The great Southern scholar and philosopher hails from my neck of the woods. He grew up in Weaverville, NC, just up the road from my mother’s people in Leicester. His Southern Essays is a book I hold almost as closely as the Bible; it reminds me of who I am and where I come from. It introduced me (before Russell Kirk) to my early American political hero, that colorful, bull-whip cracking intransigent, John Randolph of Roanoke, with his special blend of “social bond individualism.” Weaver shaped my understanding and thinking in ways that will ever remain with me.
His most famous book is Ideas Have Consequences, a tour de force in traditional conservative thought and social commentary. Weaver saw the rejection of universals as the harbinger of a disordered mind and disordered society. Symptomatic, in his view, were certain elements of pop culture, notably jazz music. On this score, just as Randolph broke with Jefferson, I have to break with the great intellect.
Edward Feser wrote a fantastic 2010 blog post that took Weaver’s ideas on jazz to task.
Weaver and I agree that it was a catastrophe to abandon realism about universals, to deny that things – including, most importantly, human beings – have essences which define an objective standard of goodness for them. But realism comes in different forms, and the different forms have different moral, theological, cultural, and political implications.
Feser draws a distinction between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies and finds Weaver defaulting to a Manichean view of music.
[Weaver] tells us that jazz is a mark of modern civilization’s “barbarism,” “disintegration,” and “primitivism.” Why? His reasons seem to boil down to four: First, jazz evinces “a rage to divest itself of anything that suggests structure or confinement” and an eschewal of “form or ritual”; second, its celebration of the soloist’s virtuosity is a mark of “egotism” or “individualization”; third, its appeal lies in “titillation” and its themes are often “sexual or farcical,” appealing to the “lower” rather than “higher centers,” so that it fails to raise us to “our metaphysical dream”; fourth, it is “the music of equality.” Obviously, what he says about jazz applies also to other elements of modern pop culture.
Let’s consider Weaver’s concerns in order. First, it is, of course, by now a commonplace that to accuse jazz of formlessness or lack of structure is the height of superficiality. From swing to bop to modal jazz to fusion to acid jazz, it does not take much listening to discern the order underlying even the freest improvisation. Even free jazz has structure, though as I indicated in my previous post, it is so abstract that it can (in my view, anyway) only ever be of purely intellectual rather than aesthetic interest. It is hard not to see in Weaver’s criticism the Platonist’s impatience with the messiness and complexity of the real world, a desire for all form or order to be simple and evident enough to be accessible from the armchair. As the Aristotelian realizes…to know the essences of things we actually have to get our hands dirty and investigate them empirically, in all their rich detail. If the structure of jazz is complex and unobvious, it is in that respect only mimicking the world of our experience.
To which I say, “amen.” Certainly this applies to progressive music as well. Perhaps none combined fusion elements better than a band that came up in Weaver’s back yard, the Dixie Dregs. Begun as a lab project at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, the Dregs engaged one another in complex musical conversations that exemplified a flair and swagger secured in its own kind of social bond individualism.
At least I have to believe the audacious John Randolph would have celebrated the Dixie Dregs, even if Richard Weaver would have been freaked out.
So here’s to ideas and their consequences — to getting our hands dirty — from the appropriately titled Dregs of the Earth.
And there in the square he lay alone
without face without crown
and the angel who looked upon
never came down
you never know what day could pick you baby
out of the air, out of nowhere
~ Sun Kil Moon, “Duk Koo Kim” (2003)
Was it excess, or a change in consumer preference? Either or both, progressive rock music of the 1970′s ran afoul of the burgeoning punk rock scene. Carefully constructed compositions ranging from eight to 25 minutes (or longer) gave way to three-minute outbursts of street angst resonating with a culture sick and tired of inflation and corruption and openly questioning the permanent things — things (classical, jazz, church music) that progressive rock had integrated (unwittingly, subconsciously) into its ethos.
Then, after a decade of new wave, new romanticism, and sundry forms of techno (music for the masses) there arose the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine. Suddenly, pop song structure, melodic hooks, and outfront lead vocals were enveloped in a blizzard of distortion and dissonance. Critics, ever wary of the latest “art” project, disparagingly labeled it “shoegazing,” noting the performers’ penchant for staring down (likely at their effects pedals) on stage. Steve Sunderland (Melody Maker) went a step further, describing what he called “The Scene that Celebrates Itself” — in part, because the gazers attended each other’s gigs and drank together. It was too much like rugby and less like football. If the former is about gentlemen playing a hooligan’s game, then the press were quick to spot what they suspected were middle class values at play. This could not end well.
