Mrs. YHT and I are thinking of seeing Get On Up tomorrow. Important prep in progress.
An electronic record of learning of things
In certain areas of life, you’re better off not seeing how the sausage is made. Unfortunately, pop music can be one of those areas. It’s not on the same level as legislation, or ya know, actual sausage, but what you find when you pull back the curtain and learn about how your favorite top-40 songs were made can be stomach-turning nonetheless. The corrective recording technology. The lists of songwriters that would reach the floor if published in scroll format. The contradictions between artists’ public personas and personal lives. It can get ugly. I’m not proud to admit it, but there are times I’d rather not know who was singing that radio hit I’ve grown attached to for fear it’ll turn out to be a star whose fame has crossed over into infamy. It’s judgy, I know, but who is doing the singing and how something is created matters. It just does.
The word “pop” can be tricky, and I tend to have a hard time knowing when to use it, but you could make a strong case for it here. The description of “Bird Of Prey” on Spacebomb’s website starts with “Pop is not a thing to be feared,” and goes on to use language like “hits fierce and fast,” “hook” and “addictive.” The song is bright and agile, and the chorus certainly gets stuck in your head, that’s for sure. Still don’t believe the pop shoe fits? Look to the single’s B-side, an A+++ cover of Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place.” (Quick note to the Spacebomb folks: I need that B-side pressed to vinyl. Neeeed it.)
If “Bird Of Prey” is indeed pop, the video above is evidence of how righteous crafting pop music can be. The live strings, the charts, recording to tape — what comes through the screen is careful consideration. Love for the process. For people who care about the ingredients that go into their music — and especially for 1960’s Southern soul junkies like me — getting to peer into the inner workings of the Spacebomb operation is like touring Willy Wonka’s factory (without the whole forcing-yourself-to-burp-and-fart-so-you-don’t-get-chopped-up-by-a-deadly-exhaust-fan thing). It’s a world that Gene Wilder would have crooned rhapsodically about. A place where you can bite into anything you see (or, in this case, hear) and marvel at how sweet and thoughtfully prepared it is.
Before it starts to sound like the song’s success hinges on its backing musicians, let me present one more video — a live performance of “Bird Of Prey” recorded at Balliceaux back in 2011.
Stripped down to nothing but voice and guitar — single notes, in some places — the song retains so much of what makes it compelling. The intensity, the wonderful tension created by the lyrics’ central metaphor, Prass’ athletic, true-toned delivery — they’re all there, as are the spaces (the bars that come after the second chorus, and the ones that bring the song to a close) that would eventually be adorned with strings and horns. With the benefit of having heard the final version, it’s easy to see that Prass’ vision for the song went way beyond verses and hooks, and the Spacebomb graphics flashing in the background foreshadow just how wonderfully realized that vision would become. Seeing the evolution of a song like this is revealing, and the picture I see coming into focus here is an impressive one, where all the players involved show real dedication to the craft that goes into making pop music worth being proud of.
I can’t wait to hear the rest of the album, and I can’t reiterate enough how badly I need this single on 45. Anyone know if you can Foo Fighters (yes, it’s a verb now) a record pressing?
I’ve written at length about Daniel Bachman before, but I’d like to mark the release of his new album Orange Co. Serenade by sharing a slightly different impression of his playing, along with a sample track off the new record.
I’m sure you’ve heard people who are confronted with an adorable baby or puppy say something to the effect of “Oh my god, [he/she/it] is so cute I just want to eat [him/her/it] right up!” Everyone knows they’re not cannibals or puppy eaters — it’s just an expression that spills out as a result of overflowing enthusiasm. (Then again, cuteness has been shown to activate the part of our brains that regulates aggression…) You hear similar language in book reviews. Prose is “gobbled up” when it’s particularly enjoyable. Some things are so good you just want them to be a part of you — to be absorbed, so you can go about your daily life with the elevated level of joy you felt when you first encountered them.
There’s a close cousin to this type of enthusiasm, and it’s another book review mainstay — “I just want to crawl inside it.” When a writer builds an especially vivid and inviting fictional universe, the words pull you in, and before you know it, you’re wishing you could cross the page’s divide and join the world the characters get to inhabit. (It happens in movies too — you might remember that a number of movie-goers were swept up in a wave of depression after seeing James Cameron’s Avatar because they couldn’t cope with the fact that the idyllic Pandora wasn’t a real planet they could emigrate to.)
That — minus the delusional depression bit — is how I feel when I listen to Daniel Bachman play the guitar.
