Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Author's Americana-indie-acoustic-country-folk-rock-hop-Playlist – pt. 1

In case you didn’t know (you didn’t), this last week marked the esoterically-anticipated release of indie folk singer Passenger’s new album Whispers, and if the main singles performed so far have been any indication of what’s to come, it’s almost certain to be a great record.  Following in short tow is the return of acoustic demigod Ed Sheeran with X, which is already shaping up to be the catchiest album of the year just from the falsetto-laced Sing and brilliantly bitter revenge song Don’t.  It seems there would be no better time than the present to do a post in honor of these rising self-made rebels, boldly battling a mainstream that’s increasingly dominated by fake instruments, electronically altered voices, and faux “artists” who can’t or won’t write an original tune for their lives.  As neither of these releases have leaked to la Youtube yet (and I’m checking almost daily), I’ll have to settle for reviewing these old ones instead.  Here’s to my favorite made-up musical genre of acoustic-indie-Americana-country-folk-rock-hop… but we’ll call it folk and awesome for convenience’s sake.  Sorry – that was pretty lame…

The Lumineers by The Lumineers

… kind of like myself around Christmas, actually.  Alas, I was a bit of a Satan Claus this last Winterholiday.  While others were busy “giving back to their communities” by one self-congratulating random act of kindness or another, I was totally wasting my days away watching the same Lindsey Stirling videos for the fifth time, hoping for some new secret to materialize that I hadn’t picked up on before.  In the end, the only significant act of givingback I performed that season besides writing this blog was to buy my family a lame album by this virtually anonymous trio called the Lumineers.  Imagine the depths of their disappointment when they first laid eyes on this perplexingly simple B&W cover and later laid ears on the even more aggravatingly simple music within it.  It really served them right: if not for their outstanding naughtiness in 2013, maybe they would have received some real music by Lorde, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, or any of today’s more acclaimed electropop icons.  Something with bass, brass, sex, and sizzle.  Instead they got this old-timey, eccentrically unidentifiable coffee house material… with guitars, and clapping, and a cello, and real voices, and stories.

This is likely the leading cause of the Lumineers’ success, that their lyrics convey characters, conflicts, and emotions which feel substantive and real while also being irresistibly singalongable.  None of their compositions are especially intricate in their production or difficult in practice, as co-writer and -founder Jeremiah Fraites has stated that, “Anyone who can play an instrument can play a Lumineers song,” and lead singer Wesley Schultz has averred that the three original members are truly “minimalists at heart”. “We always just hated clutter.  If there’s a sound on the record, it’s meant to be there.”  Nor could anyone be blamed for misconstruing their first CD as a live concert album, as the recordings sound more or less exactly the same as the band would play them at a show, with nary a programming touch superposed over the small instrument set.  Rather than emphasizing volume or arrangement as the selling point of their music, the group concentrates on vivid narration through the stirring vocal delivery of monologues both dramatic and spirited.  Of what do they sing?  Pretty much everything: love young and love tested, WW2 paranoia, Vietnam, flapper girls, and, most amusingly, even proper barroom etiquette.  Listening to the Lumineers feels much like taking a time machine through the 20th century; while the album encompasses numerous periods and mainstay figures of American culture, Schultz and Fraites rarely inject their own relationships or experiences into the tracks, which is surprising given the sheer perseverance and daring both showed to secure a foothold in the industry, leaving New York for Denver with just the clothes on their backs and a van full of instruments and playing weekly open-mic gigs on top of their day-jobs until getting picked up by studio managers on a Youtube video of their best-selling single Ho Hey.  Not ones for obtrusive self-indulgence, they set themselves apart not by mining personal anecdotes for rhymes, something any wannabe poet can do, but by crafting engaging, usually concentrated stories which rely on strong visuals and simple truths relatable not just to the author but to the listener as well.

