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Entry - 5.2.14

Tags: music song

My childhood elementary school had determined that students should learn to play a real instrument starting in the Fourth Grade.  I don’t recall being asked if I wanted to play an instrument; it was simply assumed that all children were musical.  So, instead of being asked if I would like to learn to play an instrument, I was asked what instrument I would like to learn to play.  For me, this wasn’t a difficult question.  I had noticed that drummers were given a padded block of wood on which they could practice, quietly, at almost any location.  I’d be in the cafeteria eating my sandwich when a kid at my table would whip out his sticks and begin hammering away at his block of wood.  I thought that this was pretty cool.  It was also my supposition that playing the drums would be easy; after all, how hard can it be to hit something with a stick?

“I’d like to play the drums,” I quickly responded.

“We already have enough drummers.  You’ll learn the clarinet.”

And so began my brief romance with the licorice stick.

I never liked the clarinet.  Saliva would build up on the mouthpiece and run all over the instrument and, eventually, the musician.  My fingers were too small and skinny to properly cover the holes.  For some reason, I was never able to hit a high note on the thing; whenever I tried to do so, the clarinet only screeched.  And I never practiced… which might explain why I never learned to read music.  Of course, I had mastered the memory tools, FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine, to determine note order on a scale.  But I, literally, had to count how many lines down a note was located and then go through the mnemonic rigmarole for every note I played.  By the time I figured out what note I should play, another ten had already passed by.  My solution was to play notes arbitrarily in time to the music.  I still wonder how my music teacher, a kind and patient man employed by the school system, put up with me.   

One of the benefits of playing an instrument was that I got to march every May in our town’s Memorial Day Parade, an event in which participated school bands, Little League teams, glockenspiel players, Boy and Girl Scout troops, the Lion’s Club, the lacrosse and football teams, the American Legion and other veterans’ organizations, baton twirlers and cheerleaders, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the turbaned Kiwanis, police and firemen and finished up with a lineup of the town’s fire engines and a real live tank.  It really was amazing that anyone was left at curbside to watch the parade.  After three years of study, I was still blowing notes randomly, but I really enjoyed the marching part.  The clarinetists would clamp a device onto their instruments to hold their sheet music while marching (in my case, it served for purely decorative effect).  Every year we would play “The Marine Corps Hymn”.

Because our school band was too small, we could not march alone and had to be combined with the band of another school in the district.  Before the parade, we gathered on the back streets of the town to be properly organized as a consolidated unit and then were left to wait for our turn to march.  On a beautiful, sunny morning, as I stood in formation waiting in the mottled shade of the giant elms that lined the street, I was approached by a cute girl at least a head taller than I.  She was not from my school.

“So you play clarinet too?” she asked.

I nodded.

“What part?”

I looked back at her, speechless and confused.  Exasperated, she tugged at my clarinet and looked at my sheet music.

“Third clarinet!  What grade are you in?”

I finally found my voice.  “Sixth.”

“Sixth Grade and still playing third clarinet?” she exclaimed.  “I play first clarinet.”  She sneered and walked away.

My music education would not continue into Junior High.

Having a curtailed performing career, I never developed the technical vocabulary that would permit me to speak accurately and concisely about music.  If you read Part I of this composition on contemporary folk artists, you may have noticed that I rely on metaphor and visual imagery to discuss how songs function.  Don’t conceive this as my being fanciful.  My ignorance of music terminology forces me to find an alternative means to express my observations and responses to this art form.  I hope this deficit is not taken to reflect a lack of interest in music.  While I never learned to play any instrument (I even struggled with the tonette), I have devoted many, many hours of my adult life to what I would call educating my ears, perusing musical genres from classical to grunge and building a substantial collection of recordings.  Music is a vital component of my life, an assertion given credence by my desire to express here, however clumsily, my thoughts and reactions to the work of these contemporary artists.

Having stated this, I can continue with my sampling of contemporary folk musicians.

Anais Mitchell
Anaïs Mitchell – A singer-songwriter from Vermont, Mitchell was raised in an atmosphere where independence and intellectual excellence was stressed.  At a young age, she was encouraged to travel and covered a good portion of the globe, making stops in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Japan.  Perhaps this accounts for her precocious ability to allude to the larger implications of the intimate dramas which she unveils in her songs.  Mitchell doesn’t have a large voice, and she doesn’t introduce a lot of ornamentation to her singing.  Within her simple approach to vocals, she manages to elicit nuance and expression, exposing, at times, an unsettling vulnerability.

