All of my waking hours in the last week (and some of my sleeping ones as well) have been spent listening to the new National record, Trouble Will Find Me (out May 20 on 4AD). I am thoroughly taken by this narcotic, melodic speedball of record, all dark hues and complicated beauty. The National is one of my favorite bands, and I’ve waited three years for this. From the understated opening notes and breakingly delicate vocals, this record is magnificence that was absolutely worth the wait.
I think the magic combination that I so appreciate about the National is the way their music is both sentimental (“I am secretly in love with / everyone that I grew up with”) and gorgeously fatalistic (“I have only two emotions / careful fear and dead devotion / I can’t get the balance right”) at the same time. It’s such an interesting and noteworthy combination in music; that constant engagement with things we often think of as being very much at-odds. The Guardian wrote a piece about this record, and I re-read this sentence a few times: “What they have perfected, over the course of six albums, is a kind of glistening melancholy, a strangely beautiful dourness.”
I got stuck on the part that said that it was strange to find beauty in dourness, because lately I have been challenging myself to see a natural interweaving, and not something strange at all. I was reminded of something I wrote for that brilliant Cold Specks video, which wove together the decomposing and the budding, the avalanche with the slicing forward. Even though I have trouble articulating the way this concept looks in my head, I think it is the same reason I love The National – their songs are all both, at once.
“When they ask what do I see, I say: a bright white beautiful heaven hanging over me,” Matt sings on this (very dark) record. It’s there, all at once: in that blinding brilliance, the desire for redemption, that sad shitty feeling in your gut when you realize that things are so very broken everywhere. When I think of that, I shield my eyes because we can all agree that sometimes it’s too much, and sometimes we default to lingering in the swamp. But one thing that Berninger’s words –and this band’s elegant instrumentation– will always do for me is sharpen that sinuous zone between the celestial and the torturous.
Matt Berninger is my all-time favorite lyricist: he writes intellectual, spidery lyrics that can be so achingly spot-on in what they evoke, and also don’t shy away from the ugliest things we can think. I had to start keeping a note on my phone to write down all the mindblowing lines on this record that keep jumping out at me (or at least what I think they say). Lines as simple and profound as: “When I walk into a room, I do not light it up. Fuck.” Or these lines from “Slipped”:
“I’m having trouble inside my skin
I try to keep my skeletons in
I’ll be a friend, and a fuck, and everything
but I’ll never be anything you ever want me to be…
I keep coming back here where everything slipped
…I will not spill my guts out.”
Drummer Bryan Devendorf is probably also my favorite drummer; his percussion will often feel blissfully narcotic to me, in its tight persistence and crisp unpredictability. To me, his drums speak another language and contribute to the meaning of the song just as much as the words themselves do. Throughout this record, and every National record, one of their strengths is in changing time signatures, sudden shifts and (especially) hesitations. In a recent interview with The Gothamist, Bryan talked about the song “Hard to Find” being a “beautiful piece of music, around this odd fixed-meter thing — it’s very natural and, for lack of a better term, human.”
Similarly guitarist Aaron Dessner talks about the “funny extra beat” in opening song “I Should Live In Salt.” All throughout this record my brain kept lighting up at unexpected percussive joys. “Apartment Story” (on 2007′s Boxer) has long been a song that I will put it on the headphones if I want to sleep, using that rhythmic ferocity to mute and soften the corners of all my non-stop thoughts. On this new record, “Graceless” is an immediate standout to me that does the same: over an unrelenting hammering of classy drums, it’s addictive, with brilliant lines like “All of my thoughts of you / bullets through rotten fruit.” Wow.
The multi-instrumental capacities and coherence of The National have only become more pronounced throughout their six records. “I Need My Girl” starts with these weird little needling guitar tones that feel like all the persistent thoughts that start pricking at you in the darkness as soon as you turn off the lights to go to sleep; all the insecurities, all the things we’ve said that may have, in fact, been a little too aggressive — even as they helped keep ourselves intact, hold our shit together, help us gather our shit in. “Heavenfaced,” feels like a bruise forming, or slipping into some sort of storm-swollen dark river. It has one of the most beautiful breaks on the record, and gives us this lyric, which is perfect:
“Let’s go wait out in the fields with the ones we love.”
Many of the Nationalisms that I love reappear here on this record: chaotic background yelling, persistently superb percussion, and haunting female vocal harmonies (from guests like Annie Clark/St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten, and Nona Marie Invie from Dark Dark Dark). Sufjan Stevens is on here, and so is Doveman (remember this wonderful track?). And somehow the sum is greater than all those (pretty great) parts.
Lots of people are calling this record the best one yet from The National. To me, that’s like picking a favorite child, or chocolate/beer/ice cream/any beloved thing, for that matter. This is an astoundingly good record that you should get lost in next week, and for many weeks and months to follow. How do they keep doing it? It must be magic. Or chemistry. Or something else I’m just busy deeply, deeply appreciating over here.
Spotted in Berlin
I have what’s considered a good view.
Here’s the last song of our house show with Damien Jurado last night in Colorado Springs. A lot of wanting and waiting led up to this fairly exquisite moment.
Damien is on tour right now, a combination of house and venue shows. You should get on that.
Late spring is such a raw and wet time of digging out from under the ice and (maybe) melting snow (not this week though, in Colorado). There is something about the world that seems undressed, on the verge of new, and full of promise. It is as if all of nature around me is living that wonderful Ryan Adams lyric “precious little thing / with eyes that dance around without their clothes.”
I know this is late-ish, but I’m gonna call April a wash and declare it not too late to salvage this spring. Some of these songs are borderline summery too, so if you live somewhere that’s already green and warm, then you’ll find fodder to soundtrack for whatever goodness this season brings.
UNDRESS ALL THE WORLD ::
THE FUEL/FRIENDS SPRINGTIME 2013 MIX
Love Like This – Kodaline
With a whistle stretching cleanly over the horizon and a melody that explodes in technicolor bursts, this carnival of a song dives right in head first – not even caring if love like this won’t last forever. Bold move.
Needle – Born Ruffians
“I belong to no one, like the watermelon / rolling with momentum / spitting out its seeds. Buried under snow and waiting just to show us how it grows…” This song dovetails in with the last one, I find, all about the deliciousness of sometimes being “a song without an album.” And after that warmly layered fleet-foxy intro, it breaks into a full-on shiny indie dance anthem.
Undress The World – The Milk Carton Kids
The simple purity and Paul-Simon-ness of this song feels effervescent and wide-eyed believing — in spite of the fact that nothing around the heroine of the song is whole. I also realized, in a holy crap moment, that I wrote about Milk Carton Kid Joey Ryan way back in 2008, after a musical scavenger hunt to discover who did the soundtrack for the indie film Bella. Good then, good now.
Jumper Cables – Widower
A hugely wide-open song to start the terrific Fool Moon record from Seattle’s Widower. I’ve had all of these semi-woeful lyrics running a bare path through my head lately, because they are so perfectly surgical, all “ferris wheels of feelings” and such (and, you know, that’s what I do). You should really come see Widower at my Fuel/Friends BBQ House Concert on May 23, to kick off Memorial Day Weekend and summer and all those good things, and since Kevin is coming all that way.
Pompeii (house show version) – Bastille
This is my favorite recording lately, just listening to it over and over on repeat (especially in my car), and basking in all that joy. The best tiny moment comes at 1:29, after that avalanche of a drum cascade and you hear a guy laugh out loud of sheer happiness, almost disbelief. I’ve been trying to be that appreciative. That laugh made me sure that he and I could be friends.
Jericho – John Fullbright
This song, from 24-year-old Oklahoman Fullbright, is just one sonofabitch of a marvelous song, one you feel like you know as an old friend from the first time you hear it, as he struggles with waiting for something –the right thing– to unfurl.
To The Bugs On My Ceiling (with River Giant) – Edmund Wayne
I love this sundrenched, golden EP from Seattle band Edmund Wayne (joined here by River Giant, who I will see at Timber! Fest in July). There’s a slinky, inebriated feel to this song that enchants me as it winds its way through the speakers, all falsetto and rueful regrets. Maybe it reminds me a lot of the way Jeff Buckley’s “Everybody Here Wants You” also made me feel, and there is not a thing wrong with that.
Little Numbers – BOY
Two Swiss/German gals in a band called BOY; tricky — and goddamn catchy. There is no way to listen to this song without tapping something, even if it is a mental airdrum solo in your head. Spring is making promises outside.
Just To Know What You’ve Been Dreaming – Will Johnson
Centro-matic / South San Gabriel frontman Will Johnson came and stunned us all in a house show and a chapel session last week, and since then I have been listening to even more of his music than usual. This song is from his 2004 record Vultures Await, which is heavy on the piano and also helps restore some hope in me about the good things that are out there waiting. Life is wide, as Will told me with simple confidence, over my kitchen table.
Joe DiMaggio Done It Again – Houndmouth
I nestled this one up next to Will’s song because he loves baseball as much as I do, and this is the season, the most blessed season of them all. With lyrics written by Woody Guthrie, originally sung by Wilco and Billy Bragg, covered here by the fiery Houndmouth: you cannot go wrong with a song like this. I already have plans this year to see two Giants games in Denver, a Twins game in MPLS, a Mariners game in Seattle, and I couldn’t be happier.
I’ll Slip Away – Rodriguez
I love how the music of long-overlooked Seventies folk musician Rodriguez is all over the place these days after the release of the fantastic documentary about him, Searching For Sugar Man. “And I’ll forget about the girl who said “no” / then I’ll tell who I want where to go … Maybe today, I’ll slip away.” This song and this season both make me want to explore and take advantage of every sunny day and unfrozen road.
Hardly Are You Lonely – Desirae Garcia
Hazel-eyed Colorado luminaria Desirae Garcia (from the Haunted Windchimes) has devastated me in the best possible way with this little vinyl EP Ill Fitting she recently put out, just four songs recorded at home to tape. They navigate dark waters with fearlessness, a flower on the ocean floor. She plays an early show tonight at the Bridge Gallery in Colorado Springs for First Fridays.
Specks – Matt Pond PA
An older tune from 2010′s The Dark Leaves, this song bravely professes, “I believe in energies that no one has to see for us to prove,” which sums up some of the faithfulness required to completely enjoy spring, doesn’t it? Currents are rising in the specks of silver in the sky, and gold in the river running.
Time To Run – Lord Huron
On the recommendation of my friend Joe Pug, I have recently discovered that this is a terrific album to (not only name one of your favorites of 2012 but also) run to. The warmly calescent percussion and themes of appreciating this world and not wanting to leave it, even when sometimes you have to escape to the desert, make my daily runs quite a bit more enjoyable. Of course Joe gets to run in Texas and I am still fighting off ice storms, but I’ll make up for it come July.
Don’t Watch Me Dancing – Little Joy
Perhaps you remember this wonderful gem of an album, a side project from Fabrizio Moretti (The Strokes), Binki Shapiro, and Rodrigo Amarante (Los Hermanos) that feels like you wandered off in 1960s Cuba and found yourself slow-dancing on a porch somewhere after a few too many rum and cokes.
I Will Not Die in Springtime – Chris Porterfield of Field Report
For a dude who died in 1864, Stephen Foster is just absolutely tearing it up on the Fuel/Friends seasonal mixes lately — He also penned “Hard Times Come Again No More” which opened my fall mix. But to hear Field Report‘s Chris Porterfield give such heartfelt treatment to this lovely elegiac hymm about music on the breeze and soft, delicious murmurs, well….how can anyone resist?
Muchacho’s Tune – Phosphorescent
This is a song for rolling away the stone, for realizing that the river is running bigger and faster than you are, even as you lag in the dirty city snow for a while. Between the shadow and the storm lays this amazing record, one of the best of the year so far, hands down.
