Friday, February 26, 2010

#3 Last Days of Tecumseh, by Grant Lee Buffallo

OF COURSE genres are inadequate to describe anything worth describing, and I often find myself questioning why particular labels even exist. I clearly remember the first time I heard the Stones' Got Live if You Want It and wondering aloud why someone thought they needed to invent punk rock (The answer of course is financial and political and not aesthetic). But one genre label is more troubling to me than others, perhaps because I've invested so much time and energy in it: Alternative Country.

A bit of personal history:

As a teenager I was pretty immersed in what was just then being dubbed "alternative" music. We're talking early nineties here, and I was heavy into the Chili Peppers, Sonic Youth, Nine Inch Nails, Primus, etc. But I was even more dedicated to a whole other generation of music. Unlike most kids who discovered their parents' music, I was less interested in the druggy psychedelia. No, my friends and I had created a very strange little pantheon, the triumvirate being Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Lou Reed. Honestly, that's still kind of my pantheon, as much as Lou may have slipped down the totem pole over the years.

Now there's a certain tension in these tastes (though the VU are a pretty good bridge). Luckily Nirvana and company arrived to complete the circuit and make Neil Young into an alternative god. Unfortunately for me, I hated Nirvana. It took years to realize the error of my ways. I couldn't stand Nevermind (and still have trouble with it). But I appreciated grunge's recognition of Neil, and it helped my nascent musical sense begin to make what should have been obvious connections between these disparate styles.

None of which has anything to do with Alternative Country.

But one band that my friend turned me onto was the Jayhawks. There was nothing particularly "alternative" about them unless you considered their cut-up, faulty telegraph, sense-imagery lyrics. No, the style was pretty straight 70's country-tinged rock with very clear debts to Mr. Young, not least in Gary Louris' fuzzed out, choreographed guitar solos.

And so it began. The Jayhawks were connected to several other artists and bands that were all part of this crazy scene that was happening somewhere out in the wide world. A bunch of punks were playing country tunes would be the short version.

But here's the thing: Alternative Country was always a hoax.

The great granddaddies of the "genre" were Uncle Tupelo, and a more schizoid band has never existed. The band traded leads and songwriting, and occasionally went with the strategy of a million annoying cover bands' of playing some old song in another style, throwing in some heavy guitars or playing fast and electric. The band left me cold whenever paying lip service to that whole conceit.

And no wonder. These guys weren't country. After Tupelo's breakup they went their own separate ways and did what they were good at. Jay Farrar writes astonishingly great dark little ballads. And then he writes some other boring stuff to fill out the album (Disclaimer: Son Volt's Trace is a masterpiece,mostly due to being heavy on great dark little ballads). While Jeff Tweedy immediately demonstrated that toying with country cliches was not his bag at all. He was born to play with pop cliches. The Beach Boys are much more central to Wilco's sound than Bill Monroe.

The positive outcome of my obsession with this music was that it turned me on to a whole bunch of classic country artists who have inspired and sustained me ever since. If it weren't for the Jayhawks, who knows how long it would have taken me to explore Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings?

So, what would I call "Alternative Country?"

How about this:

This is a tiny little taste of Grant Lee Buffalo's masterful album, Mighty Joe Moon. Besides the prominent banjo on this track, there's not much to tag this as "country," alternative or otherwise, except for the themes and images that keep popping up throughout the album. It's like a perfect hybrid of the Band and Joshua Tree era U2. That is, it does its thing while digging its hands into the endlessly fertile source that is American Folk music. And what comes out is an atmospheric masterpiece that can in various places draw its way back to, surprise, Dylan (Mighty Joe Moon and Quinn the Eskimo), Young (that falsetto), and Reed (those beats and that guitar).

And the circle is unbroken.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

#2: Let it Loose, by the Rolling Stones

I've always felt that the whole "Are songs poetry?" question was a bit tedious. So obviously I have taken this space to rehash it all over again.

But really, despite some valiant attempt to present song lyrics as poems, they tend not to stand up very well. I once owned a volume of Lou Reed lyrics collected as poems, in the pretentious sort of way that only Lou Reed could manage, and it was almost enough to ruin those perfect little songs for me. Of course, there are the Leonard Cohens of the world who seem to write poems and set them to music, but what makes a song great, I would argue, has nothing to do with what makes a poem great.

The poem is its own engine; the words make it go. A great poem provides its own accompaniment. But a song exists almost independent of its lyric. Some of the greatest songs in the world are built around the most inane lyrics imaginable.

No, I would align song more with drama than poetry (while pointing out that poetry and drama are descendants of song, not the other way around).

The Stones seem to me a pretty great example of this fact. Lyrically, few would be tempted to call them poetic. Stones' lyrics often read like Burroughs-esque cut-ups of old country blues songs and Henry Miller's long lost memoir. Even a song as lyrically interesting as "Sympathy for the Devil" is hardly a Browning monologue, and so much depends on the way Mick spits out those words, "After all, it was you and me."

But let me focus. Please.

Let's look at "Let it Loose," from the Stones' masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. Lyrically, the song is a pretty bluesy direct address to either a former lover or the next in line; it's not particualrly clear. Between these addresses are some clever turns of phrase such as "Hide the switch and shut the light," that add a certain amount of charm if not meaning to the whole affair. But before we get too far into this close reading, an admission:

Until I looked up the lyrics today, I had no idea what most of them were.

