“Nov. 18 1994″- Whale’s Sink

Have you ever found yourself moving closer to a speaker, desperately hoping to make out the soft-spoken words of a song? It can be an incredibly frustrating experience, particularly if you’re right in front of it and the words still seem to float right past your ears. You may be able to hear what’s going on, but you’re not able to actually listen.

“Nov. 18 1994″ by Kansas-based folk/punk/experimental act Whale’s Sink possesses that same frustrating feeling. The tenderly strummed acoustic guitar and whispered vocals seem to be competing to see who is more polite. Even with its loudest chord, the guitar wouldn’t cause a ripple on a pond and the vocals couldn’t wake the lightest sleeping baby. From the moment you press play, you get the feeling you hit the mute button instead.

Granted, a mute button may be the way to go if you can actually parse the lyrics of the fragile track. With a mordantly matter-of-fact tone the song seems to recount the joyous birth of a boy, followed quickly by his death. Through the first several listens I became more and more agitated as the involuntary eulogy “This is his end, he cannot live, this is him, he is slowing, impact of today,” was mumbled. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I quite plainly asked. Far worse than taking the wrong stand on something is to back out altogether, which ”Nov. 18 1994″ nimbly does. But somewhere hidden in the quiet playing and downpour of tears is a superb explanation for the avoidance. Some things in life leave you so wounded that the only way to survive is to withdraw completely.

(“Nov. 18 1994″ is from Whale’s Sink latest album This Kind of Primal Laughter which you can get now through their Bandcamp.)

“Get By Get High”- Feathered Rhino

There’s little in the music of “Get By Get High” to support such a “psychedelic” title. On the opening track from Minneapolis folk-artist Feathered Rhino’s self-titled EP, an unnervingly ragged guitar figure emerges and lingers throughout. It doesn’t sound: detuned, out of tune, or off key, no it sounds like it’s on its last leg, like it will collapse at any second. If there’s any sort of psychedelic, it’s hidden in that haunting declaration.

And considering the weight Joseph Wilcox is putting on an already rickety frame, you’d forgive it for collapsing. Immediately Wilcox is croaking “by myself,” as though he’s been lonely for so long now all he can do is genuflect on his own isolation. What started as an attempt to “find my way” has turned into a slog to find any sort of connection. You can hear the desperation in that aforementioned croak, which winds through the rafters of an abandoned barn. At some point it gives up altogether and drifts off to sleep, where an unnamed affection’s “eyes are in my dreams at night,” as Wilcox puts it. Hidden in that haunting declaration is a tinge of psychedelia. Nothing lysergic or mind-expanding, instead the sort where you’re transfixed on a singular object. Time slows to a halt. Heavy-breathing kicks-in. The “high” shifts from physical to spiritual.

Feathered Rhino is available now on Bandcamp, courtesy of local label Petrified Records.

 

“Flirted With You All My Life”- Vic Chesnutt

Sunday night after I’d had my fill of a largely unsurprising Oscar ceremony, I returned to my steady diet of Nick Drake’s impossibly melancholy Pink Moon. As soon as the weather grew nasty and cold again, I turned to Drake’s final record as a source of strange warmth. That warmth still circulating through me, I struck up a conversation with a close friend of mine regarding the tortured folk-singer. It began with photographer Keith Morris’ quote “working with Nick Drake was like working with still life,” and further tiptoed into the shadows from there. “Every time I listen to Nick Drake, specifically Pink Moon, I feel like I’m trapped in that God damn room, stuck in time with him,” my friend bluntly put it. To which I could only respond, “He’s just one of those people that doesn’t feel like he was meant for life on Earth at all.” My friend seized at the chance to listen off others in that dire pantheon, beginning with Elliot Smith and then moving on to Athens, GA folk/alt-country singer Vic Chesnutt. The Smith reference I fully comprehended, but Chesnutt’s name was alien to me. Out of embarrassment I let the conversation move forward until I couldn’t bare it any longer. I had to know who he was.

An adopted son raised in Zebulon, Georgia he began writing songs by age five and picked up guitar from his Grandfather. At thirteen he had his “conversion” to Atheism, written about in the spellbinding “Speed Racer” off of his first album Little (produced by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.) A car accident at 18 that rendered him paralyzed and able to play only rudimentary guitar chords emboldened his disbelief.