She was fortunate to come to the attention of Ani DiFranco, who signed her onto her own label, Righteous Babe Records, which released three of Mitchell’s albums between 2007 and 2010.  Ultimately, she started her own label, Wilderland Records, which has released two of Mitchell’s albums since 2012.  Though she can piece together quite successfully a collection of independent songs (take 2007’s The Brightness, for example), Mitchell seems most inclined to tackle thematically related cycles and narratives.  Her 2012 release, Young Man in America, follows a character, who I believe is roughly based on Mitchell’s father, through a number of songs while addressing themes relating to labor, economic inequity and power manipulation within relationships.  One song, “Shepherd”, was inspired by one of her father’s stories, and it is his face that adorns the cover of the album.  In 2013, Mitchell teamed up with Jefferson Hamer to record a series of old English and Scottish folk songs documented by a Harvard professor, Francis James Child, in the late 1800’s.  The resulting album, Child Ballads, a satisfying and sweet collection of seven songs, beautifully harmonized and accompanied with lean acoustic instrumentation, talks about personal and hierarchical struggles within preindustrial society.

But it is with Hadestown (2010), created along with director Ben Matchstick and arranger Michael Chorney, that Mitchell accomplished her most successful work, a folk opera based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Mitchell reconstructs the tale, transforming Hades into a Depression Era shanty town run by a pragmatic and cynical boss obsessed with preserving his power.  Within the opera, she explores the insidious relationships between seeming opposites like art and money or freedom and deprivation.  Mitchell has performed Hadestown in many venues with many co-performers, but, when recording the album for release, she gathered the quintessential cast of performers, including Greg Brown, Ani DiFranco and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.  “We Build the Wall” from Hadestown is an incredible song dissecting the ugly truth of how nations and classes maintain economic dominance, but I include “Flowers” here because it is better suited for Mitchell’s voice and range. 

What I wanted was to fall asleep
Close my eyes and disappear
Like a petal on a stream, a feather on the air
Lily white and poppy red
I trembled when he laid me out
You won’t feel a thing, he said, when you go down
Nothing gonna wake you now
Dreams are sweet until they’re not
Men are kind until they aren’t
Flowers bloom until they rot and fall apart
Is anybody listening?
I open my mouth and nothing comes out

Link to “Flowers”:

Will Oldham
Bonnie Prince Billy – When just becoming familiar with Will Oldham’s music, I tended to watch his videos on YouTube which probably gave me a distorted impression of his work.  The videos are quite funny, often featuring Oldham clowning around in a self-deprecating fashion, and I thought that his songs must be playful and humorous too, somewhat akin to the work of Harry Nilsson, let’s say.  It took me a while to recognize that Oldham’s music was serious and sensitive.  Having worked as an actor early on, perhaps he just can’t resist hamming it up a bit when a camera is pointed his way, but I think something else is going on.

Oldham seems to value contradictions.  While one part of him is constructing a perspective, another part is dismantling it.  So, by performing a serious song humorously, he is forcing us to listen to it differently than he originally intended.  Throughout his career, Oldham has consistently approached writing and performing music with a unique mindset.  When just starting out, he would surround himself with similarly unskilled musicians and deliberately document in single take recordings their mistakes and deficiencies.  He recorded his songs on outmoded equipment in non-studio settings.  Also, rather than pushing to establish name recognition as a young artist, he changed his name from album to album, cognizant that each album represents a distinct artistic venture and hoping that a new audience, unprejudiced with preconceived notions about what a Will Oldham song should sound like, would eventually find the album.  He continually shuffles and adds new players to his band.  Just as a point of interest, Angel Olsen, presented in Part I of this blog topic, performed back-up vocals for him for a couple of years.

In recent years, Oldham has consistently released albums under the name “Bonnie Prince Billy”.  Also, now he produces high-quality recordings with talented musicians.  He is a great songwriter and an intensely emotional performer.  Incredibly prolific, he has released many albums, though my favorites are I See a Darkness (1999), The Letting Go (2006) and Wolfroy Goes to Town (2011).

I include here a beautiful live performance by Oldham at Coney Island of “2-15” and “New Partner”.

