Moon Casale: Moon Casale

Moon Casale

While listening to “Moon Casale” (Moonrise Records, 2013), the eponymously titled solo record by recording artist Moon Casale (also known as Keith Zarriello of The Shivers), a distant phrase came to mind, something I read years ago in City of God by St. Augustine (really, I read this sort of thing). “There are wolves within…”

Authentic spirituality in contemporary music is a difficult space to explore in these polarized times when personal faith (or at least the need to publicly profess one’s faith) often overpowers judgment, pushing compositions into preachy spaces at best, maudlin spaces at worst. Such traps lead to easy clichés instead of the more difficult path of creating revealing, universal compositions. The need to profess or confess all too often overpowers the aesthetic. The impulse is easy to understand: the need to get clean for the first time, or to get back to something lost and mourned. But it’s the subtle paths in art that have the greatest connecting power. Bill Fay is a modern master of this space, with his authentic spirituality and mysticism woven into a unique appraisal of life in modern times. Now I can add another artist to this small, masterful group: Moon Casale.

The wolves can be heard on this record, in a vaguely literal sense on tracks “Howlin’ at the Moon” and “New Jerusalem,” and metaphorically in the slow, sad narratives “Long Cold Lonely Winter” and “Stayin’ Alive.” Two powerful presences emerge: Casale’s voice and his confident, sad guitar style.

The compositions are lean and tight. He’s a proven journeyman songwriter and recording artist who creates atmospheric records rich in storytelling and low-fi burn. These same two unifying forces are what have made his band The Shivers such a powerful and expressive band over their 10-year history. Unlike The Shivers output, however, this is a harder record to listen to. It’s deeply personal, and you’ll feel it.

The biographical note about Casale on Bandcamp describes a man struggling with and overcoming addiction, and certainly some of these songs bear out a dark journey. But this isn’t a record filled with self-hate. Instead, it seems to be a portrait of one man using raw honesty in his songwriting to explore both beauty and ugliness. Casale doesn’t emerge a cleansed man. Instead, he lays out his darker thought processes, such as on the track “I Don’t Know,” with raw confession and heartache, human failure and even cruelty, all side by side. And yet, there is plenty of beauty, too, beginning with the two opening tracks, “You Couldn’t Have Come at a Better Time,” and “ABQ.”

Maybe it’s the background thought about addiction and the big city (Casale lives in New York, having migrated from New Mexico) that makes this record such a naked exploration of light and dark. Big cities are places of both hope and isolation, revealing and destructive in their scale, while St. Augustine reveals that the City of God is found within ourselves. Shock and collapse continue to force people to rationalize why bad things happen to them, especially when they’ve felt safe. It’s an ancient human cycle, and art has often been a vehicle that helps some make sense of chaos. Addiction is its own kind of violence, tearing down the inner sense of innocence and place, replacing it with self-hate, hopelessness, and oblivion. Casale’s journey is present in every song on this record, his lowest points as well as his emerging sense of hope.

Along with this LP, Casale has released a single on Bandcamp called “Beauty #2.” It’s a song that feels like something written by a man who has come through darkness to the brighter end of the tunnel. It’s a quiet, resigned piece, and it feels like the first in what needs to be more records. “Moon Casale” writes the chapter on the breaking. It’s a starting point, not a destination. I think the best art reveals the journey of how an artist explores and explains crisis, explains his wolves within. “Moon Casale” isn’t a happy record, but it’s deeply engaging and eloquently lyrical. Each of the 11 songs presents questions about failure and longing and need. Listen to it. Feel it. And know that this record is just the beginning of a much bigger story.

Tony Molina: Dissed and Dismissed

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Dissed and Dismissed” (Slumberland Records, 2014), a solo effort by Tony Molina of Caged Animal, comes with a gentle warning on the label’s website: The entire record runs to just under 12 minutes. Twelve songs, 12 minutes, CD or LP, with no bonus tracks. I guess they’ve had some complaints about it being so short. Four of the songs on “Dissed and Dismissed” are under a minute. Four more run to just around a minute. The album reminds me of the book Not Quite What I was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure from Smith Magazine (HarperCollins, 2008) and the writing challenge of creating personal memoirs in six words. Like the tiny memoirs, each of Molina’s songs seeks a rush of emotion using speed and simplicity.

