soundstreamsunday #85: “Oil on Panel” by Wovenhand

wovenhandconcertLike Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes — last week’s soundstreamsunday entry — David Eugene Edwards brings to American folk, rock, and country an utterly unique, instantly recognizable voice.  Unlike Pecknold, Edwards toils in relative obscurity, which is a shame, as for the last 20 years he’s brought a wide-eyed intelligence to songs extending darker traditional themes, shimmering with christian imagery, to bracing goth soundscapes.  While you could make favorable comparison of Edwards’ bands, Denver’s 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand, to Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, the better starting point, should we need it, might be Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or perhaps the old testament.  Or Carravagio.  With a voice both commanding and vulnerable, Edwards brings to his arrangements sonic chiaroscuro, breathing life, momentum, and dimension across acoustic and electric instrumentation tuned to his songs’ subjects.  Compositionally, he is a painter looking, I think, for balance, perhaps reflecting his relationship with his faith.

“Oil on Panel” is from Wovenhand’s third album, 2004’s Consider the Birds.  Referencing the act of painting, three of the deadly sins, Roma, and Yeshua, the song captures the direction Wovenhand was charting as it set out in the early aughts, into-the-christian mystic, highly refined, mannered, powerful.  With a windy, buzzy ambience overlayed with piano and distant strings, the song blossoms into near-orchestral grandeur halfway through, Edwards telling a story heavy with images invoking less a narrative than a feeling, of being unmoored, freighted with guilt but defined by faith.  If the edges bleed it is not without purpose.  “I paint them roughly, I paint them in my sleep.”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

*Image of Wovenhand in concert by Colin Gentile, 2015.

soundstreamsunday: “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers

billwithers.jpgWhere Randy Newman and John Prine brought hyper-literate character study to the singer-songwriter genre, often inhabiting in the first person the figures they constructed in song, Bill Withers went for the emotional jugular, unabashed, and if there was any character being studied it was him.  Withers’ warm, supple voice, steeped in rhythm and blues and country, was his listeners’ point of entry, a vehicle in and of itself for delivering the musical goods.  Born in 1938, by the time he released his first record Withers was 33, had spent a decade in the service, and was working a factory job so soul-killing that a guitar and an empty notebook seemed as good a possibility as any for a better life.  His age helped him make records glowing with self-assured performances, and he became an unlikely pop star.  The hits came with that first record and kept coming through the 1970s.  By the time he did the unthinkable and retired in 1985, Withers’ legacy included some of the best American songs ever recorded: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Lovely Day,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Lean on Me.”

“Lean on Me” is kind of like “The Weight” by the Band — it’s almost hard to believe that an earthly person actually wrote a song so integral to the late 20th-century American experience.  There is a grandeur to it, musically, lyrically, and sentimentally, that, even in its ubiquity, still shines.  It hit number one in 1972, but didn’t do all the heavy lifting to raise 1972’s Still Bill to number four, packed as that album is with great songs and arrangements popping with gospel funk dynamics.  In its album context, closing side one of the LP, “Lean on Me” is a beautiful respite from the personal strife suggested in “Lonely Town (Lonely Street),” “Who is He (and What is He to You)?” and “Use Me.”  The song evens a delicate emotional balance, and as an affirmation of simple friendship, it’s the finest kind of pop music.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Angel from Montgomery” by John Prine

prine-on-couch-fca50a192d324d600e6f76c149c8061fdfeec145-s800-c85Successful Americana music hews a particularly demanding line.  It’s a “post” genre, looking to blues and oldtime musics as a starting point rather than an end, as a shared story for the getting-on-with of the next chapter.  To say the least, there’s a large margin for failure.  The masters of the form, like Randy Newman and Joe Henry and Leyla McCalla, offer an unaffected, plain spoken drive to the heart of an America that is in its essence a crossroads.  In such hands it goes far beyond a romance of sepia-tinged dustbowl-era hardscrabble, the sharecropper’s plow and his wife’s gingham print dress.  It is the common song and in it is America.

John Prine didn’t set out to do it, since as a genre it wasn’t really acknowledged until relatively recently, but he put flesh and bone to Americana songwriting.  Equal parts humor, sadness, and frank talk as broad as its landscape, the pictures in his songs are drawn, I think, from the same kind of middle-of-the-country upbringing that so imprinted itself on Mark Twain.  One of those songs, “Paradise,” from Prine’s 1971 debut, made its way to me as a tune John Denver covered on his 1972 album Rocky Mountain High.  Which was the first album I ever owned, so that when I was six I knew that John Prine, credited on the sleeve, had written one of my favorite songs.  Paradise was “where the air smelled like snakes, and we’d shoot with our pistols, but empty pop bottles was all we would kill.”  How the air smells like snakes I don’t know but I know what he’s getting at somehow — it’s the kind of thing a guy from Missouri or Kentucky who grew up when Prine did would say.