Now the sun's fading faster, we're ready to go
There's a skirt in the bedroom that's pleasantly low
And the loons on the moor, the fish in the flow
And my friends they still whisper hello
We all know what we know, it's a hard swath to mow
When you think like a hermit you forget what you know

Link to “2-15” and “New Partner”:

Alela Diane
Alela Diane – For a number of years, long before going digital, I would read a review of Alela Diane’s music and tell myself that I had to hear her stuff.  So on my lunch hour I’d trek on over to Borders from my office and dig through the stacks of CDs on their display shelves, only to come up empty.  Same would happen at Barnes and Noble and Best Buy.  I would grumble in frustration, mutter some expletive under my breath and move on.  This actually happened a few times.  Miraculously, a year or two ago, a friend of mine was going downtown to J&R in NYC (which unfortunately just a few weeks ago went out of business) and, having been asked by me to keep an eye peeled for Alela Diane, handed over to me a couple of days later the CD To Be Still.  Upon listening to it on my stereo that evening, I knew that the wait had been worth it, that my perseverance had paid off.  Since then, I’ve become somewhat more technically savvy and have learned how to purchase and download music on the internet, a must for anyone whose tastes don’t conform to the norm.  So now I’ve gathered a fairly respectable collection of Diane’s music.

Another Californian, Alela Diane was born in 1983 to musician parents.  Her father, Tom Menig, often plays in her backup band and tours with her.  Parents nurturing an early interest in music seems to be a common thread in the stories of so many of the folk artists I’ve researched for this topic.  Diane began writing her own songs at about the age of twenty and was encouraged to perform publicly by Joanna Newsom.  Another common thread, she self-produced and released her first albums, which eventually led to her being picked up by Rough Trade Records.

Her lyrics, so essential to Diane’s music, tend to be grounded in personal experience and do not hide behind encryption and metaphor.

“…the music that I cherish the most is the music that you can really tell is coming straight from the heart, so I think that throughout my musical career I’m always writing about things that are important to me and that I do care about.  Because that’s why I think music exists, it’s because of the lyrics for me and talking about things that I feel are important to me or could help people get through something in some sort of way.  I think that’s a big problem with popular music right now, the commercial radio at least, it’s just like all of those folks are just singing about things that really don’t matter at all.” – Alela Diane, Hive Magazine

Diane’s presentation is simple and direct too, her arrangements very pared down.  Commonly, she accompanies her singing on solo guitar.

About a year ago, Diane’s marriage to fellow musician Tom Bevitori ended and Rough Trade Records dropped her.  So in 2013, she self-produced and released About Farewell, an album that addresses the dissolution of her marriage.  The songs are honest, confessional and, while not indulging in self-pity or finger pointing, maintain an excruciating tone of sadness.

I include here a live version of “Dry Grass and Shadows”, recorded at Portland’s The Funky Church, a performance that I find very moving in that the musicians are solely focused on the music, their exertions striving to produce a pure and perfect expression of emotion.

Strong spines of valley hills all overgrown in gold
Look softer than a spool of old silk thread
But if we walked down with our feet
I'd be pulling spines and barbs and fox tails from your skin
Oh, if we walked down with our feet
I'd be pulling spines and barbs and fox tails from your skin  
Link to “Dry Grass and Shadows”:

Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan – It came as quite a shock, after listening to Callahan’s deep baritone voice and somber, deliberate delivery on a number of albums, to finally see a photograph of him.  I was expecting a craggy, weathered nomad.  In reality, he looks absolutely boyish, somewhat like the clean-cut, wholesome youths I remember from TV shows in the early 60’s, and dresses conservatively, commonly wearing jeans with a collared, button-down dress shirt.  Even at the age of 47, he continues to maintain this fresh, youthful appearance.  I like the fact that Callahan doesn’t fit the mold; his music is certainly pretty unique.

In 1966, Callahan was born in Maryland but spent a fair portion of his childhood living in England where his parents worked for the National Security Agency.  Early on, while performing under the name “Smog”, Callahan produced experimental music, played on less than top-of-the-line equipment, which he self-released.  Eventually, he evolved into a sophisticated, lyrics-oriented songwriter.  Now his musical accompaniment sounds professional, and he records on high quality equipment.

