Though last year’s soaring LP Repave by Volcano Choir essentially acted as a new Bon Iver effort, it’s really been three years since the act Justin Vernon came to fame with has issued anything new. In the run-up to Repave‘s release in September, Vernon expounded on the silence surrounding Bon Iver, saying “I really have to be in a specific headspace to even begin to illuminate an idea that would create another Bon Iver record, and I’m just not there.” At the time his words were effectively a death knell, terrifying fans (myself included) that a follow-up to Bon Iver Bon Iver would never come. Today then is a cause for minor celebration amongst Bon Iver torch-carriers. As previously reported on my AllFreshSounds blog, Bon Iver is contributing a new effort to the upcoming Zach Braff film Wish I Was Here and today Line of Best Fit points out the song “Heavenly Father” has officially debuted. In terms of sound, it owes at least a bit of rent to Repave closer “Almanac” which was similarly constructed around an electronic figure. That said, the synthesizer in “Almanac” was far more confident and forward-moving than the electro manipulation we hear in “Heavenly Father”. The piece hiccups and stutters in shifted pitches as Vernon’s familiar ache floats atop. At times invading hi-hats tics make you think “Heavenly Father” could launch into trap territory if given enough time. But the song doesn’t have that kind of certainty. Vernon’s perpetually wondering if he can ever come to accept a higher power, or so it seems. “I was never sure how much of you I could let in,” could be a religious skeptic’s call to the Lord or an explanation offered to a former love why things didn’t work out. (You can listen to “Heavenly Father” now through the All Songs Considered Media Player on NPR and look for the Wish I Was Here soundtrack to drop digitally July 15.)
Titling the A-side from an upcoming 7″ single “Tambourine Light” couldn’t have been a mistake by psych-folk rockers Woods. Before lead singer Jeremy Earl’s voice can begin, his shimmering guitar riff engenders comparisons to The Byrds’ epochal cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man”. It’s not just Earl and his guitar tone; everyone in Woods manages to summon the spirit of the folk-rock originators. Kevin Morby’s barely there, but anchoring bass doesn’t fall far from the Chris Hillman tree. The way Aaron Neveu plays his lilting drummer pattern, Michael Clarke may as well be manning the kit. Even Woods’ soft harmonizing exists on the same spectrum as the Roger McGuinn-led group In the “jingle-jangle morning” it’s clear who Woods are following.
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.)
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.
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.”
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.
I’ve mentioned my cluttered car before. How warn-out Christmas service bulletins are strewn about, along with a plastic jade Budai and an untold number of CDs. “Too many to count” is an underestimate, and if I were to take count, I’d likely stop halfway through to listen to an album. Supposing I ever finishing the Herculean task of taking stock of them all, I’d notice two live albums in all that musical refuse, Neil Young’s 1979 release Rust Never Sleeps and his 2007 Archives album Live at Massey Hall 1971.
I don’t devalue live albums by any means; it’s just that any live record when pitted against a Neil Young solo endeavor suddenly is dispensable. Much of Young’s music, even that featuring primal guitar blasts has a glass-like fragility to it. When presented live, sans Crazy Horse, that fragility has nowhere to hide. Alone, Young’s songs begin to take on the air of a séance; conjuring the ghosts of a not-so distant past.
Live at the Cellar Door, Young’s latest entry into the suddenly cluttered NYA Performance Series (this is number 2.5), continues the haunting of Live at Massey Hall 1971. Recorded just a few short months before that album, during a six show residency at Washington DC’s Cellar Door, the record bears a lot of overlap with its companion piece. Of the 13 stark songs, 7 of them also make an appearance on Massey Hall. Still, this latest effort charts a wildly different course from its predecessor. For starters, Massey Hall found Young playing to a receptive Canadian crowd that hooted at his every move. Not so for Cellar Door, which finds the D.C. crowd sitting in marked silence, only breaking the tension for the occasional applause or chuckle.
However, it’s more than just crowd demeanor that separates the two albums. After the Gold Rush-classic “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” makes just its second appearance in the Young live-discography (the first being in the unwieldy Archives boxset). A tale of being crushed by a heavy heart, the song’s ragged guitar loop punctures the crowd as much as Young’s lyrics. “When you were young and on your own, how did it feel to be alone?” he delicately warbles. Young’s asking because he’s been there, he’s seen the stark chasms love can create. An unadorned stage isn’t all that’s making him feel isolated.
“See the Sky About to Rain” a staple of Young’s live catalog during this time, makes one of its earliest showings, and the heavenly piano-number becomes more celestial in this intimate setting. An incredible four years away from being released on On the Beach, the tune is in full-flight. Similarly, “Old Man” arrives fully-formed for its public debut. Stripped of all the backing vocals and pedal steel that marked the Harvest-version, the offering here is Young at his most world-weary. The Canadian singer-songwriter has always betrayed his age and at 24, you can already hear father time rapping on his door.
Excluding the “Old Man” debut, one of the most compelling tracks is Young’s piano-led version of “Cinnamon Girl.” Hearing the Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere-cut without its dinosaur-guitar riff is jarring, though Young’s “leaden” piano-work provides a welcome substitute. At one point he confesses to having played piano seriously for “a year at this point,” but his rookie performance never distracts. Sitting behind his nine-foot Steinway Grand Piano, Young delivers a masterful take of the plaintive After the Gold Rush-track “Birds.” “It’s over, it’s over,” he relays in the closing lines, slyly reminding the crowd the book on the 60s was closing shut.
Viewed in another light, Live at the Cellar Door and Live at Massey Hall 1971 operate as a bifurcation of Young’s brief career. In the rearview lay his work with Buffalo Springfield and the consecutive classics mentioned above. Up ahead, was the career-defining Harvest, though that moment-in-the-sun would come with a price. Soon Neil Young would throw his back out while tending to his ranch and pick up a painkiller habit. Close-friend and Crazy Horse-guitarist Danny Whitten was slipping further into a heroin addiction that would claim his life by 1972, and lead Young into the ditch himself. Around this time, Young entered into a topsy-turvy relationship with actress Carrie Snodgrass, a period documented in the bitterly misogynistic “A Man Needs a Maid.” That pallor threatens to suffocate Live at the Cellar Door, from the “single-minded” shuffle of “Bad Fog of Loneliness” to the fierce acoustic strumming of the harrowing “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.” In some sense, the emotional heft of shoegazing was born in this moment.
There are fleeting bits of levity to break up the dour material, but even a joke opening to finale “Flying on the Ground is Wrong”, where Young declares “this song is about dope” comes coated in layers of irony. When Young starts scraping the piano strings, you can hear any wide-eyed optimism in the crowd dissipate. I’m currently working on a piece that discusses how Young’s own work heralded the end of 60s generation, and nowhere is that better felt on this release than the finale. The simple “I wish I could have, met you in a place, where we both belong,” was never granted to the Love Generation. And the repetitious “I’m sorry to let you down,” backed by a minor-key glisten, feels less narrative and more descriptive of where Young was in his life. Trapped between decades, he was struggling to pick up the pieces. He’d woken up from the dream and no one was there to comfort him.