Before I go off on this tear: Will Robin wrote a lovely and charming piece for the Bandcamp blog largely about Axle of the World (with Rabbit), and using our album to hopscotch his way to work by various of our friends and collaborators, and also a couple of my solo projects. Thanks Will! Everyone else, kindly locate your very own copy of Axle at this link: AXLE!
I'm back home after several weeks of band camps of various sorts. First, GWB assembled in Iowa to play original incidental music for a beautiful outdoor production of Our Town. This is, in case you've missed it, a really great play. I read it for the first time last summer, while I was also working through James Gleick's Chaos, in which the mathematician Mitchell Feigenbaum says this:
"Art is a theory about the way the world looks to human beings. It's abundantly obvious that one doesn't know the world around us in detail. What artists have accomplished is realizing that there's only a small amount of stuff that's important, and then seeing what it was."
A toast: to seeing that which is important. Hear, hear.
Shortly after finishing the Our Town gig we reassembled out in North Carolina, but this time we weren't Grant Wallace Band, we were the latest incarnation of Ben's band/pseudonym Kong Must Dead, and though it was just the three of us plus Ryan Packard, it felt a lot different. For one thing we were there not as composers but really to function as a studio band to record songs written by Ben, though we all ended up making contributions to arrangement, form, etc. But it was a new context or approach for us, and we got a lot of great work done.
Elliot Cole turned up a few days in, to hang out and sing some background vocals with us. Ben, Elliot and I have been talking since, oh, maybe 2008? about getting together some summer someplace with mountains, renting a shack of some sort, and making an album. This, I realize, is more or less what we actually just did. Cool! Dream it up and give it a few years. Things come around.
In our off-hours from the studio, the musical recommendations were flying. I mean, have you even heard of The Roches? I hadn't. Wheew! That's some singing. Holy unisons. And the T-E-M-P-O. There's serious space between those quarter notes.
This tune also has an Arrangement, with a capital A, which is something I've been thinking about lots. A few weeks ago I found dug up my copy of Smog's Red Apple Falls (1997), which I hadn't listened to since high school. This is the old band/pseudonym of Bill Callahan, who now makes records under his own name. I'm back and forth on Callahan as a songwriter, but I've loved diving back into Red Apple Falls. In high school I remember filing this under "bummed guy music"—not a pejorative, actually professedly one of my favorite genres at the time—but really, saying Callahan is bummed is like pointing out that Schumann is romantic. It's not useful as a descriptor when it describes a whole category.
He made Red Apple Falls with Jim O'Rourke, so not surprisingly the arrangements are beautiful. What I mean by that is: the sounds are beautifully chosen, carefully, intentionally assembled, and recorded in such a way that you really clearly hear everything that's in there. Also: hurdy-gurdy makes an appearance. Immediate gold stars to this album.
Listen to "To Be Of Use." I'm going to discuss it for a second, but really, give 'er a listen first, because it's so dramatically effective I hate to spoil it.
This is a nearly six-minute tune, and things unfold very slowly. You have yourself a nothing-type acoustic guitar part which does very little, and those first few lyrics unspool piece by piece:
"Most of my fantasies are of
Making someone else come
Most of my fantasies are of
To be of use
To be of use
To be of some hard, simple, undeniable use
Oh, like a spindle
Or oh, like a candle
Or oh, like a horseshoe
Or oh, like a corkscrew"
These are, in my view, truly great song lyrics. Printing them is misleading; they are actually sound and meant to be heard, not poetry meant to be read. They are human, vulnerable, funny, surprising; and all the more so when heard in context. But back to arrangement. It took him two and a half minutes to give you those lyrics. You have a full and complete understanding of what sort of song you're listening to. And then WHAM AT 2:41 HE HITS YOU WITH THAT PEDAL STEEL LIKE WHAAAAMMMM. But then wait. It goes away again, like immediately! And doesn't come back for another Whole Minute+. Here is restraint.
Now, pedal steel is simply always good; it is the Ace of Spades; it just sounds so great all the time, to the point that you suspect, if our culture weren't so fucked, it would be illegal, or at least we'd have some common-sense pedal steel control legislation, like some background checks or something, just so it wouldn't fall into the wrong hands, right? Fortunately, the instrument has a bit of this sort of control built in, because it is (1) extremely expensive and (2) about the least wieldy, most mechanically convoluted and physically cumbersome instrument currently in common use in America. The pedal steel makes instruments like, say, the French horn look very practical and well thought through. Ben has one; Chris (heroically) played it on the album. It has two necks, twenty strings and eleven pedals. Some models have more strings than that. You have to tune the pedals with a wrench.
So: there are barriers to entry. What you want to do, then, is slather it everywhere, because you sold a kidney to buy the damn instrument and spent half a lifetime learning to play it. I'm so impressed that Callahan and O'Rourke held back to the extent they did on "To Be Of Use." The playing is beautiful, too. It's just a masterful tune all around.
Let's go back to The Roches' "Hammond Song" (swap a digit: 1979). Another six-minute tune, and more restraint. I mean, there's a certain folk music sunshine-excess to the ceremonial atmosphere here, but when you really look at the arrangement, it's pretty careful. I already mentioned the tempo. But there's the consistency of that no-BS guitar strumming, the lack of drums, the one-by-one manner in which the other instruments enter... organ... triangle... electric guitar (which lays on a bit of fanciness, but stays clear of the voices). I could talk about this vocal performance all day. No one sings like this. They send every note straight to the wall. This could be the campiest track you've ever heard, and it possesses that color, but the production and arrangement are so stone-cold earnest, the whole thing just carries. Robert Fripp, who produced the record and plays the guitar solos, deserves special high-fives for conveying this tune in such clarity.
To everything, turn-turn-turn, there is a season; a time for restraint, a time for indulgence. Happily, amid all the projects above-discussed, GWB's song cycle collaboration with Houston Grand Opera is also taking shape. I'm not going to say much about it yet, but if you want to get prepped, you might begin by checking out some Sun Ra Arkestra videos.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues