The Silos – Cuba

The Silos

Even though it’s obvious that much of the groundwork for the music we now enjoy was laid in the 1980s, even a casual look at that decade’s most seminal releases will sometimes leave a listener (such as I) somewhat baffled as to exactly which elements were so inspirational to the bands that followed. Far too often, the original work seems somewhat embryonic and primitive, full of tinny drums and jerky rhythms, only revealing its more timeless elements with repeated listens. In 1987, the Silos released their second album, a song cycle revolving around the themes of love, family, displacement, and depression entitled Cuba – and it’s not hard to see why it remains as one of the most cherished relics of the proto-alternative country rock movement.
Obviously, even in 1987, combining elements of punk rock and country wasn’t an outrageous artistic statement. Here, the album opens with twangy guitars swerving around punchy chord changes, yelled choruses, and wailing guitar solos of “Tennessee Fire” that sound like a convincing primer for what Uncle Tupelo would be doing in a few short years, but if taken out of that context really just make for a great rock song. Far from being an album that wins its points with broad artistic statements, Cuba is founded upon a simplicity and directness, a personal vulnerability and honesty that clearly wasn’t out of step with many of the heartland rockers of the era. Narratives like “Mary’s Getting Married” and the organ-driven “Memories” wouldn’t necessarily be out of place on the era’s Springsteen or Tom Petty albums. Nonetheless, the combination of distorted guitars and understated uncertainty matched with fiddles, pedal steel, and a wary resiliency points towards a spirit of modernity that most of the bands that were skirting around similar themes largely missed. Further, the intensity and earnestness with which the performances are captured seem to reveal a vulnerability and sincerity largely missed from even the best releases of the time period.
Songwriter and vocalist Walter Salas-Humara, for whom the album’s title is an allusion to the island that his parents fled from, writes with a simplicity and integrity beyond his years, whether recounting the joys of domestic life in acoustic guitar and pedal steel-kissed “Margaret” or the pleasure of listening to your favorite record on the galloping “Just This Morning.” His eye for detail, both lyrically and musically, allows him to sound equally comfortable plowing through the almost Black Flag-ish “Get Back My Name” as he does crooning over the tinkling electric guitars, trumpets, and French horns of “Maybe Everything.” Throughout, the musicianship is consummately tight, bouncing through hooky rock anthems to laidback roots-rock, with guitarist Bob Rupe adding perfect backup harmonies for both. In the end, it’s the timeless songwriting elements, and not some attempt to be cutting-edge, that elevate the songcraft to such consistently high standards.
Ultimately, Cuba doesn’t sound like a blueprint for a musical revolution, and there is little evidence to suggest that the album had such an impact on the burgeoning alternative country scene. To be sure, it would be an album that had it been released today could have been easily overlooked. Sure, bands before and since have made similar albums and will probably continue to do so as long as people are writing songs. But that shouldn’t detract from the near perfect way the Silos managed to line up all the essential elements for this album. More than anything, Cuba is a powerfully cohesive statement that never gets bogged down in any one mood for too long, allowing all the emerging themes to arrive with all the more vibrancy.