It’s an uncommon album in the modern age where you really have to carefully chew on the words to fully appreciate the beauty of the music.  The fleeting opener Flowers In Your Hair seems at first glance to be but another cheery love song on an album with a chorus vaguely mirroring that of Ho Hey.  It’s indubitably cheery, and certainly a story of love, but the lyrical content delves much deeper than that simplification gives it credit.  Short of being dark or downbeat and through a remarkable compression of ideas, the song muses on both the uplifting and corrupting aspects of human passion and the consequences deriving thereof when young people pursue it in folly, concluding pithily that “it’s a long road to wisdom but a short one to being ignored”.  The piano- and drum-driven Submarines uses the predicament of a man who witnesses Japanese vessels and can’t persuade anyone of his sightings as a kind of a humorous representative of all those who feel as though their cautionary appeals are merely screaming into the wind, vain and fruitless attempts to impress inconvenient facts upon unheeding ears, like trying to make an internationally indifferent, part-time homeschool judge care about the unchecked flow of deadly meth and coke into the United States by narco su– well, you get it.  Stubborn Love, which features probably the most powerful interplay of Neyla Pekarek’s cello and Schultz’ acoustic guitar on the record, has just as powerful a message about standing by the ones you hold dear and committing the fullness of yourself to them even when they’ve wounded you.  “She’ll tear a hole in you, the one you can’t repair / but I still love her – I don’t even care… It’s better to feel pain, than nothing at all.  The opposite of love’s indifference.”

The occasionally weighty themes of the tracks are complemented by Schultz’ raw and untouched vocals, which could for all intents and purposes have been captured in whatever room one’s listening from and retain the same quality.  He has a bit of drawl to his voice which sometimes obscures the exact lyrics, but he never mispronounces words to create rhymes or egregiously compounds syllables to fill up time in a line (not one of the devi-i-i-ices on this album).  The sparseness of the instrumental selection always makes the lyrical content the focus of the music, inviting audiences to chime along rather than just listen passively.

I can’t recommend The Lumineers by the Lumineers strongly enough.  Whether one sees them as relics of a lost golden age or harbingers of a coming renaissance, they harken back to a time when composing strong narratives meant more to artists than generating a catchy, radio-ready beat.  The cynical among us like to mope that real music is in its dying phase, progressively usurped and extinguished by electronically aided screaming, vapid lyrics, and wannabe tough-guy rappers.  The Lumineers, they say, are a dead sea, no longer relevant in the era of a president who lionizes the talent of Jay-z, Beyonce, and Ludacris.  That much is true.  The Lumineers are a dead sea, lifting our souls above the crashing, soulless tides and thundering noise of popular music, keeping American culture from finally sinking into the Laurentian Abyss and leaving no evidence of its former glory.  Maybe they were born to be a dead sea.

The Civil Wars by The Civil Wars

Besides pricing that’s 50-100% inflated above retail value, one of the many downsides to shopping for music at Barnes&Noble instead of a legitimate record store (something that’s been so nearly hunted to extinction by digital downloads that schools could practically spin a field trip out of visiting one) is its stockers’ abject incompetence at accurately recognizing and predictably classifying basic genres. For example, while The Civil Wars by the Civil Wars is located amongst the pop/rock CDs, a branch to which it most certainly doesn’t belong, Taylor Swift’s deliciously poppy Red is stereotypically relegated to the country music aisle despite the former group’s much more prominent country influence.

Granted, most anyone would be hard-pressed to pin the Civil Wars down within a single category, especially on this latest and possibly last endeavor, which can leap from a delicate and constrained folk ballad to a soaring country-tinged gospel lyric to a momentous, electric guitar-supported rock anthem and back again.  Most people will peg them as an Americana/folk duo, but such an assessment probably underestimates their music’s depth.  Rather than singing about any one people at one time or another and their own unique depravities, Joy Williams and John Paul White sing broadly about how messed-up humanity is in general.  Notwithstanding a precious few relieving love songs interspersed throughout the record, the Civil Wars’ second, self-titled album released just months after an astonishing breakup is incredibly depressing, brimming with betrayal, regret, rough men, and heartbreak; it’s not a happy album by any means, nor does it leave you with a very high appraisal of our mortal race.  I’d venture that it fits the “dark and brooding” bill better than any other album I’ve bought besides Hans Zimmer’s The Dark Knight and Howard Shore’s Fellowship of the Ring scores, which admittedly have it a lot easier as orchestral compositions.  This is artistry worthy of Lego Batman himself, the very paragon of dark and brooding music.

From the first track, The Civil Wars is primarily about the most cruel and torturous kinds of human relationships, those scarred and mutilated by infidelity, distrust, violence, and remorse.  The introductory single, which you honestly won’t have heard anywhere on the airwaves unless you listen to NPR (and if you’re reading this, odds are you don’t), ushers in the somber air with bristling electric guitar strings and melancholy, reflective confessions delicately delivered by Joy.  “I got caught up by the chase / and you got high on every little game. / I wish you were the one, wish you were the one that got away.”  Hereupon her voice crescendos into a burst of barely repressed, staccato cries: “Oooh, if I could go back in time, when you only held me in my mind – just a longing, gone without a trace.  Oooh, I wish I’d never, ever seen your face!”  John Paul’s twanging guitar strikes intertwined with Joy’s impassioned song of lament summons a sound so simultaneously beautiful and wrenching that it defies description, literally sending chills through my skin whenever I hear the chorus; like a glorious sunrise on a blood-strewn field of war, the harmonious discord they capture illumines both the mighty splendor of God’s creative design and the staggering evil that his fallen creation is capable of wreaking.

Appropriately enough, The Civil Wars is a slyly but deeply spiritual album, dealing in large part with the futility of seeking contentment solely through earthly fellowship and our yearning for a higher communion. With the exception of one related in the track Dust to Dust and possibly in Sacred Heart (which sounds fair enough in French though I’ve no idea what it means), all the love stories told herein are temporal and closed in tragedy, destroyed by death or by carnal impulses and leaving the lovers drifting without company, purpose, or moral direction.  I Had Me A Girl, with wailing vocals and instrumental volume to parallel the dramatic Barton Hallow, artfully compares an affair rooted in sexual lust to the fleeting euphoria induced by a drug. “I had me a girl / Like cigarette smoke, she came and she went… oh that woman taught me to pray / but for all of her wandering ways / she could ooooohhh…”  In Devil’s Backbone, one of the shortest and least instrumented songs, Joy pleads in quavering desperation for God to spare her partner from the natural consequence of his crimes, acknowledging with broken spirit that her devotion to that “man on the run” has either corrupted her discernment between good and evil or removed her ability to care about the distinction. Vainly she tries to justify his actions: “Oh Lord, oh Lord, he’s somewhere between / a hangman’s knot and three mouths to feed / There wasn’t a wrong or a right he could choose / He did what he had to do…” After a brief, swelling rise in the musical accompaniment, her voice slips to a breathy whisper: “Don’t care if he’s guilty, don’t care if he’s not / He’s good and he’s bad and he’s all that I’ve got / Oh Lord, oh Lord, I’m begging you please / don’t take that sinner from me.”  Oh Henry has a similar setup framed instead as a woman’s appeal to her wayward husband to renounce his reckless courtship with death and keep his vow to stay with her “forever ever and a day”.  The duo’s reworking of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Disarm, aside from being one of the most transformative and chilling covers I’ve ever heard, turns something originally kind of annoying and whiny and loud into a powerful meditation on maturing youth and innocence lost that only escalates in force as it proceeds to its end.

In spite of all the dreary content, the album isn’t all doom and gloom, taking the occasional respite to impart some poetically beautiful imagery.  A relatively light-hearted song in the midst of so much pain and anguish, Eavesdrop envisions two people embracing one another in the open air, inviting the stars to watch and the wind to eavesdrop for as long as their fragile union may last.  From This Valley goes further, acting in many ways as a hopeful answer to the rest of the album’s frustrated nihilistic outlook.  Here Joy and John Paul sing of Paradise in simple but evocative pictures, symbolizing mortals’ yearning to join their Heavenly Father as the desire of valley-dwellers to flee their lowly pit and ascend a mountain high above. “Oh the desert dreams of a river / that will run down to the sea / like my heart longs for an ocean / to wash down over me.”

Never has a band convened a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than that the Civil Wars depict in this valley of deception and despair, where lovers condemn themselves to destruction by their own devices and can only pine for deliverance from above.  What they’ve accomplished here and on Barton Hallow transcends mere musical performance to become something almost cinematic; so sweeping is the vocal range and palpable the emotion both singers dedicate to their craft.  Together they’ve etched out a vein of music that’s uncommonly haunting, pensive, and hopeful.  If heaven has a sound, then the Civil Wars have come nearer to replicating it on this piece than anyone else I’ve heard.  In my judgment it’s the best lyrical album of all time, deserving to be celebrated alongside the likes of U2’s The Joshua Tree, Coldplay’s A Rush Of Blood To The Head, Adele’s 21, and Lorde’s Pure Heroine.

That was a joke, son.

Part 2 with reviews of Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran will be posted shortly.

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