Had Fort Wayne-based singer/songwriter Lee Miles been blessed with better physical health I’ve no doubt he’d have moved on to bigger things by now. Not because what he’s doing isn’t great or his hometown isn’t a great place for musicians (it is), but because he probably would have done the things musicians with his amount of talent – and without his health issues – usually do: toured; signed with an indie label; played all the big markets and college towns; met some sweet talkin’ beauty along the way; and last but not least, followed his muse (or maybe just looked for a change of scenery/inspiration). Anyone who has heard Miles’ 2008 album, Heathen Blux, more than a few times would probably agree with this assumption. This because Blux is not just one of the best albums out of Indiana I’ve heard, but because it’s one of the best modern singer/songwriter records I know of. It really is that good.
I once heard Miles, standing on stage with guitar, call himself “the poor man’s Neil Young.” Likewise, I’ve heard similar stories about Townes Van Zandt calling himself a “second-rate Hank Williams.” The parallels don’t end there: both artists are plagued by health issues; neither pays much mind to selling himself; both write a whole lot of great songs that take a handful of listens to burrow in; and both seem destined to get their due long after their most productive artistic period. For Miles, that artistic time is now. Following Blux, Miles released a stellar EP last year, recorded an almost completed LP called Fought + Won and, most recently, released a six-song EP called Open Your Grievous Heart. Low-key and uncompromising as they come, Miles’ great new EP just sort of appeared one day. Like anything he’s released, you’ll either have to hunt the guy down to get a copy or order it online. Yeah, I kinda dig that.
The first few times I heard Grievous Heart I wasn’t in love. The songs were good, but only “Let You Down,” easily one of the man’s best songs yet, hooked me immediately. Two or so weeks later, while listening to the folky 14-minute EP in a friend’s car, I had to get home (or to a legal pad) as quickly as possible. The songs all started to click, one by one. I had to share my excitement by writing about these songs. In a year in which the ever-growing Fort Wayne music scene seems to be hitting new peaks as far as releases go, Miles’ subtle EP was suddenly my new favorite. The songs, all quite short (save for opener “Tourniquet”), are so gentle and delicate that they take some getting to know. Had the EP been more than six songs and 14 minutes, it’d likely top my 2010 list of area records (not a small feat if you’ve heard records released by Mark Hutchins, End Times Spasm Band, Jon Keller, Black Label Summer, House of Bread, The B-Sharps, Cola-Zone and so on) and do quite well on my all-encompassing year-end list.
Opener “Tourniquet” is a song Miles has played here and there over the years. Opening with a common sounding strum and harmonica arrangement, “Tourniquet” showcases Miles’ twangy, poetic vocals about this and that, all of them open for interpretation. They’re about politics, problems, hope and growth (or, anyway, that’s my interpretation). The song, like everything but closer “How Cain Killed Abel,” feels far more personal than the politically focused Blux. By song’s end Miles comes to a head with a climax that maybe sees him over-singing a bit. But it fits the moment, and it works overall. And that’s what matters.
Track two, “Mid-Morning High,” is a new Miles classic. It’s a quick, breezy folk song so perfectly written, plucked and sung that I’ll no longer spoil description with words. Okay, one more bit: The song at first feels so simple and tossed-off that it’s easy to overlook its many subtleties. Hear the song if you can, but be sure to listen to it a few times before passing judgment. (That goes for any Miles song or anything worthwhile, really.) The above-mentioned “Let You Down,” clocking in at just 136 seconds, is as good as anything on Blux, standing as one of Miles’ most personal works yet. Lyrics like “I’m going where the water dries / I’m going where the poor subside / Don’t let me down / I won’t let you down” show the simpler side of his poetry. If Blux posed the argument that Miles is a writer first and musician second, Grievous Heart only furthers the sentiment. The melodies, singing and compositions are strong throughout, but it’s the writing, variety and character Miles puts into his work that make him stand so high.
Another personal favorite, “My Only Son,” is another new Miles classic. The song feels urgent and serious, as did most of Blux and all of Miles’ second album, the oft-overlooked 1,000 Lions. If “Let You Down” is the best cut on the record, “Son” isn’t far behind. You just have to hear it; it’s the kind of song that is so well-written that it feels familiar, yet you can’t name the reference. Closer “How Cain Killed Abel,” a very twangy, short song, feels more like a bonus/tack-on sort of track than an actual song. It’s not that it’s bad, but, again, Miles seems to maybe stretch his twang and vocal style a little too far. It’s a grower, but it’s also the only 50 seconds on the EP I find myself skipping.
The only real issue I have with Open Your Grievous Heart is that I wish it were longer. Knowing that Miles has a pretty lengthy list of yet unreleased songs, I have to wonder why he didn’t tack on three or four more cuts and call it a proper record. My guess is that he’s sitting in his downtown apartment right now, knowing that he’s tasked with the near-impossible job of following up Blux with an even better full-length. Can he do it? Well, I’ve heard bits and pieces of the unfinished Fought + Won, and it sounds pretty great. For now, we have Grievous Heart as a reminder of the man’s rare ability to sometimes write perfect songs. Someday, I’ve no doubt, these songs will get out there to a larger audience. For now, he’s a regional treasure whose every release is worth getting to know.
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