The cover art of Tad Armstrong’s first solo album, Scorpio Falling (Flat Earth Records), shows Armstrong before a white, snowbound landscape. His face is inscrutable, eyebrows knit, mouth somewhere between a smile and scowl. The shot is close, making it impossible to tell whether he’s walking away from something or moving toward it. Maybe he’s standing still.
It’s an appropriate shot for an album that’s torn between different lifestyles. At its outset, Scorpio Falling is a celebration of bachelorhood and life on the road. The first track, “Heartbreaker,” is an upbeat, on-the-move rocker with the kinds of bitter-funny lines you might expect to find on a Warren Zevon record: “I got into my car and drove / from Saint Louis all the way to New Mexico. / That’s where I met / the woman of my dreams / She had long hair and holes in her blue jeans / Sometimes she would paint roses on her cheeks / and we were crazy about each other for two weeks.”
Yet, as happy as “Heartbreaker” is, it’s followed two short tracks later by “Indiana Weather,” a song whose focus is as narrow as “Heartbreaker” is wide, about what happens when a man on the move finds a woman that might be worth staying still for.
For Armstrong, these are the themes he comes back to. “I guess I’m fascinated by the struggle between two urges: to be free and self-indulgent or to be content and vulnerable. The songs were actually written at different times over a 10- year period, but the same themes seem to emerge at different times.” But, Armstrong adds, “It’s certainly not groundbreaking work from that standpoint. What else do rock musicians write about?”
This kind of self-effacing sense of humor is typical of the album, and of Armstrong himself. It’s easy to forget that this solo album comes after a long career in music, and that Armstrong has played in more than his fair share of notable groups, including funk-rock band All Day Suckas, Chris Shaffer’s post-Why Store project Shaffer Street, Americana four-piece Middletown and, currently, the Benders, a classic rock cover band that plays some originals by Armstrong.
Outside of Indianapolis, Armstrong toured with New Orleans singer-songwriter Susan Cowsill in support of her solo release and, in 2007, became bassist for The Cowsills, the family band that inspired the television series The Partridge Family. Cowsill and her husband, drummer Russ Broussard, make guest appearances on Scorpio Falling, as do members of the Benders.
These tours have taken Armstrong across the country, but it was New Orleans that had the most impact on Scorpio Falling. “Not So Easy” and “Anything You Need” were written after Armstrong’s tour through the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina. If this is the kind of thing that makes you wince, imagining a “We Are The World” slice of pretension, you can relax; the songs are two of the most solid on the album. The lyrics on “Anything You Need” are subtly powerful: “In the streets of a broken city / at the end of an imperfect day / history’s falling down all around us / pick up the pieces and throw them away. / People can be so unkind / but I can’t believe in a world that would leave you behind.” Armstrong chose his accompaniment wisely on the track, in the form of Cowsill on vocals and Anna Handy and Matthew Williams on cello, adding to the sense of yearning for something out of reach.
The visit to New Orleans was obviously a powerful one for Armstrong, though sometimes difficult for other reasons. “We were hassled by the police the first night for having a taillight out, and the next day someone broke into our van and stole my laptop and my camera. I was tempted to feel sorry for myself, but with constant reminders of how much others had lost in that city, I really couldn’t,” Armstrong says.
Self-pity is an emotion that doesn’t show up on the record, either, even when the various narrators in the songs find themselves in bad situations. “Proud,” for example, is very nearly an anthem for anyone in self-imposed exile, and it’s impossible to tell whether this is meant ironically or not. For his part, Armstrong hints it may have been written with a touch of sarcasm.
“I guess it comes down to the same old struggle. When I’m living in a way that’s self-destructive and emotionally turbulent, I’ve got plenty to write about. Right now, I’m happy and domesticated, and I haven’t written anything in months. A good writer writes through either situation — the turbulent times are just easier … I think track one [‘Heartbreaker’] sets the tone for the record by showing no real signs of regret. Even as the narrator is acknowledging that he’ll never find another woman like the one he’s singing to, there’s no real sense of change or resolution. ‘Proud’ borders on some real sadness but chooses sarcasm instead, essentially saying, when you’re devastated, when you hit rock bottom — look at yourself. Aren’t you proud of yourself?”
How much of this is based on Armstrong? “I wish I could say, ‘This is exactly how I am,’ or, ‘This is entirely fictional, I’m nothing like this.’ The fact is, I’m more and less like the character in these songs than I’d like to believe,” Armstrong says.
WHAT: Tad Armstrong CD release show with ESW
WHERE: Sam’s Saloon, 1640 Prospect St.
WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 30, 9 p.m., $5, 21+