The challenge of brevity in any artistic field is finding a way to pack a very short space with as much feeling, intensity, and completeness as you can before the time limit is reached. I have no idea if Molina imposes a time constraint on himself as a way of shaping his songwriting, but listening to these brief songs, they each feel complete and unique. Try it some time, to write a song or a memoir with brevity as your goal. It becomes an exercise in essentials.

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“Dissed and Dismissed” invites an attraction based on novelty more than on pure expression. Admittedly, I found after a couple of spins of my red vinyl edition (now out of print) that I felt satisfied that I’d internalized the feeling of this record. I wonder if this material has a longer-lasting impact in live performance. It doesn’t seem to invite longer play.

In Molina’s battle to weld his song lyrics with his guitar “riffage,” the guitar wins. It’s no secret that I see lyrics as being as important as song composition and structure. There may be some intentional mock exaggeration and 1990s slacker whining in Molina’s writing, but the lyrics just don’t seem too important in these songs. It’s the storms of sound that draw the attention and remain the most memorable here.

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Molina is a restless man, working with his band, Caged Animal, even as he cranks out solo projects like “Dissed and Dismissed.” There’s a “first thought, best thought” Buddhist presence feeling on this record, with Molina balancing the need to create large amounts of material and trusting the potential of the moment. He makes it seem easy. Taken as a sprint, “Dissed and Dismissed” is a short, sharp window into the mind of a recording artist in a hurry who is perfecting the art of the furious moment.

The Mysticism of Joshua James

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“The hard and wiry line…” is what the nineteenth-century English mystic poet and painter William Blake (1757-1827) said represented honesty in art. Blake had no patience for any trick or technique that obscured the truth, or struggle, of a work of art. Simplicity was essential—spiritual, cleansing, and ultimately honest. It’s appropriate to mention Blake in the context of Indie music because one couldn’t get more Indie than Blake in his day, or more mystical, a man who for the most part went unrecognized and unappreciated in his lifetime. His writing about his art, seen today as visionary text, went unnoticed by most critics, who decided what was important and what was not. And yet, truth is truth, whether or not it’s accepted in its time.

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Which brings me to this time and to Joshua James. James writes his folk-inspired spiritual songs with his own hard and wiry line. His songs are almost an invitation into what feels like a personal search for a spiritual resolution, as he’s searched his long road from Nebraska to his current home in Utah. His latest full-length record, “From the Top of Willamette Mountain” (Intelligent Noise, 2012), has the vibe of a seeker. But he’s not a solitary seeker, offering an invitation to others to ask similar questions about their own lives.

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Reading the lyrics for the eleven songs on “Willamette Mountain” reminded me of reading some of the journal entries of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968). It’s a quirky thing about artists who seek an introspective yet very public self-examination of their lives. They choose lives that separate themselves from the main channels around them, but then they create public work that invites others to join them, symbolically, even when the journey they’re sharing is filled with confusion, loneliness, and suffering. “Willamette Mountain” opens with a song called “Mystic,” which lays the foundation for this entire record’s message. It’s a song that questions belief itself, and asks: “And if I don’t believe/What does that mean?”

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I’ve already written about my own journey with James’ music, coming to his songs with my own prejudices and concerns, and how the music itself led me to a new understanding of his art. By joining in the journey, I’ve found new meaning in his music. His songs are built to challenge. James examines his own beliefs very publicly, and he frequently finds them wanting. There’s a lot of pain in his songs. For example, “Surrender,” reveals a younger version of his artistic self who didn’t believe in much of anything. Or “Feel the Same,” where he exposes the alienation one can feel everywhere, not particularly admiring the impulse toward acceptance, but wanting it all the same.

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Ultimately, mystics want to belong, which can create more confusion because of the lives they lead and the art they make. The pursuit of the hard and wiry line cuts both ways, into the artist and into those who listen to the songs. The song “Sister” quietly explores inheritance: of loss, of anger, of darkness. Like so many songs on this record, James is questioning, not preaching. It’s comforting, the notion that all the pain we might be given in our lives, which feels like a punishment, is a kind of invitation for self-reflection more than for regret. James invites us in but doesn’t offer answers.