Still Chesnutt couldn’t stay away from music. Between 1990 and 2009 he managed to issue 17 records, working with: the aforementioned Stipe, Widespread Panic (under the name brute.), alt-country group Lambchop, Beach Boys writer Van Dyke Parks, Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse/David Lynch under the Dark Night of the Soul banner, Elf Power, members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. That final group of collaborators would be the last backing band Chesnutt would work with, as he died from an overdose of muscle relaxants three months after the release of At the Cut.

Even if Chesnutt hadn’t committed suicide, “Flirted With You All My Life” would be one of music’s most overlooked “haunted” songs. The mysticism immediately begins with the dull kick and light patter of David Payant’s drums. They’re all that keep Chesnutt company as he sheepishly enters, “everywhere I go, you’re always right there with me.” Then a bluesy guitar lick and minute organ appear, and like the unnamed subject stick around for the whole show. The show is one of misdirection and deception though; surviving on more illusions than a Copperfield routine. We’re lead to believe this great enchantress is another woman, who kissed Chesnutt “once or twice” and “touched a friend of mine” leading to Chesnutt’s deep resentment. “I found out with time, that really, I was not ready,” Chesnutt sullenly admits and just as we’re expecting a cautionary chorus about the price of romantic jealousy, he addresses death. “Oooooh death, oooooh death, oooooh death, I’m not ready,” he warbles. It’s not any blighted romance he’s tortured by, but death itself. Death is the only constant, always teasing with “sweet relief.”

In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Chesnutt shared he’d attempted suicide three or four times before and it “didn’t take.” He “flirted with it” and after every dalliance realized, “I don’t deserve the sweet relief of death yet, because I haven’t accomplished my tasks yet.” Such an admission comes wrapped in tremendous pain, particularly that of his mother who died of cancer in his mid-20s. “You made her beg for it, Lord Jesus, please, I’m ready,” Chesnutt relays; reminding us how unrelenting death can be.

For all death’s cruelty, it inspired Chesnutt in an honest, beautiful way to pen what he referred to as a “break-up song.” And while it’s easy to freak out about “breakups or deaths,” to worry we’ll never be able to recover, it’s important to consider Chesnutt’s own words about “Flirted With You All My Life”: “this song is a joyous song.” Sure they’ll “hector” us from time-to-time, but there’s no permanence to them. And in that impermanence we can find “sweet relief.”

‘Burn Your Fire for No Witness’- Angel Olsen

There’s a piece of conventional folk wisdom which posits “smaller scorpions are more dangerous than the large one,” and while the legend has no logical grounding, it’s continued to linger around in our collective conscious. So much so that Indiana Jones doled out the advice. In zoology, it’s akin to colossal elephants cowering in fear when confronted by a mouse. They leave “craters” in the ground, but they scurry away themselves upon seeing a tiny white fuzzball. Though these anecdotes seem disparate, they’re part of the larger notion that big things come in small packages.

Indie-folk singer Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness is the latest example of this phenomenon. Even at its bristliest, there’s an unmistakable tenderness to Olsen’s sophomore LP. Behind massive walls of fuzz “Forgiven/Forgotten” Olsen warbles “I don’t know anything, but I love you.” Subtract the jangle and driving percussion, you’re left with a romantic equation. Second single “Hi-Five” performs a similar concealment; spiky guitars raise hell, barrelhouse piano trots around, and Olsen dips into the muddy waters of honkytonk. However, it’s the “Tear in My Beer” Hank Williams variety, where libations won’t submerge broken heart. Shaky, Olsen demands “all I need is someone out there who believes” and by her tone it’ll never happen. “High and Wild”s facile chug paves over the maudlin end-road to “your spirit’s disappeared.”

Not all of Burn Your Fire for No Witness goes to such great lengths to hide the high-stakes. “Stars” immediately crystallizes into a faux-Spoon groove to request a larger voice. Not to expose any human rights violation, simply to exhort “we exist.” In an instant, you know “White Fire”s death-blues carries tremendous weight. “Everything is tragic, it all just falls apart” Olsen whispers from a desolate plain. Calm summers can’t hope to right the sinking ship she’s boarded. To Olsen, trying to find love in such dire straits amounts to “burning your fire for no witness,” a desperate act done in solitude.

