Weekend Music Break: Sarah Beatty, “Bandit Queen (Acoustic)”

Sarah Beatty, in performance

[Image: Sarah Beatty, onstage during an unidentified performance.]

Like writing (especially fiction), music  (especially rock/pop) seems to resist categorization more often than it accepts it. The term “genre” suits the purposes of marketers and distributors at least as much as those of performers and audiences: How do we pitch the products in Category X, using what language, images, and metaphors? How much shelf or disk space, or how much bandwidth will we need to display our Category-X holdings? How much money should we set aside to promote a Category X artist, versus one in Category Y — what will customers pay? And so on.

The artists themselves often try to duck the question (making liberal use of the slash character, as in “punk/power-pop/postmodern,” or claiming a revolutionary fervor the work may or may not deserve, like “a genre-busting novel”); sometimes, they answer it apparently head-on, but in a way which allows the audience to cast its own hopes or disregard on the work (“I write mainstream fiction,” or “I’m a singer-songwriter”).

All of which is to say: my sympathies are heartily extended to Sarah Beatty, her record label, and her management. In various places around the Interwebs I’ve found terms like these to describe her: “singer/songwriter,” “folk,” “old fashioned folk/country blues,” “blues, jazz, country, and soulful styled roots music”… And really, I have no idea what to call her, either. Maybe the best clue about what to expect appeared in a 2012 interview at the 100 Mile Microphone blog. The interviewer asks for an explanation of her first album’s title, Black Gramophone, since it contains no such song or other reference:

[SB] I thought about using a song title, or just my name, but the words ‘Black Gramophone’ just came to me one day, and made sense. Gramophones have this long musical history—RCA, the Grammies—but for me, my music is inspired by old styles. There’s a certain gravitas to my songs, and black represents that, visually.

[100MM] But it’s not funeral black—it’s little black dress black!

[SB] Oh! Thank you! Yes, it’s not meant to be dour. However, there’s a seriousness about it.

If you read between the lines here, you’ll see why this exchange appealed to me: she thinks about her work, and she knows how to use language, and she welcomes light and dark in equal measure.

These traits are all borne out in the debut single from her new album, both called Bandit Queen. While the album’s SoundCloud page, not yet publicly available, self-identifies using a lot of the same terms from the above list (folk, Americana, jazz, blues, etc.), it also includes a new one: folklore.

Belle StarrWhatever other songs on the album might deserve that label, “Bandit Queen” itself, oh yeah: folklore. It’s based on the story — “colorful,” to say the least — of the 19th-century “queen of the outlaws,” Belle Starr. (That’s her to the left, in a photo which Beatty considered using for the album’s art.) More than one party pooper has taken pains — sometimes exhaustive ones — to, er, shoot holes in Starr’s story as it’s popularly come down to us. But listen: folklore, okay? Boiled down, the shape of that story goes something as follows:

Old-West woman of some years — and a checkered domestic life — declines to go quietly into any goddam good night, thank you very much. Instead, she takes up bank robbery, horse-stealing, gunplay, murder, and general cussed criminal orneriness, and dies as she’d lived: violently and disreputably.

I mean, consider: Starr’s daughter became a madam in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Could there be a more perfect little biographical detail for such a creature as a “queen of the outlaws”?

Beatty’s lyrics here are cast in Starr’s own imagined voice. A sampling (the end of the first verse plus the chorus):

I’m a well dressed, fast talking, educated woman, with 40 dead men in sight.

I’m the baddest bandit queen, you did ever see,
I am Myra Maybelle Shirley Starr, hotter than top-rail kerosene.
I’m the baddest bandit queen, you ever did see.

Every detail in these words strikes me as perfectly balanced. But presented in the context of the kicking, take-no-prisoners music — well, I’m just knocked out by this song. That simple see at the end of the above excerpt? Somehow, Beatty’s voice manages to make of that an entire declamatory phrase, comprising what sounds like fifteen or twenty syllables.

