Pictures That Were Songs

Riverlight

My father and I lie down together.
He is dead.

We look up at the stars, the steady sound
Of the wind turning the night like a ceiling fan.
This is our home.

I remember the work in him
Like bitterness in persimmons before a frost.
And I imagine the way he had fear,
The ground turning dark in the rain.

Now he gets up.

And I dream he looks down in my eyes
And watches me die.

Frank Stanford (1948-1978; from What About This: The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, Copper Canyon Press/Third Man Books, 2015)

The Shivers

Learning to Fall

The ShiversWhy does an artist set out on a journey to find his own unique language to say the things he needs to say, create two “sister” records early in his career (“More” and “In the Morning,” just a couple of years apart) that together contain 11 perfect songs among others, defining a vocabulary and voice, an astonishing accomplishment in these days of apathy and industry ruin, only to walk alone, deep into a personal wilderness, to search for something even more complex and revealing and experimental after inhabiting the very thing he was searching for since the early 2000s, and found? It’s something outsiders cannot easily decode. More records appeared, of course, each just a little more varied, each circling around similar subject matter and textures, some even changing personas completely.

The ShiversBut the patterns began to shift. Because, in the end, it’s about the burning questions. The questions that keep artists awake all night. The questions that wreck relationships, unquiet the mind, and haunt the escape of sleep. The questions that force the hard things to the surface, the dark things into the light, the dangerous things that can break a man. Artists can’t hide from the burning questions.

And so, the wilderness called, for renewal as much as for new directions or confirmations. What can I say about this artist now, at his latest moment of transformation? About this man, Keith Zarriello, his ever-changing identity as The Shivers, his music that opened The Business Presents music festival in July in Anacortes, WA, the artist who has come to define my longing for a direction for my small record record label, Untide Records, and which haunts my imagination about what might be possible for all his records as yet to be demoed, as yet to be recorded? The ShiversI want to say something to you that no one has ever said about him, something that will crash your world, like his music did mine, and make you see and hear what I see and hear in this artist’s teeming and tormented art. I want to do that, but then… I hesitate, and I don’t. Not here. Not now. I don’t because he’s my friend, but more important than that, vastly more important than that, I don’t because he’s still out there working, and something is changing, something new is coming into being. The wild places haven’t finished with him yet, so all remains speculation.

The ShiversMusic has always been the first art form because it requires no advance study to connect to those it connects to. You just fall into the music you love. If you love the music, if you love the language the artist has discovered for himself, you love it. There’s no need to write long arguments, proofs, about why you love it. You just do. It’s one to one, and remains so. Every song was written for you and it speaks to you as if you’re the only person who gets it, really gets it, because it becomes yours. We want to possess the people who can do this for us. But that isn’t possible, either. They belong to the wild places where their greatest songs are written. They belong to their searching, far away from all of us.

The ShiversOpening night, Keith walked into the venue, picked up his vintage Silvertone, plugged it in, and within minutes tore through his taut set list of songs from his decade-long conversion from novice songwriter to journeyman recording artist. It was a rare moment that felt all the more valuable for its spontaneity, vulnerability, and risk, coming from a man who only briefly stepped out of his wilderness mid pilgrimage. His search continues. The burning questions still have a firm hold on him. Every great songwriter travels this road, again and again. Pays the toll in a kind of existential loneliness and aloneness none of us can even imagine.

There remain many more songs inside this artist that will reveal themselves, in time. One day soon Keith will walk back out of his wild places, reformed as yet another new vision of The Shivers, and his records will literally speak for themselves. And those who know, will know. The music will fall into place, and those who get it, will, once again, feel his new writing is just for them. When the needle drops onto the first track, some of the burning questions will be finally be answered. But fortunately, not all of them.

The Shivers

[Where to find stuff: The Shivers on Soundcloud. The Shivers distro and retail from The Business. The Shivers on Bandcamp.]

The Shivers: In the Morning

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[Editorial disclosure/confession: The Shiver’s vinyl release now available (“In the Morning,” 2015), is on our record label, Untide Records. Once again, I’m a music reviewer promoting one of our own. Just pretend this isn’t me writing, if that makes it easier or seem more fair.]

The Shivers, founded in 2001 and led by Keith Zarriello, created this raw and confessional “In the Morning” in an industrial Long Island City practice space in the borough of Queens, New York, in 2009. It arrived like a storm, a revelation after the band’s equally personal “Beaks to the Moon” (2008). In some ways, these two records complete each other, reflecting an interplay of unfolding relationships between the musicians, with their emerging confidence and confessional, exposed lyrics that, after this record, become the distinguishing characteristic of Zarriello’s musical vocabulary.

