The Voice, the Song, the Vision, the Light

[Video: 10,000 Maniacs and David Byrne (live), performing Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be.” (Lyrics here.)]

From whiskey river:

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of today) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also.

(G. K. Chesterton [source])

and:

Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning

There are questions that I no longer ask
and others that I have not asked for a long time
that I return to and dust off and discover
that I’m smiling and the question
has always been me and that it is
no question at all but that it means
different things at the same time
yes I am old now and I am the child
I remember what are called the old days and there is
no one to ask how they became the old days
and if I ask myself there is no answer
so this is old and what I have become
and the answer is something I would come to
later when I was old but this morning
is not old and I am the morning
in which the autumn leaves have no question
as the breeze passes through them and is gone

(W. S. Merwin [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

Weekend Music Break: GQ, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”

GQNot at all a men’s style magazine, GQ is a girls quartet, each described at the group’s Web site as “a recent graduate” of Baltimore’s Towson University. Although they often use the a capella descriptor for themselves, the phrase most others reach for seems to be barbershop quartet. Toe-MAY-toe, toe-MAH-toe maybe: they made their first public splash in 2012 by winning the regional Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival, “the premier American showcase for vocal harmony music” — regardless of specific genre label — and then went on to place second in the nationals, performing against groups who’ve adopted one or the other of those labels.

(Happily, as far as I can tell, no one — least of all, GQ themselves — uses the rather hokey term for a “women’s quartet”: Sweet Adelines. In a recent Tweet, one of the group expressed gratitude for the other three and for “our barbershop family.”)

The core of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s “definition of the barbershop style” goes like this:

Barbershop music features songs with understandable lyrics and easily singable melodies, whose tones clearly define a tonal center and imply major and minor chords and barbershop (dominant and secondary dominant) seventh chords that often resolve around the circle of fifths, while also making use of other resolutions.

That’s quite a mouthful, almost none of which makes sense to me (or, I’d wager, to many other non-musicians). But the sound and style of barbershop singing is instantly recognizable. Stereotypically, a bass vocalist provides a sort of beatbox bum-bum-bum-BUM rhythm in the background, while three foreground voices — a couple of tenors and a baritone — twine around one another and sometimes merge, for sustained notes, in a glorious three- or four-part harmony. The content of barbershop music also follows stereotypical paths: “traditional” popular songs, often from the early 20th century.

(“Down by the Old Mill Stream” is not only considered typical, but also a frequent target for humor, especially parody. See, for instance, this clip from Eddie Murphy’s 2003 film, The Haunted Mansion — in which four haunted statues perform the song.)

But GQ (and similar groups), while honoring the tradition, are also determined to break from it. They showcase offbeat and often very contemporary songs, and explore ways to adapt traditional techniques to “modern” ears. For example, GQ’s big hit at that 2012 regional competition was “Timshel,” by Mumford & Sons. (Here’s a video they made, sometime later.)

GQ’s second album just dropped this summer, as the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign. At the Kickstarter project page, they chose to feature the video below to demonstrate their approach, using the old swing hit — think the Andrews Sisters — “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön.” Among other attractions, the video offers a nice visual demonstration of classic barbershop style: adding a voice at a time, melding them into a single layer. I really like it.

[Lyrics]

Send to Kindle
Share

Weekend Music Break: Limestone Chorus, “Woods & Water”

Limestone ChorusLet us consider, first, the name “Limestone Chorus.”

Limestone sounds rugged to me, rugged and roughcut. It suggests quarrying, of course, and it suggests caverns carved by underground rivers. It’s a sedimentary rock, so it crumbles and dissolves rather easily on its own — unlike (say) granite, basalt, and other igneous and metamorphic rocks… and it is everywhere. Wikipedia tells me that it makes up 10% of the volume of all sedimentary rocks. While it is inarguably rock, unlike (say) sandstone, limestone is curiously organic: “Most limestone is composed of skeletal fragments of marine organisms such as coral, forams and molluscs.”

Think about that a moment: limestone is a “living” rock — a common building and construction material comprising the remnants of a gazillion creatures. (Think about that the next time you’re inside a building of concrete: you might as well be undersea.)