“Angel from Montgomery” is Prine’s loveliest melody, but not necessarily as it’s sung by him.  It’s been covered countless times, but it seems to be at its tuneful best if the singer is a woman, perhaps because its narrator is female.  So Bonnie Raitt’s version is the go-to, and Susan Tedeschi is its current champion (following Raitt’s interpretation).  But in these remarkable and wonderful tributes to Prine and his songwriting, what is absent is the charming gruffness Prine brings to the role play, and as recorded on that first record, an approach that is more gospel soul than sweet country ode.  On an album absolutely loaded with outstanding songs, Prine goes with the piano and organ and the churchy atmospherics because this is a song about a tested faith, where things could’ve turned out differently, and would have, “if dreams were lightning, and thunder was desire.”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “State Trooper” by Bruce Springsteen

bruce_springsteen - EditedIn 2014, Bruce Springsteen covered Suicide‘s “Dream Baby Dream” on his album High Hopes, revealing common roots among artists you wouldn’t normally associate, and further illustrating Springsteen’s connections to the New York art punk scene of the mid and late 70s.  His association with Patti Smith, through her interpretation of “Because the Night,” cross-pollinated rock and punk in a critical cultural moment.  Then in 1980 Springsteen and Alan Vega of Suicide struck up a friendship while both were recording their respective albums in NYC, and he lent Suicide much-needed support when their second album elicited nothing but stony silence from their label execs.  He later likened Vega’s voice, admiringly, to an exhumed Elvis.  Springsteen’s rise to bona-fide-and-sanctified rock star in the mid 80s tends to mask that his rock and roll roots were essentially punk, street, to the degree that the nickname he earned early on in his career never sat well with him.  He read in Elvis and the Sun brethren an unseating of authority.  He was seduced, romanced by rock’s exalting of the everyman, and he built his songs from a society of sympathetic blue collar and rural down’n’outs that appeared fully sketched on record.  This was and is his art.

“State Trooper” from Springsteen’s Nebraska (1982) most immediately links his work and Suicide’s, the acoustic blues rock stutter as lean as the song’s words, here exercised in relative economy (compared to, say, “Thunder Road” or “Blinded by the Light,” or, god forbid, “Rosalita”).  The lo-fi slapback echo combined with the aesthetic of the cassette multitrack Springsteen was experimenting with to make demos — which he then decided to release rather than flesh-out with his E Street partners — smacks strongly of cheap electronic processing and a reaching towards Suicide’s elemental synthesizer rock.

Both Springsteen and Vega were writing characters deeply steeped in rock’s first wave, but the innuendo is gone, so that Suicide’s Frankie Teardrop and the first person of “State Trooper” — who’s holding on to that thing that’s “been bothering me my whole life” — share a spinning endgame.  “Mister State Trooper, please don’t stop me…” is a plea to limit the damage that’s grown out of control, the high-pitched yawp at the conclusion, overloading the mic and my circuits, forever linking Springsteen and Suicide in a stylistic rock’n’roll entirety consisting of a road, a car, probably a gun, and not much time.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Drowning in the River Half Laughing” by Joe Henry

joehenry2 - EditedJoe Henry always tells it like it is.  What this “it” is depends on his song or object of the moment, but if artistry is about honesty then here’s a man who can be a W. Eugene Smith one minute and a Romare Bearden the next.  His is an Americana in context, wrought with a realism that has to, must, consider the world beyond the borders of his song.  And yet his skill at creating a complexity of life within the three- or four-minute lengths typical of his work belies this, so that his portraits are breathtaking and you are standing next to him, watching and hearing him compose a complete picture.

1990’s Shuffletown recalls both the chamber folk-pop of Cat Stevens and the improvisational glow of Astral Weeks, T-Bone Burnett’s restrained production going live to two-track and allowing a breathing space that played against the channel-filling fashion of its time.  I remember, then, marveling that an album like this could even get made anymore, much less thought of.  A modern record with a backroads feel that doesn’t get lost in bucolic moods or sentiment, it is more defining in its sound and in its genre than it gets credit for.  At its core — and the same could be said of Morrison’s and Stevens’ records — is an immediately recognizable voice, for Henry’s finesse with language is honored by a vocal delivery that is hip to its own thing, knows it limits and its power and its text.  It’s also full of hooks, patient in its timing, finding and following melody in Shuffletown‘s deep dusks and twilight.

“The moon is losing ground, drowning in the river…”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “Jogue Au Plombeau” by Leyla McCalla

leylamccalla3 - EditedFree and blue and beautiful, those moorings Leyla McCalla holds to in her music sway and pitch like the gulf waters from Hispaniola to Lousiana, rolling through her cello and voice and coursing through her songs, lifeblood to an American music heart.  In the weaving lines of the music she plays — a snaking, sliding creole so suited to, and perhaps partly a consequence of, the playing of fretless instruments — is the sound of an America taking shape as its many diasporas meet and mix and move, intersecting lines on a map that triangulate on New Orleans.  Like the best Americana musicians, McCalla achieves something at once utterly contemporary but steeped in an authenticity of sound that says so much about the heart that makes the music.  There’s no affected vocal, no hokum on the one hand or academic archness on the other.  And there could have been, so easily.  McCalla’s classically trained; she jumped from a New Jersey upbringing to a New Orleans residency; she’s an American born to Haitian rights activists in the thick of a struggle for democracy; she was an important member of the last incarnation of the much-loved Carolina Chocolate Drops.  Her road was ripe for opportunity to leave the music behind in bringing a message that might not have resonated as strongly as it does.  But instead she chose on her first solo record, Vari-Colored Songs (2014), to artfully adapt poetry by Langston Hughes and punctuate it with Haitian folk songs.  Her second record, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, is also cloaked in a music-first approach that makes the underlying messages — because they are indeed there, as they were in her curation of Hughes’s work — so much more compelling.

Like all achieving musicians, Leyla McCalla makes great records and is better in concert, her performances enlivened by the physicality of her musicianship and the communication among her band.  In this 2016 performance of “Jogue Au Plombeau,” the band is killing it, in a droning country blues jug-on-pommel trance that I could listen to for hours should they ever decide that that could make sense.  Accompanied by violist Free Feral and McCalla’s husband Daniel Tremblay on triangle (who also happens to be one of the more light-touch guitar players I’ve ever seen play live), Leyla McCalla convinces me that all the blues I’ve ever listened to begins here.

Leyla McCalla on bandcamp

Leyla McCalla on Amazon

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.