Mick has never felt much need to enunciate (though, today, Sir Mick seems to be speaking a bit more properly, alas), and almost the whole of the song can be sung in a kind of drunken hound-dog moan. Believe me. It's true.

What lyrics do shine through the jumble are worth noting though. First is the refrain: "Let it loose. Let it all come down." I'd say that pretty well defines the song (and perhaps the record, and perhaps the decade), and as it is repeated in the latter part of the song, even these lyrics seem to decompose into a kind of stacatto chant of "Letta Loo," with the latter bit being taken up by the backup singers. That just makes me giddy.

The other bit is one of my favorite moments in recorded music (though I say that about a LOT of moments): When Mick cries out, "I ain't in love! I ain't in love!" it strikes me as so poignant and desperate and sad. There's a whole drama compressed into that brief repetition.


Add to this Dr. John's keys and some guitars with so much chorus on them that they sound like some new instrument altogether, and you get a perfect blend of hazy, underwater soul.

The point, I guess, is that just like reading to babies, talking to your dog, or selling useless products, it's not so much what you say, but how you say it. But the thing is, I love that fact. I love that a great song comes from and aims somewhere outside the intellect.

To illustrate the true, visceral beauty of this fact is Mr. James Brown repeating a handful of simple phrases to a crowd whipped into a frenzy, and every reptition grabs me someplace low in my belly and just pulls.

Comment below if you have any favorite songs with simple/ridiculous/incomprehensible lyrics.

Another to get you started:

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

#1: Annabelle, by Gillian Welch

It's hard to imagine it, but 12 years ago the world was a very different place. I was driving around Missoula, Montana, listening to music on my tapedeck. The tape was actually something I'd dubbed off of a VHS tape I'd used to record some Austin City Limits shows on PBS. I should also mention that I had to put my feet through the holes in the car's floor and run to make the car move forward.

Anyway, on this tape were a couple of tracks by a pair of musicians that I'd never heard of before. Through the taping and dubbing and transferring, I actually didn't know who they were; I just dug those songs. I loved those harmonies, and the interplay between the two guitars, and the melodies that seemed so familiar and new at the same time. I loved that it sounded old-timey without sounding kitschy or dated.

Today, I'd be able to name the musicians in a thirty second web-search, but back in my analog days it was more hit or miss than that.

It took a year or so of driving with that tape in the car before I finally, through some series of connections I can't recall, managed to put a name to those songs. Shockingly enough it was one name: Gillian Welch. Through some record label nonsense that I still can't comprehend, her partner, David Rawlings, wasn't mentioned anywhere, though they were unquestionably a duo, and Rawling's guitar work was one jaw-dropping ingredient in the act.

So, I picked up Welch's debut, Revival, and it was great, great stuff.

Through her next three albums, the work has continued to impress and inspire me, and I've actually come to like those faux old-timey tunes much less that when Welch channels those same themes and aesthetics through something a bit more contemporary (such as stand-out moments on her wonderfully uneven Soul Journey).

But I want to stick with that first batch of songs and focus particularly on one track that I've latched onto: "Annabelle."

There are so many things I love about this song: the Dust Bowl setting, the melody, the clever-but-not-too-clever way that the chorus transforms into Annabelle's epitaph. But really, I love the song for the lyric of that third verse:

When I'm dead and buried
I'll take a hard life of tears
for every day I've ever known.

It may not seem like much, but I find this sentiment to be a direct challenge to one of the most common tropes in American folk music. I'll call it, rather uncharitably, Christian Nihilism.

Christian Nihilism (which has it's variations in most of the world's religions)is characterized by the rejection of this world as a fallen world of pain, misery, and torment. Life is a test. Life is a trial. It's what comes after that matters, and human concerns are therefore devalued in favor of "higher" concerns.

The great purveyors of this particular brand of nihilism are my heroes, the Carter Family. Consider the wonderful tune, "Just a Few More Days."

Just a few more days of sorrow
Just a few more days of pain
Just a few more days of cloudiness
Just a few more days of rain
Then I'm going to live with Jesus
He has got a home prepared
Then I'll join the holy angels
Mother will be waiting there

I can forgive this sentiment, to a degree, in this particular context, coming as it does as a deathbed cry. This is the very reason that humans ever dreamed up an afterlife in the first place: to cheat death. And if that were all it amounted to, I'd say no more. But this is a continual theme, all of it feeding into a millennial view of the 1930s that gets creepier the longer you look at it.


I'm going where there's no depression
To the lovely land that's free from care
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home's in heaven, I'm going there

This goes beyond the embracing of heaven as a paradise and directly into the rejection of our earthly home as alien. In another tune, "Can't Feel at Home in the World Anymore," we get the definitive statement, repeated in a million variations through a million different songs:

This world is not my home, I'm just passing through
My treasures and my hopes are all beyond the blue
Where many many friends and kindred have gone on before
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore

What I love about Welch's shift in "Annabelle" is how it turns that idea on its ear. Her child's death (another popular trope) does not cause the speaker to reject this world but rather to wish for more life. I almost detect a gentle thumbing of the nose toward the idea of a perfect heaven. Who cares about heaven if we have to suffer "a hard life of tears" to get there?

Who ever said we'd have all things to please us?


The refusal of heaven's balm makes Welch's lyrics a kind of heroic stance: an acceptance of that eternal recurrance of the same, a great "Yes" to life.