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“From the Top of Willamette Mountain” gives a lingering feeling of separation—of our lives from the lives of seekers, the mystics and the saints—we admire in the mountains. There are no tricks here, just the raw, hard experience of being human. This isn’t a peaceful listening experience; it’s an honest quest made by a man who wants answers as an artist. Still, we want a piece of his experience, even if we’re not prepared for all the honesty it will require. That’s the mystical invitation, though, age after age in art, regardless of the messenger.

Amos Lee: Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song

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What’s old is new, or is it what’s old is old and what’s new is new? Amos Lee’s career sometimes confuses people, I think, because he uses both old and new as if they were just tools he’s picked up, as he blends his beginning as a recording artist with his new work, to get a job done. I think he’s been building his career from the beginning around an ever-stronger core of songs and records, each flowing together, one after another, as if they were set down in a plan years ago.

I first encountered Amos Lee’s songwriting live, early on, at the time of his first record, “Amos Lee” (Blue Note Records, 2005). He toured with Bob Dylan, opening for Dylan and Merle Haggard. And he was good. When I listen to that first record today, side by side with his fifth studio record, “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” (Blue Note Records, 2013), I hear the journeyman’s clear voice, and there’s that feeling, that something special that he’s carried all along.

Jack Kerouac totally called it when he said all he had to offer anyone as a writer was his confusion. It’s something special when a man can pick up a guitar and find the simplest words to explore complicated, confusing, eternal emotional landscapes that he knows we all travel. Why make it complicated?

“Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” was recorded live with Lee’s touring band in Nashville. Many of the tracks have a floating quality, making them seem more nostalgic than Lee’s previous records. Producer Jay Joyce is known for the atmospherics he brings to studio recordings, and he’s done that again here. And like with Lee’s previous records, the layers are kept to a minimum, in most cases allowing Lee’s voice and guitar to remain central.

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Lee’s voice and stories carry his songs along. Always rich, simple, elegant, and honest. I think his brilliance as a songwriter is exactly the reason people sometimes criticize him: He writes lyrics that wrap everyone in the simple truth of their own lives. Lovers break hearts, memories cut deep. We feel the same things: We get hurt, we get pushed to our limits, we give up and start again. We all go through the same things, over and over.

Mission Bell” (Blue Note Records, 2011) set a career high mark for Lee, hitting number one in the U.S. Some have wondered how “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” could possibly beat it. As I listen to this new record, especially songs like “Johnson Blvd.,” “Dresser Drawer,” “Mountains of Sorrow,” and “Burden,” I hear songs that flow backward to “Mission Bell,” and even to “As the Crow Flies” (Blue Note Records, 2012), an amazing EP that somehow slipped by without much notice.

Other songs on the new album split away into a new space: “Stranger,” “The Man Who Wants You,” “Loretta,” and “Plain View.” I love the energy of these particular songs, but they sit awkwardly next to the others. Earlier albums were beautifully crafted as whole albums. Here, we have a studio and an almost-live recording sewn together, in a way that feels uneven. I almost want these songs, with the exception of “Stranger,” pulled out and developed into a separate record.

Lee’s records are novels, full of characters and action and sorrow, with his infinite melodies played on his acoustic guitar. This time, though, the lyrics sometime seem pushed down in favor of the live energy. I’ve always stayed with Lee’s work because of his lyrics, and I miss them here—just a bit.

The Microphones: It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water

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The entire aesthetic of Phil Elverum’s recent archival release of his band The Microphones’ “It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water” (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2013; K Records, 2000) is remarkable. Inside and out, even down to the LP labels, each element is carefully thought out and visualized and assembled. As an artifact, it’s stunning and complete. As music, it’s haunting and sensual and risky. I have all the pieces spread out before me as I write, the music spiraling softly around me in the room, balanced and rich and envy-inducing in every detail, mysterious and compelling, a sound hovering just out of reach. This record alone would establish the mystique of any artist, but this is just one LP from a prolific man in search of a never-ending story. His is a teeming and restless mind, building and tearing down, then rebuilding again. I’ve been struggling all morning to go from speechless to finding a few words to express what I’m feeling as I glimpse this one moment of this artist’s world. I need a new kind of review for this kind of work.