So here we’ve got a band pursuing one of the longer threads — a sub-genre: folk, soul, and Americana — of (yes) rock history, a band named for this curiously-organic inorganic material. If the name had instead been constructed from the word “granite” or “quartzite,” the effect would have been totally different — calling to mind not the flowing of water and the whisper of grains, but hammers and chisels and bang-bang-bang.

And then there’s chorus: voices twined together, harmonizing…

Yeah. Now you’re getting the idea.

The name “Limestone Chorus” apparently represents a recent name change; the group (in a slightly reduced configuration) had previously been called “Shore Thing.” Okay, the latter was clever(ish), with the pun. But it was also easy, glib, and really wasted an entire word — thing — which communicated nothing at all. I have no idea how much thought and anxiety went into the name change, how much conscious vs. unconscious decision-making came into play, but as a band name, “Limestone Chorus” is leagues beyond “Shore Thing.”

So then there’s this song. Again, look first to the name: “Woods & Water.” When you hear a song title like that, do you imagine you’ll find headbanging within? Will the musicians assault their instruments and their amplifiers — and the audience’s ears — with an avalanche of sound? Will the lyrics preach, insult, rebuke?

When I opened the email announcing the upcoming debut of Limestone Chorus’s album Deer Friends*, and of “Woods & Water” in particular, I had no expectation of noise, electronica, trance. Indeed, I found almost exactly what I expected: luscious three-part harmonies overlaying and interleaved with acoustic instruments.

(With the obvious exception that Gordon Lightfoot sang solo, of course, the overall effect to me strongly recalls his “Did She Mention My Name.” Not a bad forerunner at all — again, no matter how conscious or unconscious the choice!)

The band is on record asserting that the song “describes the search for familiarity: the rediscovery of people and places who make us feel whole, safe and grounded. The song is driven through memory and nostalgia, pulling on emotional connections that shape a person.” This all comes through in the video, too, which I found oddly moving… Even though it’s not a “static” video, with a fixed image, pretty much nothing at all happens. And yet there is stuff happening, after all: the words (and their meanings and connotations) run over and through the music, and all of it runs over the visual, just like — well, just like water over and through limestone.

[Lyrics]

__________________

* Yes: Deer Friends. The album cover art even depicts the hallucinogenically colored head-and-shoulders of an antlered buck. Maybe they’re not quite over the punning impulse under which they first organized as “Shore Thing.”

Send to Kindle
Share

Potpourri, June 18th (2016 edition)

1959ish, I'd sayIt’s been a few months of hardware madness here — and if you know my tastes in computer stuff, you know they lean towards the software rather than the hardware side of things. So I haven’t been entirely happy during that time…

Back in mid-April, my two-terabyte (2TB) hard drive abruptly failed. It took me several weeks — educational ones, to be sure — to admit that I probably could not resuscitate the thing. I replaced it with a 3TB one, and all went swimmingly at first…

…at least, until I installed Windows 10 on it.

Here’s how my computer at home has been set up, now going back maybe five-six years:

The hard drive is divided into two (main) partitions, running two entirely different operating systems: Windows in the first partition, and Linux in the second. This is called a dual-boot setup: when you boot the computer, you’re prompted to select which operating system you want to run for this session. The default for me is Linux, but I do occasionally (rarely, actually) use Windows for one specific program or another.

The Windows side has moved progressively from Windows XP to Windows 7 and then finally to Windows 10, via the automatic (i.e., forced) upgrade which Microsoft “offers” to users of older versions. When I installed Windows 10 on the new hard drive, I was actually restoring it.

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

RAMH@8: To One Thing Constant Never… and a Playlist

Drawing by V. Spahn

[Image: cartoon by French cartoonist/illustrator/humorist V. Spahn. Roughly translated, I believe the caption says something on the order of, “Oh, shoot — I meant to get to the office early this morning!”]

Like many people who fired up blogs in the Great Flowering Era — i.e., pre-2009, say (the year when Facebook first turned a profit, or at least become “cash-flow positive“) — I imagined Running After My Hat would become a journal.

A journal, of course, is different from a diary. A diary celebrates or simply notes the everyday, with lesser or greater force depending on its import to the author; a journal discusses, considers, weighs, argues, and/or blathers on about topics which may or may not be based upon something mundane, but which may also spring, unbidden, from the author’s mind and soul. The latter more closely resembles my RAMH ideal at the outset.