At length did cross an Albatross / Thorough the fog it came…
But to back up a bit. Whatever spirit inhabited the soundtrack of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks seems to have been carried aloft during that show’s run, falling out of the sky in the Thames Valley. It descended upon a group of Reading teenagers who called themselves Slowdive. Where to begin? If one samples Slowdive’s output (three albums, six EP’s) there is no way to pin down the band’s idiom. There are the ostensibly pop ballads (“Alison,” “Sleep”), Eno-induced trances (“Souvlaki Space Station,” “Changes”), pre-Kid A ambient exercises (“Option One,” “Sinewaves”), dark grunge (“So Tired”), ethereal raptures (“Catch the Breeze,” “Shine”), and others (“Albatross”) that defy categorization.
Like sorcerers they summoned other-worldly sounds from their guitars. If there’s a common thread it is the drone — catching the breeze of an unorthodox riff, maybe two chords, and riding it in an ever-widening gyre.
Even a few of their loyal fans would say Slowdive spun out of control with 1995′s experimental Pygmalion. By the time of its release British ears were drawn to Oasis and Blur, a Britpop North-South rivalry loaded to the hilt with working class ethos the press could celebrate.
“Revolution,” yes. ”Revolution 9,” no. Within a year Slowdive had morphed into the country/folk Mojave 3.
I’ve Got a Gal… in Ypsilanti
While Slowdive was relinquishing the gazing muse, another obscure stateside band was taking it up. Trey Many (pr. “may’-nee”), the drummer for Warn Defever’s His Name is Alive, was developing a side project at Eastern Michigan University. Together with art student Amon Krist (daughter of folk singer Jan Krist) he formed Velour 100 and signed with Seattle’s alternative label, Tooth & Nail.
Velour 100′s first full-length recording was Fall Sounds (1996) with Many on all instruments and Krist on lead vocals (and occasional acoustic guitar). Right away the listener finds the music here focused and thematically linked — a concept album based on the pair’s experiences of loss and renewal informed by their Christian faith. The same dense, hypnotic atmospherics present with Slowdive are found here; but Many keeps the listening interesting with changes and unusual time signatures. ”Dub Space” is a sparkling eight and half minute tone poem that could have emerged from the waterfall at the end of “Close to the Edge.” The strongest track on the album — and, in my view, among the best three and a half minutes of the ’90s — is “Flourish”:
Velour 100 never received a bad critical review. As Krist departed to complete her studies and launch a teaching career, the duo’s first demo recording was re-recorded and released as Songs From the Rainwater EP to high praise. Many produced one more LP, Of Color Bright (1997) that featured three female lead vocalists, including ex-Sixpence None the Richer guitarist Tess Wiley. Wiley co-wrote “Dolphin Grey,” which showcases her distinctive alto against a splash of jangling guitars:
Many recorded a final four-song EP, For An Open Sky (1999), with soon-to-breakout vocalist Rosie Thomas. He now lends his formidable production skills to projects for other bands.
Ghosts of the Great Gaze
By the end of the ’90s “shoegazing” (or “dream pop”) was figured a dead letter. Its artsy sensibilities (pretenses, to some) were destined to remain out of favor with an X Factor world. But even into the 2000′s there remain artists who pay homage to the genre. An excellent example is the expansive “Duk Koo Kim” by Mark Kozelek’s side project, Sun Kil Moon. Aptly described by one listener as “magical sad tragic wonderful,” it is a meditation on mortality inspired by the Korean boxer who died from injuries suffered in a bout with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in 1982 (in fact, much of Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway is inspired by the stories of fighters).
In shoegazing fashion, the guitars ring and leave auras of reverb in their wake, Kozelek’s falsettos submerged in the melodies. Unlike Slowdive’s binary pieces, “Duk Koo Kim” has three distinct sections, and (in prog rock proportion) sprawls over 14 minutes — each representing the number of rounds Kim lasted in the ring before succumbing.
Come to me once more my love
show me love I’ve never known
sing to me once more my love
words from your younger years
sing to me once more my love
songs that I love to hear
This is an important month for admirers of the late Syd Barrett. The artist’s birthday falls on January 6, and his first solo album The Madcap Laughs was released January 3, 1970. These anniversaries occasion an opportunity to ponder what Barrett left in the very short slice of time that shattered musical conventions.
