Spring Sunday Morning: A Quick One

It’s too bad Ray wasn’t from Maine originally because then I could say he was our greatest musical export ever. Granted, there a few other really good bands to come out of my beloved home state, but Ray is just awesome in everyway from his blue eyed soulful voice to the super tasty production. This a Sunday morning staple for me right now.

It has been a crazy couple of months. Between things with the band getting way more busy, my new job, my old jobs, fixing the old homestead up for spring and trying to expand my social scene, I am pretty scattered right now. Granted, I have a pension for procrastination which is infamous and a continual point of contention with my brother so I am trying harder to write stuff more regularly amongst the chaos of my life. I know the Elder J is also  incredibly busy so he doesn’t notice my slackery as much which actually works against me because the guilt I feel when he give me shit actually forces me to write more.  I am sure he is not sitting around waiting for me to post stuff as he tries to move his growing family into a new home and all the other crazy stuff in his life, but I thought of this song anyway.

Love the Kinks and this song is so classic of that sound in the mid 60’s. I someday want to write a series of posts of why bands like The Kinks never got as big as the Beatles when they could of or a good one too would be how come Ten Years After never even approached the greatness of Led Zeppelin. More on that later.

I had my first day off in roughly two weeks yesterday and I spent much of it mowing my lawn and clearing out beds for my vegetables which I need to plant next weekend. I woke up painfully early after going out and seeing my lead guitar player’s sister play a songwriter’s round gig at a way too classy for me bar in the largest city of my homestate in Portland, Maine. The music was sick and the beer was expensive but good so I really relished the first sip of the West Coast IPA I ordered as soon as I could get to the bar.

Like five minutes later, in walks a school superviser and his wife in a completely out there coincidence. I guess all of our principals hang out at this specific spot so I did what I thought was necessary and got them a round. It turned into a great networking scene and I ended up being out later than I expected yet still woke up on teacher time at roughly 5:30 am. I realize I was blowing off steam from two weeks of stress, but it felt pretty whack.

Probably self explanatory.

Our first big show of the season is next Saturday afternoon. I am pretty excited since it is an afternoon show to raise money for breast cancer. It’s a bike run that has a bunch of motorcyclists pay to ride between a few different locations before meeting up at the end to eat food, have a beer, and watch our band play some tunes. A bunch of people who would never come to a show at night because of familial obligations, puritanical values or an early bed time. It will hopefully raise some more money for a good cause while introducing a bunch of my friends and acquaintances to my band. The whole biker thing is not new to us as a band, I just hope it doesn’t scare anyone who is not so familiar like my teen age cousins. Lastly, I think we can all support breasts and the saving of them.

I could not stop singing this song yesterday and the Saturday before in unison with a dude I met at my old job of banquet serving/bartending whose name is Levon and he is from South Carolina. This guy was quite a bit older than me but busted ass carrying trays while telling me some hilarous stories about living down south.

Chicago is actually an incredibly good band which is why we will end out this post with a double shot. I always saw them as this cheeey band but now I can’t really see why I would ever think this. Ok some of it is a little sharp in the cheese department, but come on, this jam right here is gold. The piano make me think of Carole King and the horn section is like funky Phil Spector production. I guess they are only behind the Beach Boys in American bands in most charting singles and albums which is a brand new fact for me. They still tour and apparently are not bad. The former lead singer/guitarist Terry Kath shot himself in the head accidentily in 1978 playing Russian Roulette with a semi automatic pistol. The man can wail but seriously, what is the thought process there? Clearly he did not grow up around firearms.

This  is the late Terry Kath tearing it apart on an extended solo which sounds like it’s got a bunch of wah-wah pedal on it which is never a bad thing for me, as much as it annoys so many others. I have to attend an adult chorus concert tonight, do you think I have any chance of hearing this bad boy getting performed?

So now it is Sunday morning and I am going to finish writing this, maybe do a little fishing before attending my mother’s adult chorus concert at three and then being home in time for band practice at six which will hopefully end by nine so I can see the new Game of Thrones episode or at least finish watching the episode from last week that I still haven’t finished. Wore me out just writing that sentence but I ultimately feel blessed that I have so many things going on that I am interested in and passionate about. I know a lot of people who waste a lot of their time from my outsider’s perspective and one day we all figure out that time is finite and you better spend it well. So on that note, spend a solid few minutes listening to this amazing cover of a an amazing song and contemplate.

Obviously really into Ray right now, again. He’s the man.