She seems to like trying out various effects with her voice, pulling it down low and then rippling up and out: I wonder what would happen if I did this thing…? The voice goes up and down and slithers sideways; at one point, Beatty strongly reminds me of something which Aretha Franklin manages to pull off about 30-40 seconds into “Think.” Franklin’s voice itself: something of a Belle Star among a crowd of more everyday “strong woman” instruments, am I right? This is quite a stunt for Beatty, no matter how musically dissimilar the songs might be otherwise.

Over there at the right, the SoundCloud player for the acoustic version of the tune; listen for yourself. And keep your eyes (and ears) open for the upcoming February 3 release of the full Bandit Queen. What happens to it will ultimately be in the hands of all those confused marketing-and-distribution institutions I mentioned earlier, but it deserves a wide, hungry audience of music lovers.

Send to Kindle

Consolations of the Moment… But Which One?

'Southwest Reservoir Bridge,' by Bascove

[Image: “Southwest Reservoir Bridge,” by Bascove. (The artist also produced — selected and illustrated — the anthology in which I found Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, below.)]

From whiskey river:

A Journal of the Year of the Ox
(excerpt)

I find myself in my own image, and am neither and both.
I come and go in myself
as though from room to room,
As though the smooth incarnation of some medieval spirit
Escaping my own mouth and reswallowed at leisure,
Dissembling and at my ease.

(Charles Wright [source])

…and (italicized portion):

…if I go to sleep after lunch in the room where I work, sometimes I wake up with a feeling of childish amazement—why am I myself? What astonishes me, just as it astonishes a child when he becomes aware of his own identity, is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life and not in any other. What stroke of chance has brought this about?

(Simone de Beauvoir [source])

…and:

Poem White Page
White Page Poem

Poem white page white page poem
something is streaming out of a body in waves
something is beginning from the fingertips
they are starting to declare for my whole life
all the despair and the making music
something like wave after wave
that breaks on a beach
something like bringing the entire life
to this moment
the small waves bringing themselves to white paper
something like light stands up and is alive

(Muriel Rukeyser [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle

Book Review: “A Burglar’s Guide to the City,” by Geoff Manaugh

'A Burglar's Guide to the City,' by Geoff ManaughGeoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City has at least one distinction setting it apart from nearly all non-fiction titles — especially when you set aside biographies and histories, which come with their own narrative lines: it’s in development as a fictional TV series. The appeal is obvious. Consider the elements which come into play:

  • “Hacking” buildings by any means necessary: tunneling, cutting through walls, punching out windows, stowing away in delivery vehicles,  simply talking your way in…
  • The lure of cleverly planned crimes committed against often cold if not outright evil institutions: banks, jewelry retailers, the homes of the wealthy…
  • Familiar cops-and-robbers scenarios, in which clever (or not so clever) criminals are matched against shrewd (or not so shrewd) detectives and street cops…
  • The excitement of chase scenes…
  • Precedents set by hundreds — maybe thousands — of popular, successful fictional precedents, from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to Oceans ElevenThe Anderson Tapes and The Thomas Crown Affair, the Thin Man series of films, the Leverage television series…
  • Settings around the world, the phrase “the city” of the title engagingly non-specific…

No, not surprising at all that it would attract screenwriters and producers. But lost in the likely rush of media attention is one important fact: this is a heck of a good book.

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle

How Comes the Dawn

'The Blue Hour,' by Dave Toussaint on Flickr.com

[Image: “The Blue Hour,” by Dave Toussaint. (Found on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license.) Toussaint reports that this shot of Yosemite Falls was taken roughly 45 minutes before sunrise. If you’re viewing this on a sufficiently large screen, click on the image to see it in the photographer’s preferred original size of 1140 x 754.]

From whiskey river:

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again. Did our birth fall in some fit of indigence and frugality in nature, that she was so sparing of her fire and so liberal of her earth, that it appears to us that we lack the affirmative principle, and though we have health and reason, yet we have no superfluity of spirit for new creation? We have enough to live and bring the year about, but not an ounce to impart or to invest. Ah that our Genius were a little more of a genius!