Callahan’s songs tend to be melodically simple, with repetitious chord sequences, and lyrically complex, often without a chorus.  His singing is slow and deliberate, the words clear and easily understood.  Callahan sings about ordinary things, making his listeners see them in a new way.  Often his songs are confessional, addressing the intimate, internal workings of his mind.  In researching this entry, I read a lot of reviews of his music and regularly the critic would call his work “depressing”.  I couldn’t disagree more.  I find many things depressing: the NRA, Vladimir Putin, beauty pageants, pretentiousness, religion, sports fanatics, global warming… I could go on forever.  But I don’t consider an intelligent, thinking person evaluating himself and his surroundings within an artform as depressing.  I actually find Callahan’s music uplifting.

Callahan has produced a lot of music, most of it good, but my favorite albums of his are A River Ain’t Too Much to Love(2005), Woke on a Whaleheart (2007) and Apocalypse (2011).  I include here “Baby’s Breath”, a song about commitment and transformation.

Oh young girl at the wedding
Baby's breath in her hair
A crowning lace above her face
That will last a day
Before it turns to hay

Link to “Baby’s Breath”:

By the way, one of the articles that I read while researching Bill Callahan was Pitchfork’s “A Window That Isn’t There: The Elusive Art of Bill Callahan” by Mark Richardson.  I think the piece is well-written, comprehensive and insightful, and I include a link to it below should you want to know more about this enigmatic artist.

Laura Marling – It almost pains me to state this, but here’s another extremely talented singer-songwriter who got an early introduction to music.  Marling’s the child of a music teacher who began teaching her guitar at the age of three.  Her father ran a recording studio.  Being English, it seems inevitable that blue blood flows in her veins; her father is Sir Charles William Somerset Marling, the 5th Marling Baronet.  I will try not to hold this bit of silliness against Laura, but it will not be easy.  At 16, after years of studying guitar and mixing with first class musicians at her father’s studio, Marling dropped out of high school, moving to London to pursue her music career.  There she collaborated with several indie folk groups (Noah and the Whale, for example) and became romantically linked with a number of talented musicians.  Her first album, Alas I Cannot Swim, was released in 2008, and, since then, she has produced three exceptionally good albums (I Speak Because I Can (2010), A Creature I Don’t Know (2011) and Once I Was an Eagle (2013).  Marling currently resides in Los Angeles.

I’m pretty sure that Marling’s the youngest artist that I’ve covered within this topic.  She was born in 1990, which makes her just 24 years old.  I was surprised to discover that she is so young because I have listened to her music for years now and always find her songs to be so adult, almost motherly in a knowing, authoritative way.  Her voice has a rich, mature timbre too.  Strangely enough, in interviews Marling seems pretty insecure, concerned with presenting a carefully constructed persona, wary of exposing too much of her personal life.  She also tries to distance herself from her songs, insisting that they are works of art, not confessions or reflections of her inner being.  I’m never quite sure how to take it when artists commonly claim that their work is not about their lives.  I guess all art is a fan dance.  The artist turns one way, fluttering some feathers, and the fan slips downward; she spins on her heels, retreating out of the spotlight, and when she emerges from the darkness, the fans are newly positioned, offering potentially rich rewards to the patient voyeur.  When the curtains close, the audience is left thinking that they’ve seen a lot more than has truly been exposed.

Female folk singers are regularly declared to be heirs apparent of Joni Mitchell, and Marling is no exception.  In her case, the appellation may be justified.  Already, at her very young age, she has produced a lot of great music.  I can’t think of a single song of hers which is not listenable.  Her lyrics are smart and inventive, deceptively simple but forged in sophisticated poetry, and her voice is rich, deep and supple.  At times, her singing slows to a decadent drawl or halts altogether to become briefly conversational.  Marling appears to have been endowed with “the goods” and has developed “the smarts” to exploit them effectively and judiciously.

Below is an excerpt from “I Was an Eagle”

So your grandfather sounds like me
Heads up shoulders back and proud to be
Every little girl is so naïve
Falling in love with the first man that she sees

I will not be a victim of romance
I will not be a victim of circumstance
Chance or circumstance or romance, or any man
Who could get his dirty little hands on me

Link to “I Was an Eagle”:

I hope that in covering this topic I have introduced my readers to a few artists with whom they might not have been familiar before.  During the writing of this piece, I realized that none of the artists included is really that obscure, most having been established for years and having produced at least several albums.  Honestly, it takes just two lines of a song and a couple of bars of music for me to know I’m interested in hearing more of an artist’s work, but it takes years and a couple of albums to lend me comfort in endorsing his or her music.

As always, I encourage you to comment here, but, if you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at: [email protected]

This post first appeared on From The Studio, please read the originial post: here

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Entry - 5.2.14


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