Inside every song there are at least two essential elements, two driving and competing forces: a longing and an insecurity. Every song is written, I think, out of a longing to connect to something essential, something sensual, known only to the senses but universally understood and sought after. The senses are constantly shifting, but the longing remains central. And as every song is being created, there’s an equally intense insecurity, a doubt, about whether the final result has made the desired connection. These two forces embody the risk an artist takes to create anything new. I suppose, over the long career of an artist’s songwriting, with many records and many songs, quantity is only a measure of the intensity of the quest. But even when added up, the number of songs any artist creates can never solely be used as a measure of success or failure. Instead, it’s just the miles logged in pursuit of something illusive. The longer the career, the greater the longing.

To live near Puget Sound, to live among these islands, is to live in a very real setting of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” islands and shipwrecks and mystery and danger. The Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia, an archipelago of islands spanning national borders, attracting ships and visitors as they have done for centuries. And to the west, where the inland waterways open into the Pacific Ocean, lies an area called the Graveyard of the Pacific, thousands of vessels wanting to explore and settle and exploit these islands have left hundreds of lives lost in this stretch of water. To live among these islands is to learn a hundred names for the heavy weather that can be both beautiful and deadly. Elverum lives and works here. His band The Microphones have absorbed and redirected this natural beauty and natural danger into six studio albums, six EPs, and numerous singles, books, printed pamphlets, posters, and ephemera.

The 11 songs on this reissued record, lyrically speaking, read like the notes of an explorer deep in his physical experience of this place. Fog and mist, the pull of tides and waves, the moon rising and setting over land and dark water, bodies swimming and touching, burning and cooling, whole and broken and lost and searching for ways to speak, these are the images that float through the songs on “It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water.” Although created more than 13 years ago, still the record’s arrival feels like something new, something risky. I’ve seen Elverum perform live just once, and there’s an almost tenuousness to his presence, as if he’s playing everything for the first time (as though even old songs are new), a bit unsure, questioning his ability, present in the moment of the sound as it’s made. This record perfectly captures that same fragile feeling. It’s his aesthetic. His risk taking. His voice.

There’s always been a precision to Elverum’s studio recordings with The Microphones and Mount Eerie, his current band. Precise, and yet there remains a sense of fragile discovery as he, along with Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn (another K Records recording artist who generally goes by “Mirah”), Khaela Maricich (a Portland-based K Records recording artist and member of the electro-pop band The Blow), Jenn Kliese, Anna Jordan Huff (known by her stage name as Anna Oxygen, a Kill Rock Stars recording artist based in Olympia), guitar player Jason Wall, and Karl Blau (the legendary and prolific Knw-Yr-Own/K Records recording artist and frequent collaborator with Elverum), create this landscape of sound. They’re a group of explorers, of friends, chronicling their journey with sensitivity and innocence. At turns, quietly, other times with a roar.

So I come back to where I began: longing and insecurity and risk taking. One artist’s mind in pursuit of something complete as an object, yet just one chapter in a known story. Maybe the song “Something” is the most revealing expression of the mystery at the heart of this record, beginning with Elverum’s fragile voice and guitar, playing, as it were, through a lonely sound bridge of a recorded storm blowing over the water, wind whistling around the windows, softly howling. Does the storm want in, or do we want to go out into it? Then, Khaela Maricich, who wrote some of the lyrics and sings the second part of the song after Elverum, floats into the landscape as electric guitar and cymbals crash, chimes that almost sound like bells carried on the wind, over the island, by the storm. A warning? A magic spell? A calling? A shipwreck? From a whisper to thunder. “…and we were deafened by the sound/of foggy waves’ crash, it’s still ringing in my ears./But my ears and lungs are nothing/compared to my eyes, I saw something/in the sand that swept me off my feet./Oh, the blow!” Like “The Tempest,” everything on this record unfolds in real time, earthy, tactile, and symbolic, setting the scene for the next record to come, “The Glow Pt. 2” (K Records, 2001, soon to be rereleased as well).

Some people are drawn to these islands as explorers or exploiters. Some are born into the islands. To live on an island in these waters is to always be surrounded by wilderness, by forces you can’t control. The calmest sea still hides dangers and dreams. Phil Elverum is an artist who explores how every breath he takes is part of the watery landscape where he lives and works. Imagined or real, it’s a vast palette to create from. “It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water” would be a career-defining moment for any artist. As an artifact, it represents risk, mystery, vision, and one memorable chapter in the life of an artist who is still searching and writing and performing. It’s a rare opportunity to see a record like this reissued in such an elegant package. And there are more reissues to come from his archive. I’m preparing to be amazed, again and again and again.

Pokey LaFarge: Pokey LaFarge

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My computer was recently in for repair. For over a week, I couldn’t access my digital library. I couldn’t dial up my playlists and change them on my iPhone. I was adrift, but only briefly, because I still had music. I walked over to my bookshelf, scanned the shelves, and pulled out an album. Taking the album out of the sleeve, I noticed its weight, it’s color, it’s feel. I pondered the object. I remembered where I got it, why it was important, why I wanted it in my collection, this album that I held in my hand, this object, an artifact. Objects can hold a frozen piece of memory and even trigger feelings long ago forgotten.

In the digital age we find ourselves in, we’re losing objects at a fast pace. The Kindle may hold 3,500 books, but we really don’t own, can’t hold, can’t appreciate the book as artifact on a Kindle. Don’t get me wrong﹣I love the convenience that technology brings, but there is a cost. I predict that one day simply owning such objects, using them in our daily lives, holding them in our hands (whether vinyl records or printed books or photographic prints or things DIY or physical or secondhand), defining our lives by them, will be an act of rebellion.

Some artists use artifacts from the past to unlock their aesthetic. I’m not talking about fads or fashion﹣it’s something deeper. Pokey LaFarge is one of these artists.

I first discovered the music of Pokey LaFarge at a Jack White show in Portland, Oregon, and from LaFarge’s record “Middle of Everywhere” (Free Dirt Records, 2010) and his 78 R.P.M. single with just two songs (“Fan It” and “Shenandoah River”). His 78 R.P.M. record (the way record labels released music before the “long playing” 33 R.P.M. record was introduced in 1948) was released by the Evangelist Record Company in Camden Town, London, which has to be one of a handful of record labels that still possess the capability of mastering and releasing 78 R.P.M. records. Evangelist has its own mastering facility and uses an Ampex 300-81 8-track recorder that was built for Ahmet Ertegun and his Atlantic Records label back in the day. Recording and manufacturing with these kinds of machines takes dedication and passion; it takes effort and skill to keep them running. And it’s all driven by a personal connection between the artist and the object of the record itself.

If you love music and vinyl records, you know about Jack White’s Third Man Records in Nashville, Tennessee, probably the most exciting new record label working today. LaFarge and his band, The South City Three, opened for White on part of his “Blunderbuss Tour” in the spring and summer of 2012. When they took the stage it was a shock, trying to understand the pairing of Pokey LaFarge and the music of Jack White. At first, it was a challenge, like a musical puzzle that needed solving. Then, I got it. Like finding Jack White’s aesthetic rooted in the music of American blues masters such as Eddie James “Son” House, Jr., The Mississippi Sheiks, Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, and many more gems from the Document Records vintage jazz and blues catalog, LaFarge’s sound is the sound of St. Louis river culture, made to be played in close, in clubs and bars and fairs and festivals. Though radically different from the work Jack White is developing for his records, LaFarge’s songwriting and style are entirely sympathetic to White’s notion of contemporary songwriting based on past musical traditions.

“At the heart of my music is the rhythm, which is most deeply and consciously influenced by pre-WW II music and its descendants…. Here in St. Louis, we literally have a river of influence to draw from. It’s part Midwest, part South. Part city, part country. Its geographical location has nurtured the music for over a century. We are right in the middle of this great country, at the confluence of the two mightiest rivers, at a place where American ideas meet and flourish,” LaFarge writes in the liner notes of “Middle of Everywhere.” American swing, jazz, country blues, and even a little of the folk tradition blend into LaFarge’s unique sound, carried on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and mixed along the journey with the stories of the townspeople all over the region. Like Jack White, Pokey LaFarge has taken these starting points and extended them, record after record, into his own sound and style.

My copy of LaFarge’s newly released and eponymous “Pokey LaFarge” (Third Man Records, 2013) just arrived in the post. This new record builds on the themes of what his previous records have done, delivering an oral tradition of storytelling, with tales of rural life and city life colliding, of hard times and bad luck, creating an identity that speaks to a kind of universal America, though very much Midwestern (St. Louis), and belonging to traditions that have influenced popular culture in America for decades. The new LP doesn’t call out the band’s name (The South City Three) as he’s done before, but the same musicians are present: Joey Glynn (upright bass & backing vocals), Ryan Koenig (harmonica, percussion, & backing vocals), and Adam Hoskins (guitars & backing vocals), along with Chloe Feoranzo (clarinet), Teddy Weber (cornet & lap steel), and Justin Branum (violin & cello). The sound in these 12 new songs is all LaFarge, with his distinctive, wry songwriting and singing style, a sound that’s both a time machine back to the early twentieth century, yet that remains contemporary with this sharp studio recording with lyrics that include sly jokes, wordplay, tall tales, and daring deeds (escaping any consequences, mostly).

Lest you think Pokey LaFarge’s music is some kind of sugar-coated American theme-park escapism to yesteryear, beware: This music isn’t without an earthy, bawdy connection to real people and real lives lived. Songs like “Won’tcha Please Don’t Do It,” with the opening line: “My girl’s rose on another man’s vine.” Or “Bowlegged Woman” with “She buys her bobby pins by the pound just to keep that big hair down.” And a spirited cover of the 1947 song “The Devil Ain’t Lazy,” written by Nashville songwriter Fred Rose and first performed by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (Fred Rose was a country music legend who famously wrote hit songs for Hank Williams).

I saw LaFarge and his current band play live at The Tractor Tavern in Seattle in May, a much closer encounter than I had at Jack White’s show at The Rose Quarter in Portland. The Tractor is an intimate bar space with a small stage and personal atmosphere. Patrons drink, talk, dance, and carouse. It was a packed house on a warm night. Seeing LaFarge  play in this setting reminded me of something the late great Levon Helm said about the “midnight ramble” in the film “The Last Waltz” (1978). There’s a direct connection between bar shows and traveling tent shows, modern minstrels singing about hard times and a 1930s sensibility that’s faint but still present. After the main show is over, after the finale, after the children go home to bed, the music changes pace, the songs get a little juicier, and the jokes get a little funnier. LaFarge is a skilled performer in that American tent-show tradition, and he wants his audiences engaged and dancing to his music. He frequently spoke to the audience, telling stories, and mentioning the sources for some of the songs. He worked the audience as he spoke about the smell of the bar, the bodies, and the booze (which the Tractor has plenty of), which make his music better.

I took a lot of pictures that night, and maybe they reveal the real energy and stage presence of this musician better than just talking about it. Dressed in a sharp suit and tie, which remained in place throughout his entire set (even though the bar was very hot that night), LaFarge is pure showman and consummate band leader.

The songs played live are rendered with a studio accuracy. His band followed his every move. The only thing missing was his signature felt hat (he seems partial to the wool fedora). Having and playing his records (at any speed) is just plain fun, but seeing Pokey LaFarge live is a must if you’re into artists who are re-creating and preserving musical traditions. He’s a road dog, in motion and traveling widely the rest of this year.

So I return to the artifact or object. The clothing, the vocabulary, the vintage acoustic instruments, the overheated bar and stage show, the 33 1/3 and 78 R.P.M. records, washboards and harmonicas. This is an artist making music and making a point: No matter how modern we think we’ve become, we still have roots, we still come from a place and belong to a world of things made to reflect who we are or who we want to be. Part of the journey of life has to be about getting in touch with those things that shaped our families’ earlier experiences in America, making a living and belonging to the homes they made. Watching Pokey LaFarge do what he does is a reminder of how American music grew out of a physical relationship to life and work and place.

Music is a living thing, and the music of Pokey LaFarge is a kind of rebellion against those forces that want us to forget the past and embrace only the latest innovation. I just wish I’d taken one of my restored, 1930-era Corona portable typewriters to his show at the Tractor, pulled up a chair at a table in the back of the bar, and rattled off a review right there, on the spot, pecking away at the keys and sipping a cool drink while watching the dance floor and the moves and the bodies and the heat rising. In fact, next time Pokey LaFarge comes through town, I will. I might even wear a vintage jacket and a tie. But not a hat. Just too hot for a hat this time of year in this part of the country.

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down: We the Common

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There’s a great feeling in listening to music for the first time, to the work of an artist you don’t know, and hearing one random song that speaks right into you, even before you know what the words are really saying, before you may even know who the band is. You only have a feeling to go on, what the song might be about, and still it seems important to you somehow. I think such magic is about an artist’s ability to create something that speaks universally into the unusual, into the “vital,” in melody and words. It’s about saying something about the human spirit, the courage to be different, saying something that hasn’t been said quite that way before. So you dig, you go deeper.