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: Second Series [source])

and:

To the New Year

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

(W. S. Merwin [source])

and:

The Tongue Says Loneliness

The tongue says loneliness, anger, grief,
but does not feel them.

As Monday cannot feel Tuesday,
nor Thursday
reach back to Wednesday
as a mother reaches out for her found child.

As this life is not a gate, but the horse plunging through it.

Not a bell,
but the sound of the bell in the bell-shape,
lashing full strength with the first blow from inside the iron.

(Jane Hirshfield [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle

Weekend Music Break: The Perfect English Weather, “Spirited Away”

The Perfect English Weather: cover of 'Isobar Blues' albumThe Perfect English Weather” may be a perfect English band name. Of course it makes reference to allegedly common knowledge about the English climate. But it also doesn’t take itself too seriously, opting for wryness over depression — especially when combined with the title and cover of their first album, Isobar Blues. (On this side of the Atlantic, you might achieve similar effects by naming your new band “The Uneventful American Presidential Election.”)

While you may not — probably have not — heard of TPEW specifically, if you’ve been following English pop music for a while you might recognize the name of the “real” band which shares the same two group members, Simon and Molly Pickles: The Popguns. Specifically, says the capsule bio on TPEW’s Facebook page:

The Perfect English Weather are Wendy & Simon Pickles, a duo from Brighton taking time out from The Popguns to tell the usual tales of soggy café chess games, conversations with cats and weekend trips to cancelled Morrissey shows.

Of the Popguns themselves, Wikipedia says, they “played a part in the British jangle pop scene.” And if you, like I, furrowed your brow quizzically at the term “jangle pop,” the ‘pedia will help you out there, too:

Jangle pop is a subgenre of rock music with its origins in the 1960s which features trebly, arpeggiated picking (typically on chiming electric twelve-string guitars or 6 string guitars, often employing a capo and chord inversions), together with straightforward song structures. The Beatles and The Byrds are commonly credited with launching the popularity of the “jangly” sound that defined the genre.

The term “jangle pop” itself emerged as part of the genre’s resurgence the early to mid-1980s that “marked a return to the chiming or jangly guitars and pop melodies of the ’60s”, and was epitomised by bands such as The Smiths. Between 1983 and 1987, the description “jangle pop” was, in the US, used to describe bands like R.E.M., Let’s Active and Tom Petty as well as a subgenre called “Paisley Underground”, which incorporated psychedelic influences.

(The article later references The Who, The Beach Boys, The Hollies, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and Simon and Garfunkel. The common sound of such bands, reportedly, comes from their use of Rickenbacker twelve-string guitars. I don’t know enough about music to say whether that’s true. But in general, seeing them all lumped together like that does help me grasp the notion of something that might conceivably be called “jangle pop.”)

So what of this specific track from TPEW’s debut album? Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Linear Tracking Live!:

LTL: …We have lost a great many artists this year. Is this about a specific musician or the collective loss of so many talented people?

Simon: During the year which this album was written I was working next to a beautiful big park in Brighton where I’d spend lunchtimes listening to music on my ‘phones whilst sitting on park benches and drifting off to those places that music takes you. It was more the fact that music and ideas live on long beyond their moment of creation that inspired the “spirited away” theme, but obviously the death of Bowie was such a big event around that time, and it’s easy to imagine him as the song’s subject. Having said that, my own bizarre fantasy for the song was around the possible passing of Steven Patrick [i.e., Morrissey] and how that could feel for those of us for whom he loomed so large. Then the actual title probably came from my son’s Studio Ghibli film collection. But I usually say that songs are often not about things, they are inspired by them and become something else. Then the meaning is in the listening, not the writing.

Sounds like the perfect way to close off 2016’s unholy catalogue of pop-culture deaths*, eh? Here’s “Spirited Away,” then, from Isobar Blues.

from 'Isobar Blues'

[Lyrics]

_______________

* Nope: apparently not just an urban legend.