His compositions feel like worlds unto themselves — places you could visit, if only a few metaphysical rules could be bent. That feeling of being simultaneously transported and enveloped is partially related to time. You often see him lumped in with a genre called “American primitive,” and there’s no denying that his style harkens back to something, whether it’s to a specific moment in the evolution of American music, or simply to an era in which hearing music meant making it yourself in a parlor or on a porch at the end of a long day. There’s also the matter of place. When you listen to Orange Co. Serenade and allow yourself to drift off, you might find yourself staring out across a calm, expansive ravine (“We Would Be Building”), or walking slowly through a thick forest that’s as infinite as it is claustrophobic (“Coming Home”). Always wild. Rural. No cars or conversations, save the ones you can have with the natural world.
But Bachman doesn’t just take you back, or take you away — he takes you with him. The book review comparison is most apt here, I think, because there’s a linear quality to the whole exercise that’s just like reading a story. Compositions like “And Now I Am Born To Die” build one note at a time — the expository bedrock of an open-tuned drone sets the stage for variations that unfold like plot points, leading toward a ending you can’t predict but know exists because the rest of the pages have been written and bound and are right there in your hands. Even the songs of his I’ve heard time and time again keep me on the edge of my seat, waiting for familiar, trail-marking phrases or full chordal changes that promise to shift the color of the landscape entirely. And then there are the crescendos, where the clarity of single notes gives way to the climactic frenzy of violent strumming and overlapping interests, as in “Blue Mass.” If there is such a thing as pure songwriting, Bachman’s found it.
I had the chance to see him perform at Steady Sounds two Saturdays ago — my third time seeing him at the store — as part of an event that included a reading by Amanda Petrusich from her new book Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records (more on that soon). Bachman played his three songs in between short DJ sets by illustrious 78 collector Christopher King, who was spinning what I believe to be the oldest (and definitely the spookiest) recorded music I’ve ever heard played via its original format. Obscure violin melodies and singing that, thanks to King’s talents as an archivist and sound engineer, have far outlived the lifespan their creators could have hoped for. I think time stopped for a few hours there. So often I find myself wishing the clock would slow down so I could get more done and be everywhere at once, yet there I was, in this unlikely chronological vacuum, and the experience was profoundly peaceful. (Remember when Jodie Foster starts traveling through the wormhole in Contact, and the ride is frightfully bumpy — “I’M O-O-O-O-K TO G-G-G-O!” — until the improvised apparatus holding her in place rattles loose and she’s able to float through space and time in total tranquility? It was like that, only I didn’t reconnect with any dead relatives or have to appear before a congressional inquiry when I got back.)
The best part? I can crawl back into that alternate, timeless universe anytime I want. All I have to do is press play on one of Bachman’s songs. I highly recommend you press play on “Coming Home” below and see where it takes you.
Thursday will be our last day of operations as we know Steady Sounds. But it’s not the end of Steady, it’s a rebirth. We will re-open in mid-August with a little something extra. Stay tuned for more info in the coming weeks!
Oh snap! What’s happening? I’m terrible at suspense/patience.
Landlady broke my Spotify classification system.
I have a bunch of Spotify playlists, but one has become absolutely indispensable since I started adding to it — my hastily named That’s My Jam playlist. It’s where I drag the songs I get most excited about and want to hear over and over (well, the upbeat ones — I have a separate sad sack playlist I’m too embarrassed to share the name of). Sometimes a song jumps out at me and has to go on TMJ right away, other times I’ll decide that I like a new album and will add one of its tracks so I’ll have a lasting tether back to it. “Lasting” is the operative word there, because I would be crushed if I lost this playlist. Whenever I have trouble logging into my Spotify account, a deep-seated, panicky feeling rushes in. (I really need to back up this list somewhere, but you’re talking to the same person who puts off doing laundry until he’s wearing bathing suits for underwear, so who knows when that’ll actually happen.)
I recently started another list called Favorite Whole Albums, for releases that seem are particularly suited for front-to-back listening. Usually they’re cohesive in some meaningful way, like how Beck’s Morning Phase feels like a single idea played out over multiple tracks, or how Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city tells a story that builds from beginning to end, with interludes that need to be played in the correct order.
When I step back and look at those last two paragraphs all typed out, it’s painfully clear how helpless trying to categorize and catalog your listening really is. It’s like trying to bottle up wind with a napkin, or something — just plain insufficient when you zoom out and consider the massive musical universe and all it has to offer. Taxonomy can feel insufficient in micro sense too, as Landlady just taught me.
I listened through their new album Upright Behavior once and immediately added “Maria” to That’s My Jam. I loved the drum break right away — it felt like a pelting… almost like trying to pick out patterns in the rain, but somehow simultaneously more organized and frantic than that. Then I got near the end of the album and put “Washington State Is Important” on TMJ, because it was so epic and detailed and reminded me of the off-kilter, pastoral mood that regularly draws me back to Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues.” Then I listened through the album again and had to add “The Globe” to TMJ, because it kept getting stuck in my head and had this fantastic juxtaposition between a heavily drummed verse and a thin, delicate chorus. Then I started thinking, “OK this is too many songs from one album for TMJ — just put this thing on Favorite Whole Albums, for crying out loud.” Then I started questioning whether FWA was really meant for albums that are just plain awesome all the way through. Then my ears started to smoke and a paper readout started haltingly emerging from my mouth, reading “DOES NOT COMPUTE.”
Thanks, Landlady. My inner robot has to go in for repairs. I’ll be sending you the bill.
One more Commonwealth of Notions Presents memory from last Friday — Lightfields covering Archers of Loaf’s “Web In Front,” with a vocal assist from festival organizer and Clair Morgan bassist Shannon Cleary.
This was fun.
Music is full of little miracles that are easy to overlook. One of the most fundamental is the fractured nature of performing as part of a band.
When you’re at your favorite venue, hearing familiar songs come out of a few, huge speakers, it’s easy to process it all as one thing, and to forget that the parts of that whole are the result of individual human beings putting into motion an unfathomable number of neural pathways and muscle groups in just the right order, at just the right time. It’s what makes being in a band so frustrating and so rewarding. When you get up on stage to perform with other people, you’re on a tightrope together, and the gravitational pull of chaos never abates. The universe does not want to be as ordered as you’re forcing it to be when you play a song.
After spending a few days thinking about why I so enjoyed seeing Clair Morgan at Strange Matter on Friday night, I’ve decided it has something to do with the remarkable way they walked that tightrope, and the daring way the band’s frontman and namesake (“Clair Morgan is and is not a band,” as the t-shirt I bought at the show explains) courts chaos, making the walk all the more thrilling.
It started (both literally and in the bigger sense) with Morgan’s guitar style. He kicked things off with a fast, repeating lead pattern — math-y, in the way that a minimalist composer might choose a specific set of notes to start running with — played on his gorgeous natural wood finished Rickenbacker. Those notes were being played too quickly to pick out downbeats or a key at first, giving the song’s beginning an impressionistic feel, but as vocals and accompaniment flooded in, the rhyme and reason were made clear, and a lovely, organized song came into focus. (I think they started with “Breathe Out,” which I’ve posted below, but don’t hold me to that — I’m still getting to know the band’s catalog.)
All this happened in the span of less than a minute, but those formative moments were deeply impressive (Morgan singing and playing those patterns simultaneously is a spectacle — I highly suggest seeing it in person). Even more striking was how quickly and naturally the group took that impressionistic start and got to that sounding-like-one-thing place. It can’t be a cakewalk — the other elements are many, and they’re varied in terms of timbre. Powerful backup vocals, vibraphone, trumpet, drums, additional percussion, bass, another guitar… Given Morgan’s acrobatic guitar style, you’d think the additional guitar would be simple and rhythmic, and while many of Troy Gatrell’s contributions were chordal, those chords came at inventive times in the form of accent and coloring — not safe strumming on downbeats. As a result, bassist Shannon Cleary’s lot involves gluing these pieces together and making it all seem seamless. He did so wonderfully on Friday, projecting an assured looseness at the same time he brought all the elements in tight with one another.
Of course, the job Cleary had throughout the weekend involved bringing even more than that together. Friday was just day two of WRIR and the Commonwealth of Notions Presents, the festival he’s spearheaded for the past four years, and one of the great joys of being at Strange Matter that night was the palpable feeling of fellowship in that dark, noisy room. So many familiar, smiling faces. So much rapt attention. So many videos and photos taken. It reminded me of something Cleary said when I interviewed him in the days leading up to this year’s event:
I think Richmond is in a really good place right now. Maybe in the past, I would have claimed that if people just took a second to show a little more dedication to the scene, we could do so many more things. Currently, we have so many people that are working to really chronicle this moment in time. Not even just chronicle, people are actively participating in this art. Music bloggers, photographers, record labels, musicians, graphic designers, fans, videographers and so on are just making their presence felt. And the city could always use more and more people like this, but we fortunately have a lot of people outside of myself that really go above and beyond their call to appreciate and celebrate Richmond music.
If there’s one conclusion I can draw from last Friday — other than that I can’t wait to see Clair Morgan again — it’s that Cleary really does bring out the best in Richmond’s music scene, and we’re all better off for his powers of pulling it all together.