I suppose the place has attained that ideal, over time, although the topics have come to differ from those I’d first imagined. I apparently have much less to say about writing, for example, than I once thought I would. (On the other hand, some of this is reticence by design.)

It’s also become, well, stranger than I’d planned — stranger in ways that I could not have anticipated. I didn’t know, in 2008, that the blogging wave was already cresting. For a while, I actually tried to post something new every single day; by the time RAMH attained what I think of as its own peak, though — 2011-13, maybe — the posting rate had already declined, roughly in proportion to the dwindling audience.

To be fair, the decline in my output was mirrored by the decline in my input — my reading of and participation in other blogs. It’s not as if RAMH were the only blog withering at the time. When Google dropped its “Google Reader” blog-aggregation product, in 2013, I believe the transformation of the Web from a writers-and-readers model to a social-chatter model was complete.

What’s left, then, has become more like a real journal: a place for talking to myself, as time and circumstance allow, about topics and in ways I don’t mind making public, but also about topics and in ways I can’t imagine sharing in Facebook’s short-attention-span theater. (RAMH posts do automatically trigger brief summary posts on Facebook, for anyone who might be interested, with links to the full RAMH entries.)

Although I haven’t done a statistical analysis, I bet ninety percent of the content here has come down to two things: posts in the “Ruminations” category — all of them whiskey river Fridays posts, I think — and posts related somehow to music. Translated, this means that my output here seldom exceeds two posts weekly: not a good mechanism for attracting and retaining loyal readers, but at the same time a good tool for “keeping my hand in.” I like ruminating, and I like learning (and talking at length) about some aspects of music, too: both pursuits which ultimately depend not on facts, but on the processing of facts. And I don’t mind processing them openly, for my own sake, even if for no one else’s.

All the other stuff I used to post about here has transitioned to That Other Place. That place has its uses, as I’ve learned. But there’s not much room there for running after one’s hat, any more than I’d find in a shopping mall at the holidays, or a crowded amphitheater.

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

Midweek Music Break: Hanna Bech

[Lyrics]

As I’ve observed before, some mysterious pixie-dust substance seems to have been stirred into the musical waters of Hamilton, Ontario. (See this post for one example.) It probably won’t be the last time I observe it. But I’m pleased to include today’s selection among the lot:

Hanna Bech, and Hanna Bech, and Hanna Bech, and...So far, I have not been able to learn much about our featured artist, Hanna Bech. This reflects both her newness and her novelty, which of course are not necessarily synonymous:

  • As far as I can tell, prior to 2015 Bech was presumably just an aspiring performer. The evidence seems to point to her during that time as a somewhat conventional amateur musician (“amateur” in the sense of not being paid to perform): instructor in voice and various instruments, participant in a couple of choirs, and so on. She certainly does not seem to have spent a decade in the stereotypical pop-star trenches — playing in bars, singing backup in studio sessions, building an audience. Instead, she seems to have just, well, started.
  • …And yet she must have spent much of that middle-of-the-road time thinking about what sort of pop performer she might want to be, when the moment arrived: not an aggressive challenger of status quos, but a, well, a beguiler.

If not obvious from the video, you can probably tell from the promotional photo (above right) that Bech has a playful side: it toys with (without quite parodying) her own video’s quirky* split-screen, commenting-on-itself camerawork and editing. The sound and sense of the song itself provide further hints; musically and in, well, spirit, it seems to me akin to Lenka’s “The Show” (which first appeared in this post seven (!) years ago).

I have the lyrics only for “ABCs,” but much of the rest of her recently released EP (with two exceptions) seems cut from the same bouncy fabric. As Bech says at her site, the EP (called Naked Bones) resembles “a film score and indie pop going on a first date — dramatic, playful, with a rhythm that carries it forward.”

Those two exceptions? Track #3, “Butterfly,” and especially the one with which she closes the EP: “Fear of Crumbs (f u gluten).” Again, I don’t know the lyrics; from the snarky title alone, I’d imagined it would fairly, if not quite stridently, assert the rights of the gluten-intolerant. But musically it doesn’t strike me that way at all; its music — its sound — made me think of Bonnie Raitt’s rendition of Joe Henry’s “God Only Knows.” (Video here.) Not, y’know, pop-y at all: pretty much just a piano and a vocalist, contemplative, maybe even a touch wistful (if not outright melancholy).