Send to Kindle

Pay Attention to This Dream You Are Having

[Video: TED Talk by the puppeteers behind the War Horse stage production. The play was originally based on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, and was itself adapted into a very successful film by Steven Spielberg. Having seen this talk, but neither the play nor the film, I can’t imagine the imagery was much improved by using real horses. See the additional note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river (italicized passage):

…my definition of magic in the human personality, in fiction and in poetry, is the ultimate level of attentiveness. Nearly everyone goes through life with the same potential perceptions and baggage, whether it’s marriage, children, education, or unhappy childhoods, whatever; and when I say attentiveness I don’t mean just to reality, but to what’s exponentially possible in reality. I don’t think, for instance, that Marquez is pushing it in One Hundred Years of Solitude—that was simply his sense of reality. The critics call this “magic realism,” but they don’t understand the Latin world at all. Just take a trip to Brazil. Go into the jungle and take a look around. This old Chippewa I know—he’s about seventy-five years old—said to me, “Did you know that there are people who don’t know that every tree is different from every other tree?” This amazed him. Or don’t know that a nation has a soul as well as a history, or that the ground has ghosts that stay in one area. All this is true, but why are people incapable of ascribing to the natural world the kind of mystery that they think they are somehow deserving of but have never reached?

(Jim Harrison [source])

…and:

Being a Person

Be a person here. Stand by the river, invoke
the owls. Invoke winter, then spring.
Let any season that wants to come here make its own
call. After that sound goes away, wait.

A slow bubble rises through the earth
and begins to include sky, stars, all space,
even the outracing, expanding thought.
Come back and hear the little sound again.

Suddenly this dream you are having matches
everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.
If a different call came there wouldn’t be any
world, or you, or the river, or the owls calling.

How you stand here is important. How you
listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe.

(William Stafford [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle

Name Time

'La Otra Navidad (The Other Christmas),' by Oiluj Samall Zeid on Flickr

[Image: “La Otra Navidad (The Other Christmas),” by Oiluj Samall Zeid; found on Flickr and used here under a Creative Commons license. The site is a mausoleum in León, Spain, commemorating Republicans killed in the Spanish Civil War. Each nameplate represents one victim.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

[Interviewer Terry] Gross: I’d like you to read another poem from your book “Book of Longing.” And this is called “Titles.” Would you tell us when you wrote this?

[Leonard] Cohen: I’ve been writing it for a while. But I finished it last winter in Montreal. It’s a poem called “Titles.”

(Reading) I had the title Poet. And maybe I was one for a while. Also, the title Singer was kindly accorded me even though I could barely carry a tune. For many years, I was known as a Monk. I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early. I hated everyone. But I acted generously. And no one found me out. My reputation as a Ladies’ Man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights I spent alone. From a third-story window above the Parc du Portugal, I’ve watched the snow come down all day.

As usual, there’s no one here. There never is. Mercifully, the inner conversation is canceled by the white noise of winter. I am neither the mind, the intellect nor the silent voice within. That’s also canceled. And now, gentle reader, in what name — in whose name — do you come to idle with me in this luxurious and dwindling realms of aimless privacy?

(Leonard Cohen [source])

and:

The secrets to living are these:
First, the past cannot be improved upon.
Acknowledge what was and move on.
Next, the future cannot be molded.
Then, why bother?
Last, nothing can ultimately be controlled;
Not the past, nor the future, nor the present.
Accept this moment as it is.
Honoring these three,
One lives without shackles.