New Music, Again

So, here’s a third installment of The Only D’s musical suggestions. Whether or not he wants me to tell you this, he has some time on his hands to search for new music because he’s one of a majority of a generation screwed by our financial system.

This means he doesn’t have a job. He should. (And his Mexican-American mother might have a breakdown if he doesn’t get one soon.) Yet, I benefit because, when he is not trolling Reddit for pictures of whatever the hell the ‘frontpage of the internet’ is obsessed with, he’s wading through music to mess with me.

(He’s also, apparently, the go-to guy for suggestions for ‘adult’ web-portals among his friends. Honor takes different forms in different cultures, I guess.)

If you notice, from his comments, he has stereotyped me as interested only in one type of music. What’s with this obsession with folk-pop? Am I so one-dimensional? He’s probably right: my tastes can be predictable. But not always.

Here we go:

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Grammys: Why watch?

My brother wrote the other day about his “issues”  the Grammys and how he doesn’t like award shows yet still pays attention.  I agree with each one of his points. It is all about money and who sells records, but why wouldn’t it be if it was created by record executives?  I don’t say this as a point of contention with my brother, just that it has always seemed to me like it was all about money. Same with his next two points in that its meant to sell more records and it is a rich person party thrown by rich people.

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Album Review, Jose Gonzalez Veneer

I am not going to beat around the bush on this one.  I am going to come right out and say it. If you are not listening to Jose Gonzalez—if you have never listened to Jose Gonzalez—then your life is the poorer for it.

If you have heard the neo-folk finger picking and understated crooning of Jose Gonzalez and dismissed it, you need to give this music a second chance.

I have always had an affinity for folk, or folkish music—I was raised on a steady diet of Peter, Paul and Mary, with some John Prine, the occasional Dylan tune, and a great deal of James Taylor. I was a sucker for Nick Drake the first time I heard him.  I like maudlin and quiet music; I like strings.

What I don’t like is how often folkish artists are ruined by producers—by other artists who want to ‘flesh out the sound”. My brother and I have debated about this many times. I despise the way some of Nick Drake’s tracks have been ruined by horns and over-instrumentation. One of my brother’s favorite recent aristists, Ray LaMontagne, sounds great when he plays alone with his guitar, but I cursed when I acquired his album: filled with bells, whistles, horns and the touch of too heavy a producer’s hand.

It is not that I am against noise. Artists like Trent Reznor and Beck make beautiful music from uncommon sounds. The problem, as I see it, is that folk singers like Drake and LaMontagne write their music alone with a guitar—the song is itself and complete without the noises that the recording process often introduces.

But I digress. I want to fill you with love, not disdain.

I first heard Nick Drake from a giant who was subletting the other room in my apartment in NYC. He gave me a stack of albums that were to be released in the coming year (he was interning at a record company). The albums included work by Why? (Elephant Eyelash) and M. Ward in addition to Jose Gonzalez’s Veneer.

As soon as I listened to this album, I knew it was something special. I loved it enough that I could do anything to it—except for reading, because the music kept pulling me in. I quickly bought every EP and collaboration credited to Gonzalez. His other work is good—his band Junip’s work is melodic and full. But nothing compares to the somber beauty of this album.

I tried my best to make my wife appreciate the music, but she quickly dismisses maudlin-sounding guitar music. And so she dismissed Gonzalez until we went to see him perform. We caught his performance during a sunny afternoon at a music festival, and, as I arranged it, we were right at the edge of the stage.  When Gonzalez came out and started playing, my wife was shocked. She could not believe the complexity and richness of the music coming from one man playing alone.

To this day, while she still wonders aloud how I can listen to such quiet music without wanting to die, she concedes that she would watch him play at any opportunity. And so should you. But first, listen.

The first great song on the album is “Lovestain”; the track begins with a driving finger-picking pattern that varies with slight flourishes and builds in sound through each rotation. When the vocalists comes in with the strange lyric “You left a lovestain on my heart” handclaps softly accompany him. At times, the vocalist doubles up with a harmony. But that’s about it. Guitar. Voice. A little percussion.

Gonzalez might not have the most interesting or dynamic voice (like Ray LaMontagne) or the same mastery of melodies as a Nick Drake, but he has a dreamy, sometimes even nightmarish, and unique sound. No one reminds me of him.