Edit to add: According to Hanna Bech herself (as I just learned via email), the lyrics to “Fear of Crumbs (f u gluten)” are “a dry raspy humour.” So much for my discernment!

In any case, I offer you today Hanna Bech’s Naked Bones: a mix of bouncy, “I may be stuck in traffic but I’m tapping my fingers on the steering wheel”-type moments, and some haunting, anomalous hints at deeper waters stirring below the bounce.

E.P.: 'Naked Bones,' by Hanna Bech

____________________________

* Yes, “quirky”: Bech herself has explicitly embraced the label… Among other examples, she helped organize a show last year, featuring as clutch of other idiosyncratic performers as well as herself. The title: Queens of Quirk.

Send to Kindle
Share

A Taste of Darkness, Seasoned with Light

'Laugh-Out-Loud Cats #1121,' by Adam Koford on Flickr

[Image: “Laugh-Out-Loud Cats #1121,” by Adam Koford on Flickr.com. Used here under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

Custom

There is a difference it used to make,
seeing three swans in this versus four in that
quadrant of sky. I am not imagining. It was very large, as its
effects were. Declarations of war, the timing fixed upon for a sea-
departure; or,
about love, a sudden decision not to, to pretend instead to a kind
of choice. It was dramatic, as it should be. Without drama,
what is ritual? I look for omens everywhere, because they are everywhere
to be found. They come to me like strays, like the damaged,
something that could know better, and should, therefore—but does not:
a form of faith, you’ve said. I call it sacrifice—an instinct for it, or a habit
at first, that
becomes required, the way art can become, eventually, all we have
of what was true. You shouldn’t look at me like that. Like one of those
saints
on whom the birds once settled freely

(Carl Phillips [source])

and (italicized portion):

White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field

Coming down
out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel,
or a buddha with wings,
it was beautiful,
and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings—
five feet apart—and the grabbing thrust
of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys
of the snow—

and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there,
like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows—
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light
wrapping itself around us—

as soft as feathers—
that we are instantly weary
of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes,
not without amazement,

and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river
that is without the least dapple or shadow,

that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light—
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

(Mary Oliver [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

Midweek Music Break: Tedeschi Trucks Band, “Anyhow”

Tedeschi Trucks Band - photo by Mark Seliger

[Tedeschi Trucks Band. Photo by Mark Seliger.]

We first encountered the Tedeschi Trucks Band here just about four years ago, following the release of their first album, Revelator. They haven’t been sitting on their hands since then, not at all: “Anyhow” is the first single from their newest (third) album, Let Me Get By. [Lyrics here.]

Of today’s musical selection, No Depression writes:

On “Anyhow,” Tedeschi starts out moaning like a lost soul but ends up soaring, channeling the spirit and sound of Bonnie Raitt, while Derek conjures up Duane [Allman] behind her.

Yeah, that. I’m not 100% sure I buy the specific comparisons. But if any voice could match Derek Trucks’s guitar work for sheer forceful power, it’s Susan Tedeschi’s. The woman can flat-out sing — and soaring is dead-on.

I found a high-quality video of the band performing the song in their Swamp Raga Studio in Jacksonville. I have no idea if this specific recording made it onto the album. But what especially interested me is that from the audio alone, I’d never have guessed that almost everyone performing is sitting down. Tedeschi Trucks has a solid reputation as a live band (I myself have never seen them in concert); you might think, y’know, Boy, that group must really move when they’re alone and into their music. Not so, apparently. (Which doesn’t bother me, I hasten to mention; I think what we’re seeing in that video is discipline. “Things” happen in live performances, and they’re not all happy things: people can trip over wires, bump into microphones, get distracted by bees — certainly not the kinds of events you want to capture in a studio recording.)

This reminds me a little of a conversation I had with a guy I used to work with, back in 1990-91. At the time, I’d taken a leave of absence from my stable job in New Jersey, moving to Virginia to see if I could write and publish a book. (I could, as it happened.) On a visit back to Jersey, my friend John B asked me about my workday as a writer. He couldn’t picture the act of writing. (Back then, I didn’t do first drafts via computer, but via good old pencils and paper.) “What do you do — you just sit at a table and… and you, uh, write?” I wonder what I do look like when I write. Come to that, I wonder what any writer looks like when in the act? It feels to me as though there must be an awful lot of staring into space involved.