(Wu Hsin [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle

Midweek Music Break: I Moderni, “Carol of the Bells”

[Video: “Carol of the Bells,” by I Moderni]

I Moderni — Italian for “The Modern” — was at the time they made this video an a-capella quartet who placed second in the fifth (2011) season of the Italian X-Factor series. (They’re now a trio.) I’m crippled in my search to learn much about them: every single thing I’ve found on the Web about them, so far, is in Italian. Of course I can use Google Chrome to automatically translate, but it’s tough going…

In any event, here’s their decidedly unconventional video take on this familiar onomatopoeic Christmas carol. The song has always struck me as almost obsessive, hypnotically so; it has “lyrics,” but after you’ve listened to or read even a few stanzas it’s hard not to think, like, It doesn’t matter what the words say. (Poe’s ode to bells can do the same number on you. Clearly, there’s something about bells…) In I Moderni’s video reading, the words go even further — into territory like this:

Let yourself to be taken over by the music, your attention to the the world will wander. This will allow the real truths of the world to come out and play, unobserved, unbound by the familiar, animated not by human preconceptions but by their absence.

I really like this. It’s not quite horror; these aren’t “Chucky”-type dolls. But it sure as hell doesn’t square with “reality,” whatever that is. The right word might be eldritch.

Send to Kindle

A Quirky Eclectic Christmas Mix (2016 Ed.)

[Video: “The Wexford Carol,” performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Kraus.]

Want to visit the pages for earlier playlists, which include videos, other songs, and some background material not in the “official” current list? Here y’go:

2008 2009
2010 2011
2012 2013
2014 2015

Let’s get right to it:

Per usual at this time of year, I’m adding ten songs to the previous years’ selections. These are presented in two ways, in two separate little audio-player thingums:

  • The complete playlist — now up to ninety songs total (about four and three-quarters hours’ worth).
    • The list plays straight through, from start to finish, in the order in which the songs were first presented here at RAMH.
    • but you can also pop out the playlist into its own, compact window. This lets you proceed to read through the rest of the post or use your browser for something else — or close it altogether — while the music’s playing. (Note that the pop-out window will automatically begin playing.)
    • If you’d prefer, you can also shuffle the complete list in random order, in a pop-out window, by clicking below:

      Pop Out to Shuffle!

  • OR you can simply play this year’s list of ten songs (about a half-hour in length). This is pretty straightforward: sequential order, no pop-out window, no shuffle mode.

In either case, or even if you don’t want to listen at all, you might want to glance at the complete current list of song titles and performers. (Note: this is just a listing; you cannot play music from it.)

Okay, here are the two player doo-dads — the complete, followed by the current…

A Quirky/Eclectic Christmas Mix (complete)

A Quirky/Eclectic Christmas Mix (2016 Only)

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle

To Be in the World, Yes — Just Not Quite of It

'Here and Now,' by Dako Huang on Flickr

[Image: “Here and Now,” by Dako Huang. Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river (italicized passage):

I for one am resolved to mind or not mind only to the degree where my point of view is no larger than myself. I can thus have a great number of points of view, like fingers, and which I can treat as I treat the fingers of my hand, to hold my cup, to tap the table for me and fold themselves away when I do not wish to think. If I fold them away now, then I am sitting here, not because I am thinking. It is all indeed, I admit, rather horrible. But if I remain a person instead of becoming a point of view, I become a force and am brought into direct contact with horror, another force. As well set one plague of cats loose upon another and expect peace of it. As a force I have power, as a person virtue. All forces eventually commit suicide with their power, while virtue in a person merely gives him a small though constant pain from being continuously touched, looked at, mentally handled; a pain by which he learns to recognize himself. Poems, being more like persons, probably only squirm every time they are read and wrap themselves around more tightly. Pictures and pieces of music, being more like forces, are soon worn out by the power that holds themselves together. To me pictures and music are always like stories told backwards: or like this I read in the newspaper: ‘Up to the last she retained all her faculties and was able to sign cheques.’

(Laura Riding [source])

and:

A Path In The Woods from A New Name

I don’t trust the truth of memories
because what leaves us
departs forever
There’s only one current of this sacred river
but I still want to remain faithful
to my first astonishments
to recognize as wisdom the child’s wonder
and to carry in myself until the end a path
in the woods of my childhood
dappled with patches of sunlight
to search for it everywhere
in museums in the shade of churches
this path on which I ran unaware
a six-year old
toward my primary mysterious aloneness

(Anna Kamienska [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle