemble of ‘Old Kentucky,’ which turns out to be one man’s apology offered to the land he plundered for his own riches at the moment he realizes the land, not he, will prevail–’there’s cards on the table/and a shell of a man/but these hills of Kentucky stand’; in ‘Alkali/Cold Harbor,’ the mournful pedal steel, stark, deliberately plucked banjo and ominous wash of organ chords filling up the track as Riviere, singing in an odd, detached voice, as if he’s looking back on horrors from a psychological dead zone, recalls the desperate straits in which he found himself, apparently during the Civil War, when his only aim was ‘to stay alive’ and get back to the solitude of his Tennessee mountain home. You get the idea. Wilderness ranges across time and space with impunity, seemingly coming out of antiquity at one moment, at another firmly rooted in modern times, and occasionally daring to occupy a phantom zone of past and present in the same breath.

“By the end of this record you won’t be thinking about Riviere sounding like Neil Young; you’ll be wondering what hit you. The music being not only well played but emotionally charged adds grandeur to Riviere’s vivid tales–here’s a big tip of the hat to Riviere, his brother Bobby and Michael Ward for the electrifying guitar work, to James Pennebaker for making the lap and pedal steels sing so affectingly, and especially to the master of the harmonica, Mickey Raphael, who is nothing short of amazing, adding the most scintillating atmospherics to the tracks, whether in the shimmering cries of the winsome ‘All I Really Want’ or in the banshee blues wails punctuating the acerbic, angry thump of ‘Pretty Boy,’ which may be a thinly veiled indictment of the Bush administration, a notion that gains credence when the song suddenly breaks into an energetic trot in the last verse as Riviere sings, ‘Hello little girls and little boys/Did you see the news or hear the noise?/Daddy’s not coming home the same old way/Didn’t you see the news today?’–after which interlude the music explodes into a white-hot fusillade of searing guitar, wailing harmonica and thundering drums fueling Riviere’s howls of ‘Don’t tell me it’s alright/don’t tell me it’s alright.’ It’s not, and we won’t, but we will mark that you moved through here and made sure we took notice. The good earth will remember, too.”
- Bentley’s Bandstand, www.sonicboomers.com – September 22, 2008