“Anyhow” is certainly soulful. At the other end of the energy — and danceability — spectrum, though, I could pick any of a handful of other songs from the album (which this time around, includes all original material). Let’s follow up “Anyhow” with… oh, say, with “Don’t Know What It Means.” I wonder if they all sat still in the studio for this perky bit of sheer funk?

[Lyrics]

Send to Kindle
Share

Midweek Music Break: Tracy Chapman

[Video: “Give Me One Reason,” by Tracy Chapman, with choreography by Chris Martin and Larkin Poynton. That’s Martin and Poynton dancing, too — and only Martin and Poynton. I’d already watched this a few times before that fact hit me, and then I had to watch it a few times more.]

When Tracy Chapman’s single “Fast Car” broke in 1988, it seemed to come out of nowhere, and suddenly was everywhere. (I could swear I remember a Muzak version.) Even so, thanks to a personal life full of complications, I paid less attention to music — including Chapman — for the next few years. By the time I started listening to stuff again, I learned that her career had zoomed (on the strength of “Fast Car” and her biggest single, “Give Me One Reason”) and then subsided in the meantime. It finally seems to have settled into something of a sui generis long-term marathon, punctuated by public appearances and likewise out-of-nowhere cover versions of her work.

Her Greatest Hits compilation came out a few months ago. It includes remastered versions of both “Fast Car” and “Give Me One Reason,” naturally, and a live version of “Stand By Me”; the latter was recorded during Chapman’s appearance during the last week of David Letterman’s Late Show, in May 2015. (The video of that performance quickly went viral all on its own.)

The album reminds me that there’s nothing flashy about Chapman’s songs. They’re just straight-ahead good music, highly personal and/or deeply political as the case may be. Like Chapman herself, they give and they give, rewarding repeated listenings and reworkings, in various forms, by other performers.

The dance routine in the above video, choreographed and performed by Chris Martin and Larkin Poynton, has nothing to do with the lyrics of “Give Me One Reason.” (When Chapman sings “Squeeze me,” for instance, the dancers don’t hug themselves or each other.) It simply celebrates the song’s music, as the vehicle — a fast car — on the roof of which the footwork, the elbow jabs, the sheer virtuosity of the performances are zipping up a highway.

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

Please Continue. But Count on Interruptions.

[Video: “Stay Go,” by Robert Cray, from his album Shame and A Sin.]

From whiskey river:

You can plan all you want to. You can lie in your morning bed and fill whole notebooks with schemes and intentions. But within a single afternoon, within hours or minutes, everything you plan and everything you have fought to make yourself can be undone as a slug is undone when salt is poured on him. And right up to the moment when you find yourself dissolving into foam you can still believe you are doing fine.

(Wallace Stegner [source])

and:

As the pen rises from the page between words, so the walker’s feet rise and fall between paces, and as the deer continues to run as it bounds from the earth and the dolphin continues to swim even as it leaps again and again from the sea, so writing and wayfaring are continuous activities, a running stitch, a persistence of the same seam or stream.

(Robert Macfarlane [source])

…and, from whiskey river’s commonplace book:

From The Long Sad Party

Someone was saying
something about shadows covering the field, about
how things pass, how one sleeps towards morning
and the morning goes.

Someone was saying
how the wind dies down but comes back,
how shells are the coffins of wind
but the weather continues.

It was a long night
and someone said something about the moon shedding its white
on the cold field, that there was nothing ahead
but more of the same.

Someone mentioned
a city she had been in before the war, a room with two candles
against a wall, someone dancing, someone watching.
We begin to believe

the night would not end.
Someone was saying the music was over and no one had noticed.
Then someone said something about the planets, about the stars,
how small they were, how far away.

(Mark Strand [source])

and:

If you found a contradiction in your own thoughts, it’s very unlikely that your whole mentality would break down. Instead, you would probably begin to question the beliefs or modes of reasoning which you felt had led to the contradictory thoughts. In other words, to the extent you could, you would step out of the systems inside you which you felt were responsible for the contradiction, and try to repair them. One of the least likely things for you to do would be to throw up your arms and cry, “Well, I guess that shows that I believe everything now!”

(Douglas R. Hofstadter [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share