The double-tracking of the voice is used to beautiful effect on the fourth song of the album “Heartbeats”. Again, the song begins with a finger-picking pattern, this one heavier on the bass strings, rolling forward and pushing to the vocals that, with a slight reverberation effect,  hang strikingly over the composition:

One night to be confused

One night to speed up truth

We had a promise made

Four hands and then away

 

The chorus is a bit louder, the harmonies a bit broader (and closer to a major scale), but with completely enigmatic lyrics: “To call for hands of above / To lean on / Wouldn’t be good enough / For me, no”. Admittedly, when written out, the lyrics seem nonsensical or foolish. But the way Gonzalez stretches the vowels and utters the syllables with his true tone makes them sound profound.

The bass line fades away for the bridge and just once, Gonzalez lets his fingers splash through the treble strings before going back. Gonzalez makes giant steps with the smallest movements of his hands.

And this is one of the themes of the album. The album starts with a slightly syncopated finger picking rhythm in a minor key—only the guitar is there until Gonzalez sings hauntingly “the compromise between honesty and lies”. He lengthens the vowels of “cOmpromise” and between” so that each word functions almost as a full line. For the chorus, he adds in a harmonizing vocal, a light and higher keen above his baritone voice.

If you listen with good headphones or in a quiet room, you can hear the squeak of his fingers  on his left hand as they move across the strings on the fretboard and the slight percussion of his right hand plucking.

The second track “Remain” accelerates the pace, more of a doubled strum sound than the finger-picking of the first track; this time the sound is rounded out with percussion. The fifth song, “Crosses”, also quite well-known, probably creates the best crescendo on the album and presents the strongest turns in Gonzalez’s voice.

He follows up the nearly raucous sounds (as loud as I can imagine a human being plucking strings without them breaking) with the longer and more quiet beginning of “Deadweight on velveteen” which takes 30 seconds to build as the fingers spend more time pulling a short melody out of the treble strings. When the vocalist returns with lines like “vulgar when brought to life”, however, we know we are not in a world of sweetness and light”.

Some sweetness seeps through on the eighth track, “Stay in the Shade”, where the somber lyric “Stay in the shade / until you reach the grade” is accompanied by a finger picking pattern that provides a real bass line but dwells mainly in the middle strings with flourishes in the higher register between phrases. Here, too, we hear a light percussive beat, probably on a hand-drum, but believably tapped out on the surface of a guitar.

In my opinion, if this album has a soul, it is split between the leaps of “Heartbeats” and the churning, hammer-down riff of “Hints” where the sparer picking pattern alternates with a second guitar line that channels some rougher emotion. Again the percussion, a beat every measure or so, could be a hand slapping the guitar. Here Gonzalez drops the doubled vocal track as he repeats the few words of the entire song:

While the crowd is waiting for the final kiss

The one which allows them to sleep well

We’ll walk along our own path

The one which will lead us to our own bliss

But we need hints before we get tired

We need speed before we lose pace

We need a hint to know we’re on the right track

Simple, but elegant words defying easy interpretation. The vocal hangs above the rolling guitar. Is this a metaphor for death? Perhaps. The ambiguity lets us read ourselves into the song and to forget that someone else sings these words.

In part, I think that this is what draws me to folk music—the simplicity of the performance, belied by the complexity of the lyrics, is often so much more intimate than other forms of music; folk music makes connections with its audience that other music may (or can) not. Or at least it does for me.

And let’s be honest, I also have a weakness for music steeped in sorrow. But the thing is, I don’t really think Gonzalez’s music is that sad—it just sounds that way. If that makes any sense. This is music for quiet contemplation, for reflection, for regret and the promise of a better day. If I am inspired by the contemplation of loss, does that make me in some way perverse?

In any case, Veneer, an album whose title points both to the superficiality of music and the promise that something deeper lies within, is one of my favorite albums ever. Another lock for the Desert Island List.

And what do you think, my brother?

Missed Shows

The Shows That Could Have Been

I’ve already written an entry about live music and two shows that really blew my head apart. I will surely get to shows that sucked, but what about those shows you never got to for whatever reason? I got some serious musical letdowns due to a wide spectrum of issues ranging from nobody to go with to sheer stupidity. Let me share some of these with you.

I have two that are in the same mold, both of equal importance in the loss I felt when I fucked up and didn’t go to these shows. Both also were missed because I knew no one else who wanted to go to the concert so I’ve vowed not to do this again. Hell, it’d probably fun to go to a concert alone; maybe I could pick up random women. Alternately, I think the live music experience is best when with someone you like and who has an at least passing interest in the music at hand. It is fun to introduce somebody to a band they eventually love.

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