We the Common (For Valerie Bolden)” by Thao Nguyen & The Get Down Stay Down, on her latest record, “We the Common” (Ribbon, 2013), is just such a song. It just popped for me, first time out, long before I knew that its stark refrain (“Oh, how we/The common/Do cry”) and dedication to Valerie Bolden focuses on the suffering of those serving life sentences in our modern prison system. It’s inspired by Nguyen’s feelings about Bolden in particular. It’s a terrible life, designed to be so, especially for women, for mothers (there are many layers to punishment, some not remotely compassionate or appropriate, some criminal in their own way). The song isn’t about guilt or innocence, it’s not a reflection on crime. It’s about suffering. Nguyen met Bolden at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California (40 miles north of Fresno), in 2012. Nguyen (quietly) does volunteer work with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

It’s chilling to think that Valerie Bolden, as of a story that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in February this year, has not been allowed to hear “We the Common” because the system forbids CDs from being sent to prisoners. Music is forbidden. I can only assume that the prison officials, by having a policy like this, are afraid of music. This isn’t a song or a record or an artist calling for rebellion. Instead, Nguyen calls for compassion.

I suppose a record like this makes Nguyen an activist musician in some people’s eyes. I hesitate using the word “activist,” and almost didn’t, because of that word’s potential “turn off” factor. We’re not living in an age when the general public wants to talk about prison reform. There’s a lot of righteous “They wouldn’t be in prison if they weren’t guilty, so they’re getting what they deserve” messages out there. I could argue that any record, any artist who speaks about human suffering in music (or in any way) is an activist. Maybe the real story here is about how words and music, even those about compassion, still frighten those in power. That’s the good news about the opening track on this record, as far as I’m concerned.

I think “We the Common,” the song, is a profoundly sad song that calls for nothing in terms of change. It’s a mother’s song, a statement about living in the fog of ongoing cruelty, and about being ground down by a very mean system. It’s a song that just explores what is. As for the entire record, all 12 songs, there’s nothing preachy here. Nothing maudlin or self-pitying. Just stories and observations about modern life written by an artist who has an eye for sharp images and emotional language. I see an almost playfulness, a sly quality to some of these songs, like “Holy Roller” or “Clouds for Brains,” songs with teasing lyrics that invite multiple interpretations. Musically speaking, these songs are rich and layered, with many textures and instruments woven together, hooky and lively. These are intelligent songs employing a poet’s metaphor. Poets almost always mean trouble for oppressors.

“We the Common,” the record, is a breakthrough moment for Nguyen. Her dedication to the years and the miles on the road touring, honing her stagecraft, along with two of her previous studio records, “We Brave Bee Stings and All” (2008), and “Know Better Learn Faster” (2009), and her interest in human rights have forged her into an artist who has learned fast how to produce energetic, socially charged, yet catchy songs. Also, the duet Nguyen performs with Joanna Newsom seems so natural, like the two artists’ voices have spiraled together on many collaborations.

It seems like everywhere you turn these days you find a banjo, which can be fatiguing. (I’ve never been a huge fan of banjo, but don’t hate it.) However, in addition to banjo, Nguyen’s multi-instrumental skills also extend to piano and guitar. Her most important instrument, though, her voice, sits central to every song. Lyrically speaking, I think Nguyen has been a strong writer from her first record in 2005. So the big changes, with most recent studio release, to my ear, are in the melodies she’s crafted for this latest effort, and her intensified sociopolitical undertones.

This record is the perfect place to meet Thao Nguyen and her band. It’s a new chapter about an artist who will be a big story in music in the years to come. It’s a perfect time to get in on the ground floor. And if you have time, check out the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. They say every civilization should be judged on how it treats the most vulnerable of its citizens. Based on Valerie Bolden’s life in prison, we have a long way to go.

Unkle Funkle Review

Picture of My Dick Black Plastic

Just wrote and posted to my blog my review of the new and controversial record by Unkle Funkle. You’ll find it in the banner at the top, where my record reviews live. If pictures of penises worry you, you should give it a miss (I include the original LP art with all my reviews). The LP comes from Marriage Records in this way cool black plastic bag, so your friends will never know. Though they might wonder why you keep some of your records in black plastic bags. I’m not sure what you could tell them that wouldn’t sound creepy.