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You don’t often hear about an artist reinventing their sound eighteen albums into a celebrated career. But for Todd Snider, his latest release, First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, isn’t so much a sudden change in direction as an arrival after years of searching.
“After my last album Agnostic Hymns, I felt like I was out of ideas and I just didn’t know where to go next,” Snider says. “So I did a side project with the Hard Working Americans, and I learned a ton. I tried to study music by other people, and come to this record hoping that I’d have something new to say. I wanted to do what I was calling ‘funk in back and busking up front, with White Album-y shit scattered about.’ I had done a lot of listening to Parliament and James Brown and lots of reggae music, too. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’ve been trying to think of this sound all my life. This is the closest I’ve come to thinking, ‘Man, I don’t know that I’ve heard anything like this before.’”
Especially within the often too-purist context of Americana, the record’s sound is refreshingly experimental. More funk than folk, more Sly Stone than singer-songwriter, it’s fatback-style grooves, full of ghost notes and disparate syncopated elements, slither and slide around Snider’s acoustic guitar with caduceus-like precision. The arrangements are given extra texture and atmosphere by ace mixer/multi-instrumentalist Tchad Blake (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello). On songs like “Never Let A Day Go By,” “Stoner Yodel Number One” and “The Get Together,” there is a taut, dry snap, an intimacy that invites you inside and best of all, opens up space for Snider’s husky voice and thought-provoking lyrics to breathe and connect. It’s music that makes you move, smile and think all at once.
“My main collaborator on all the grooves was Robbie Crowell,” Snider says. “He’d played one show with [my band] the Bulldogs, and he and I started hanging and listening to funk songs. He gave me an education on drummers. Most of the time, I started with a basic kick and snare pattern, and I’d sing. Then he would add more groove, and I’d chisel more melody out of that. Robbie knew that I wanted to do something idiosyncratic, without any reference to other records. So a snare might not go with the kick drum, in a logical way. We were trying to get drum sounds and grooves that made their own kind of sense. We’d build it up, add parts, tear it apart, build it back up. The songs went through a lot of different incarnations. But we had so much fun trying to find the grooves.”
Since debuting in 1994, Snider has gone through his own incarnations. His first single “Talking Seattle Blues” was a head fake that might’ve pointed to goofy novelty songs. But he quickly showed that his artistic quiver was much deeper and more interesting. A storyteller who works a similar creative soil to John Prine and Shel Silverstein, Snider’s best songs are both sad and funny, political and entertaining, and always written with a poet’s eye and a stand-up comedian’s sensibility about the follies of human condition. While he’s made eighteen fine albums, it’s on stage where Snider is even more potent, with between-song banter that weaves subtle emotional threads through his sets. A road dog who loves the road, Snider has toured with Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Jimmy Buffett, and appeared at festivals like Farm Aid, Newport Folk Fest, Lockn’ and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.