Captured in just a few intense days, this remarkable moment of songwriting, performance, and recording was initially drawn from a mixtape of more than 30 compositions and fragments, both demos and complete songs, in various states of development by Zarriello and Jo Schornikow. These sessions were captured low-budget on a four-track tape deck by Dan Hewitt, sound engineer, long-time collector and student of the New York music scene, and founder of State Capital Records, the record’s original label. Hewitt even recalls that one song, “Firenze,” was recorded to a flip phone in Montreal by Zarriello, and then eventually made it into the final release. A few songs, including “Insane,” were written in a matter of hours during the sessions themselves. Hewitt then mixed the record in his home studio in Jackson Heights, and it became the fourth record to emerge from State Capital, and the fourth from the band.

Two things characterize the moodiness of this record: each song’s emotional urgency, which borders on an almost pleading sensibility, like the opening “Just Didn’t Need to Know,” and the feeling that these songs somehow capture what it means to live and love in New York City. Many of these songs explore relationships, heartbreak, suspicion, even raw anger, painting a picture of New York as a place where it’s impossible to be happy.

Throughout, there’s a collaborative DIY feeling. Schornikow’s classically trained piano anchors it all, and Zarriello’s post-punk romantic guitar and vocals (influenced by bands like Spacemen 3 and Television) adds the raw heat, then all shaped by Hewitt’s guiding influence. A DNA test on this music would show strong evidence of a rootsy post-punk influence, the clue being Zarriello’s compelling cover of “Cheree,” from the groundbreaking synth-punk band Suicide. Everyone was working fast on “In the Morning,” as if the band sensed their perfect moment would pass too soon and the clarity would fade. Hewitt the audiophile set aside his perfectionism to insightfully record and mix this record as a pure lo-fi DIY statement.

Now completely remastered for vinyl by Alex Saltz at APS Mastering, NYC, this new vinyl release includes six bonus tracks, all envisioned at the time of the original recording but eventually shelved. Two of the bonus highlights include “Magazine Lover,” which until now has only been available as a digital download single, and an alternate version of “Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars,” which was released on the band’s luminous “More” (Silence Breaks, 2011) a few years later.

Flowers In My Hands: 2014 In Song

What an age we live in. New vinyl records are pouring forth from an ever-expanding roster of Indie record labels. New Indie bands are drowsily springing up in the green fields like wildflowers. Thorny old major labels are waking up to smell the spring-sweet breeze of change, realizing they too can bud anew, reissuing long-missed classics, because we want them. We need them. And why put limit to what you desire? These are just a few of the LPs that have inspired, this discovering year, that have drawn me out of myself, to walk beside crystalline lakes and streams of the mind, into a new, bright sphere of long-playing dreams. As I reflected on the many kinds of lists I might prepare in this fast-fading final month near, I realized how few singles caught my eye in Twenty Fourteen, as forty-five. I wanted pure flame in Fourteen, I wanted my music pastoral and sweeping, I wanted my hands overflowing with bounty from my keeping. So I went for roads measureless, and spent my days dear… side by side, song by song, heart by heart, taking my time to discover and to savor wandering song. As I compiled this list I decided to stick to records that any might buy. Easy it is to love the hidden and the scarce, but it’s vexing indeed to know of beauty one cannot possess. Mine is an accessible bouquet (almost all on vinyl, if one does not delay). You know you miss the romance, the poetry of vinyl. Go on, make Twenty Fifteen the year of your triumphant arrival at what’s real, what’s elemental, what’s personal; what’s haunted, what’s holy, what’s you. Walk into the green, green hills and fields, in self-trusting yield, follow your heart, and find your own dream-plucked flowers new.

Rowland S. Howard: POP CRIMES (Liberation, reissued 2014)

Rowland S. Howard

Bob Dylan & The Band: THE BASEMENT TAPES COMPLETE (Columbia, 2014)

Bob Dylan

Jack White: LAZARETTO (Third Man, 2014)

Jack White

Jimi Hendrix: BLUES (Sony, reissued 2011)

Jimi Hendrix

The Shivers: MORE (Silence Breaks, 2011)

The Shivers

The Shivers: CHARADES (Keeled Scales, reissued 2014)

Charades

The Mastersons: GOOD LUCK CHARM (New West, 2014)

The Mastersons

Fear of Men: LOOM (Kanine, 2014)

Fear of Men

La Sera: HOUR OF THE DAWN (Hardly Art, 2014)

La Sera

Will Johnson: SCORPION (Undertow, 2012)

Will Johnson

Sleater-Kinney: THE WOODS (Sub Pop, reissued 2014)

Sleater-Kinney

Owl John: OWL JOHN (Atlantic, 2014)

Owl John

David Gray: MUTINEERS (iht, 2014)

David Gray

Maximo Park: TOO MUCH INFORMATION (V2, 2014)

Maximo Park

Various Artists: WHILE NO ONE WAS LOOKING: TOASTING 20 YEARS OF BLOODSHOT RECORDS (Bloodshot, 2014)

Various Artists

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.