What Barrett accomplished on guitar is legendary in itself, taking the lowly Danelectro 59-DC and, with a Zippo lighter or a ball bearing for a slide, creating entirely surreal soundscapes scarcely resembling anything on the blues records he enjoyed as a youth. But it was Barrett’s lyrics that gave substance to his melodic adventures. As we might expect from a native Cantabrigian, Barrett’s verse was informed by sundry literary figures. One Russian fan site conjectures influences ranging from C.S. Lewis (“Flaming” and “Scarecrow”) to Tolkien (“The Gnome” and “Dark Globe”). Known references include James Joyce’s verse for “Golden Hair” and Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children on “Matilda Mother.” I would like to expand upon the latter, as Syd Barrett’s oeuvre seems to be one large cautionary tale, reflected both in his artistry and later, after his crack-up and expulsion from the Pink Floyd, in his personal life.
Cautionary tales are written or recited for young audiences. Syd Barrett’s music clearly displays infectiously playful, childlike elements. The Piper At the Gates of Dawn has been characterized as consisting of two main features: extended pieces that included free-from passages (“Interstellar Overdrive”) and shorter, whimsical pop songs.
Of the latter it has been suggested that these include certain dark elements. A good example is “Flaming.” The melody and the vocals pack the giddy spontaneity of adolescence — a sense of being swept up in infatuation for the first time. Listening to this song is to be transported back to age 13 or 14. The subject to whom the song is directed can neither see nor hear Barrett, but he can see and hear her. Using buttercups and dandelions to heighten a sense of euphoria, Barrett sings
Too much? I won’t touch you — but then I might.
Later we discover this conversation involves “travelling by telephone” — the preferred medium of exchange for adolescents for the past 60 years (the only difference today being wireless texting). But the notion of Barrett inserting himself as the agent of sensory overload, of shattering the playful possibilities with a very direct and perhaps unwelcome advance — this is the tension that drives “Flaming.” Read the rest of this entry
Imagine Syd Barrett composing Astronomy Domine in the mid 90s and you’ll get an idea of what this album sounds like. For that reason, it’s an unusual record, since while most rock bands of the last few years have gone for a pumped up version of that grunge folk popularized by folks like Mark Lanegan, Thin White Rope, and the Meat Puppets, Jennanykind have honed in on the stylistic nuances of bands like Barrett’s Floyd and post-Nico Velvet Underground. A subtle difference, to be sure, but one worth exploring and, done successfully as it is here, one that shows it’s possible to look back for your influences and progress musically. Great stuff.
Jennyanykind were led by twin brothers Mark and Michael Holland. In the early 2000′s they disbanded the group and began exploring their individual interests in roots music, with Mark working in the blues idiom while Michael veered in a bluegrass/ragtime direction. Dueling Devils brings the brothers back together, albeit on opposite sides of an imaginary vinyl recording, each with five tracks of three minutes accentuating their oblique approaches to lo-fi music.
Now, why in the devil would a fan of progressive music spend time with what seems to be its antithesis? I would suggest we reconsider what is called “roots” music on its own terms and within its cultural context. For that, we need to a take a trip to the Crossroads.
On the night of July 4, 2005, I found myself on a spur-of-the-moment trip from Tupelo, MS to Clarksdale, in the company of Jeff Spencer, himself an accomplished guitarist. The ride included a two-hour conversation about music, about Eric Clapton and fellow-Mississippian and King’s X guitarist Ty Tabor, among others. We left the “hilly country” at 7:00 pm and crossed the Tallahatchie at 8:00 (both referenced in Charley Patton’s blues masterpiece, “High Water Everywhere”) and sailed into the ironing-board flat Delta with distant shacks and brewing storm clouds on the horizon. By 9:00 we reached the Crossroads of legend, the intersection of highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale. I jumped out of the car just long enough to have my picture made, but once back inside we discovered mosquitoes swarming by the dashboard light. We found ourselves swatting our way out of Clarksdale.
I asked how far it was to the Dockery Plantation, where Patton and, later, a young Robert Johnson had once entertained. “That’s Ruleville,” said Jeff. “I can take you if you want to go.”
Ruleville was another 45 minutes or so out of the way, and in the pitch blackness of a rural Mississippi night there would have been nothing to see. But what I had seen was enough to establish in my mind the environment into which the bluesmen of old had emerged. To a desolate and desperate place of gang labor and shared misery these men stood out as perverse and irresistible individuals, as showmen and shamans. To a culture that moved to the rhythms of call and response, the bluesmen broke all the rules and concocted a style of performance that, to borrow a phrase from folklorist Cece Conway, was “inimitable and unapproachable.” The blues — with variations of ragtime, jazz, and gospel mixed into the musical mojo bag — was designed to never be fully replicated. This was the work of possessed individuals, griots, spell-binding artists, intent on evoking frenzy and amazement. Two generations before Hendrix, Patton was playing his elaborate syncopation behind his head. It was not popular music, strictly speaking.