Necessity being the mother of invention, sometimes desperation can be a Godsend. Olsen finds a paradise hiding in between strokes of brushed drums in “Iota.” A cynic would note speculation rules and they’d be right, if not for Olsen citing time. As much as it ravages, time is an opportunity creator. Elegiac organ in closer “Windows” stretches time to its extremes. A withered Olsen demands “what’s so wrong with the light?” Hiding in the shadows is no longer working as a life-choice and she’ll leap out of a window to escape them. The song’s final push, aided by rousing drum fills, relates to the moment in a relationship when one person realizes it’s over. Instead of prolonging the suffering, they cut ties forever because some things time can’t heal.

Often this decay can be spotted from a mile away. You’ll constantly think “this can only work for so long” and soon your fears are confirmed. Burn Your Fire for No Witness occupies this depressingly predictive realm. In the album’s first chorus, Olsen’s admitting “I lost my dream,” wanting an end to come swiftly. Given enough time a fire will always die out. No amount of knowledge (folksy or otherwise) can stop that.

 

“Stained Glass & the Dark Cathedral”- Merriweather

There’s little to no information about lo-fi/experimental Kansas City band Merriweather and that mysteriousness makes all the difference. This sprawling, but cozy music could’ve come from any number of ill-lit bedrooms around the country. It’s not only region-defying though, it’s anachronistic. Guitars tremble and snake in 90s Godspeed You! Black Emperor fashion. At times they jangle and recall 60s surf-pop, as the bass slackly walks like it’s still dealing with sea legs. Gurgling synthesizer culled from a Pink Floyd space expedition travels to the year 2014.

But that out of step walk with the times wouldn’t matter if the music failed to captivate, something “Stained Glass & the Dark Cathedral” does unencumbered. The faint whirr at the beginning of the track acts as a sort of hypnosis, luring you into a world where everything is best defined in non-specific terms. Guitar strings will “squeak” after too much tremolo. That “gurgling” synth whooshes after over-use. When bass does emerge from these murky waters, it prattles for a brief moment before re-submerging. The only constant is the “faint whirr” in the background. As Nate Fisher famously said in Six Feet Under, “everything – death, life, everything – it’s all completely suffused with static.” No matter where you hail from, it’s inescapable.

Merriweather’s Building 303/Third Floor Windowsill is available now through the artist’s Bandcamp page.

Advertising Signs: In Defense of Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl Spot

Sunday night during the Super Bowl 48, near the end of the Seahawks absolute trouncing of the Peyton Manning led Broncos (which brought me great joy as a Chiefs fan), I was hit with a moment of excitement that soon turned to incredulity and eventually anger. The moment in question came when Bob Dylan, who has long stood as one of my ultimate music “heroes” essentially stepped on screen in a Chrysler ad to brag about their “Americanness”. My initial text to a friend who holds Dylan in similarly high regards simply read “DYLAN!!!”, a response that was soon met with a painful “why?” That text soon made me realize this was the same man who once sang: “Blowin in the Wind”, “Masters of War”, “With God on Our Side”, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, and countless other protest songs that intensely scrutinized dominant U.S. power structures. The man once labelled “the voice of a generation” was now using that voice to schlep for a Fortune 500 company. In short-hand, he’d “sold out.”

But the truth is, since his earliest days Bob Dylan’s been “selling out.” When 1964′s Another Side of Bob Dylan arrived on shelves, critic David Horowitz labelled the collection of dreamy and introspective tunes “unqualified failure of taste and self-critical awareness.” And while the folk/rock blurring Bringing It All Back Home (released in March 1965) largely escaped scorn, Dylan’s set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival wasn’t so lucky. After a scant three electrified songs, Dylan and his band left the stage amidst boos from the audience. The recently deceased Pete Seeger apocryphally was so upset by Dylan’s distorted voice he attempted to take an axe to the sound cables. He wouldn’t appear at Newport again for another 37 years after the incident.

When the monolithic Highway 61 Revisited arrived in August of ’65, the response was much more favorable though Allen Evans of NME would still say the tracks were sung in a “monotonous and tuneless way.” Such a complaint would seem tame compared to the criticism Dylan was about to receive. When he arrived in England in May of 1966 to tour Blonde on Blonde with The Band (then the Hawks), reporters continued to desperately peg him as a “folk singer”, when he’d all but moved on.

The disconnect reached a fever pitch with the infamous “Judas Moment” at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966. Audience member John Cordwell accused Dylan of being the Messianic betrayer as the critic-savaging “Ballad of a Thin Man” had drawn to a close. Clearly caught off-guard by the remark, Dylan could only scowl back “I don’t believe you”, before urging The Band to “play it f***ing loud” for closer “Like a Rolling Stone”.

In some ways, Dylan’s been wrapped in the various forms of the Judas cloak ever since. He’s been scoffed at for appearing in Victoria’s Secret ads and performing in China. His work has led writers to ask “what is this s***?”, while others wonder aloud about forays into Christmas music. One persistent reason for the lingering criticism is that some people worry such decisions taint the purity of Dylan’s career. More than almost any other 20th Century artist, Bob Dylan is idealized and romanticized to Godlike levels. So when he shows up in a Chrysler ad, we worry he’s becoming “human.” But he’s always been human. He warned us “there’s no great message,” to his songs. And the longer we try to find one, the more frustrated we’ll be.

“Passing Out Pieces”- Mac Demarco

As I’m writing this, I want to shove my head straight through my laptop. Internally I’m screaming  one “simple” question in my head, “why does Mac Demarco do this?” “Why shield gorgeous jangle pop with juvenile live shows and slimy presentation?” I wonder aloud. Trying to rationalize “an off-kilter persona is perfectly acceptable in rock,” I abruptly pause once realizing that if taken too far “off-kilter” can become an unwelcome diversion. Scanning my own library, most “slackers” I find are paper tigers. Stephan Malkmus appears borderline “lazy” in his delivery on a track like “Summer Babe (Winter Version)”, but he still had to get up off the couch and write the anthemic chorus.

I picture Edmonton-native Demarco sinking further into a couch, Cheetos crumbs and flecks of stale weed showering over him. Hearing the sedate guitar riffs and tottering “surf synth” of “Passing Out Pieces” doesn’t win any hearts or minds. Demarco volunteers, “watching my life pass right in front of my eyes” and as he says it you can hear the infinite resignation in his voice. He’s not powerless to stop what’s going on; so much as he’s unwilling. When you hear “oh is it boring” sighed, you want to shake Demarco out of his glassy-eyed stare. “What mom don’t know has taken its toll on me,” is the one kernel of honesty to be pried out of the gap-toothed singer. The slovenly exterior isn’t a distraction from the music; it’s a distraction from Demarco.

Mac Demarco’s new album Salad Days arrives April 1 via Captured Tracks. And listen to “Passing Out Pieces” here.

“Worms”- Youth Lagoon

Considering 2013 was the year the cold vastness of space grew larger with the debut of Gravity, it seems oddly appropriate music in the early part of 2014 would begin to reflect that vastness. “Space-rock” is a sub-genre that’s been floating around for decades, but has largely been ignored by the mainstream since Hawkwind’s brief flirtation with Billboard in the early-70s and Pink Floyd’s shift to more Earthly-concerns with Dark Side of the Moon. Lefse Records is attempting to change that with their ambitious Space Project, which uses actual “sounds” from space. Though it’s not directly possible to hear sound in space, it is possible to take fluctuations in electromagnetic radiation and particles and “convert” those occurrences into sound.

That’s exactly what the label has done for the upcoming release by utilizing recordings of the Voyager spacecrafts. And our first taste of this conversion process comes courtesy of Boise’s own Youth Lagoon. “Worms” culls noises from the rings of Uranus to craft a swirling number. Plucked strings dance into the great beyond while warped synthesizers evince the slow-burn of a rocket. You can hear the nervousness in Trevor Powers as he heads into an expanse of nothingness, croaking “you’re much more competent, but they can’t see you when you’re afraid.” And hidden amongst all of these sounds are tiny bleeps taken from the seventh planet in this Solar System. Small in “size”, but colossal in importance they echo Powers’ own sentiment, “the most significant statement is one that isn’t spoken.”

The Space Project doesn’t have a set in stone release date yet, but it is coming soon from Lefse.