To illustrate, I’ve recently been listening to “This Is a Low” from Blur’s Parklife album. It is a cultural gem, composed around a nautical map on a handkerchief and the British Shipping Forecasts. It expresses an English band’s homesickness on the road. And it is pop music to the core, with a big, stirring chorus meant to be accompanied by tens of thousands of Brits in Hyde Park, arms raised. It’s the stuff of football supporters’ cheers.
But with the blues we honestly don’t know what the actual roots sounded like. We just make out enough of Patton, or the Bentonian craftsman Skip James, through a blizzard of crackles and pops on the best digital transfers. What we should hear in those sides are works of extraordinary eclecticism. We should hear the hedges being pushed over. We should approach them the way the original listeners found them.
To revisit these idioms, as the Holland Brothers invite us to do, is to return to the beginning of a music that packed a universe of originality into sides limited by three minutes of wax space. Every slide, every pull-off, every microtonal inflection is a dare. “See if you can do this.”
Mark Holland’s songs clearly emulate Patton. Recorded in stereo, he double tracks his voice (e.g. “My Baby Say She Coming”) to get the same disquieting effect of Patton’s original recordings (did Patton have a ghost voice? were his recordings haunted by demons?). He captures the energy of the Dockery frolics of old on “Coldwater Blues,” a rounder that takes him from one end of the South to the other. “Bic Lighter” works from a minor key to tell a story of dependence, where even “light” serves the cause of darkness.
Mark’s strength, both here and with Jennyanykind, is to capture an atmosphere where the veil between the natural and supernatural is rent. Malevolent forces are at hand, but his protagonists persevere and come to a new level of understanding, often at the expense of conventional wisdom (a good example is “Clear Tone Blues” from 2003). The griot was a storehouse of tradition, but his songs often mocked the culture around him.
Michael Holland’s sides pose a different challenge, recorded as they were live, in mono. This heightens the importance of his finger-picking and phrasing (as well as harmonica and kazoo) to emulate the parts of a larger band. The playful “Dry Bones” draws from biblical characters (Enoch, Paul, Moses, the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel’s prophecy) to show the griot’s awareness of the “light come down.” He then moves right into Charlie Poole’s rag arrangement of “Leavin’ Home,” a classic American murder ballad.
But his re-do of his own “Peas and Collards” (from an earlier album of the same title) is a swift-moving blues highlight. It’s about the Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year’s Day for health and wealth, made ironic by the fact that the South, for most of its history, has lagged behind most of the U.S. in both categories (the original version runs through a bitter litany of corporate interests whom “money loves”: Chase Manhattan, Exxon, the WTO, etc., but not momma or the song’s protagonist).
Whereas Mark’s sides are dark, straight-up blues, Michael’s are lighter; but both elements were found in Patton and other genre-benders from nearly a century ago.
A young Syd Barrett spent time listening to a couple of Carolina bluesmen named Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. An aspiring, avant garde artist of today would do well to spend some time recovering some of the essentials with the Holland Brothers.
Coming to a music hall, church auditorium, Starbucks, or living room near you, Seryn (Denton, TX) packs a massive sound and stage presence for a folk group. I say “folk” only to set the broadest parameters, for here’s another Texas band whose sweeping sound defies taxonomy. They do it with the simplest tools in reach — ukulele, pump organ, accordion, violin, guitar, bass, trumpet, vibraphone, lots of drums (everyone in this band seems to have one), a $200 Goodtime resonator banjo and, above all, effectual vocal harmonies — rendering a gratifying achievement. Let them dispel any skepticism with their summer 2011 Daytrotter session. “River Song” and “Beach Song” seem better suited to the large concert hall than coffee house. This music emanates from the same big space that yields Explosions in the Sky and This Will Destroy You. Moving through fragile passages and tempo changes to big finales, Nathan Allen’s guitar can be as capacious as his massive red beard. Paste was impressed enough to name Seryn the best act at the 2011 SXSW festival.
The band derives its name from serendipity — a series of uncanny accidents drew the core members together in 2009, e.g. multi-instrumentalist/lead vocalist Trenton Wheeler and dreadlocked violinist Chelsea Borher bumped into one another at an Explosions in the Sky concert and exchanged musical ideas, unaware that Allen wanted them both in his band. Since then they have released one full length album, This Is Where We Are (2011), as well as a Christmas collection last year.
Seryn’s fluid line-up expands and contracts to accommodate additional strings and percussion as space allows. YouTube is flush with videos of the band’s iterations, but the most compelling of them feature the original quintet in cramped quarters with rapt listeners seated cross legged at their feet. Seryn have made two passes by my neck of the woods but conflicts have not permitted me to see them in person. But the opportunity would be well worth the time, as this band is too much their own muse for comparisons to be drawn.