We’ll See The Sun – Houses
I already put this song from Denver band Houses on a summer mix in 2009, but fuck it, this season needs it all over again. I heard this song reverberating through my internal brain-speakers the other day when I was lying flat and worn out after a yoga class, and all of a sudden the sun split through the heavy grey clouds that had been blanketing Pikes Peak, right before it set, and shone directly into my eyes through the huge windows. Yes.
Kelsey Sprague lives in Sammamish, Washington, and has a perfectly direct plaintiveness and heart-bravery that I find immensely appealing.
Take My Heart (live at the Ogden House) – Kelsey Sprague
This song often sticks in my head for days at a time, even as I want to advise our heroine not to get lost in those eyes again. Thanks Kevin Ihle for capturing it.
Last night in the span of five songs at the Bluebird Theater, in an opening set, I watched Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats become the best band in Denver. It was their very first show and holy mackerel you guys, I was speechless.
My cheeks flushed all red, my friend Andrew and I just kept looking at each other with jaws dropped. As those horns wailed, the piercing songwriter troubadour was reborn as a writhing, kicking soul singer with a seven-piece band behind him. As I surveyed the room, there was a similar look of pure joy on everyone’s faces, as Nathaniel yowled and yelled like a man possessed.
I know my video skills last night were extremely sub-par (I figure it out, and rotate my phone) but this electrified minute of video will give you some idea.
As Nathaniel sings here: son of a bitch / god damn.
SATURDAY MORNING UPDATE OF ECSTASY: Someone recorded the ENTIRE show in hi-def video!!
How can Dash Hammerstein be a real name? Or better yet, since I think it is, how could he do anything but make humble retro-inspired pop songs of mooning and harmony, with a moniker like that?
Dash Hammerstein wrote to me that he is a twenty-four year old carpenter from Brooklyn, and also that “I make these little surfy country tunes whenever I get a chance.” The two technicolor tunes I heard on Bandcamp were just exactly the sort of immediately-hummable reminiscence that I needed this week – all Buddy Holly and tears on my pillow, with handclaps. I want to do a hot summer house party with this guy and You Won’t.
You and Your Boys – Dash Hammerstein
In addition to that new free EP charmer, Dash has a full free album called Bito Cabrito. So good. Come swoon with me.
My next Fuel/Friends house concert is one week from today!
On Wednesday night, April 24, Will Johnson is finally coming to play after a long time planning. Will is a Texan songwriter who fronts Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, making smoldering, understated music for the last twenty years. He’s also collaborated on some of my favorite side projects in recent years: with Jim James and Jay Farrar on that tremendous Woody Guthrie album New Multitudes last year, as a part of Monsters of Folk (with Conor Oberst, Jim James, and M. Ward), and on the smoky duo album with Jason Molina (of Magnolia Electric Company, who recently passed away).
There is something in Will’s honest voice and way of phrasing that makes me persistently uncomfortable (in a way I very much like); it’s a red-hot ember held real close to the skin. I’m so looking forward to an evening of just close listening to him and his guitar.
I have been completely riveted by Will’s music ever since I first saw this song that my friend Dainon recorded years ago in the radio station studios where he worked:
“And we tried innocence and we tried formaldehyde / in the end you were left with the string and I, the kite” — ooof. That’s still one of the most powerful songs I’ve personally ever heard about a marriage ending.
I, The Kite (live on KRCL) – Will Johnson
Last year, his record Scorpion was this sun-scorched, potent slow-burner of densely woven wonder, and I think I listened to the track “You Will Be Here, Mine” on repeat for months. It is so full of wonderful hesitancies and fumbling that make it even sweeter when everything finally hits its stride in that song.
TWO OTHER THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT WILL:
1. He just announced a collaborative project with (Fuel/Friends two-time house show alum) David Bazan, called Overseas:
2. Will loves baseball (a man after my own heart) and makes acclaimed paintings about it. Wonderful.
YOU MUST BUY ADVANCE TICKETS FOR THIS SHOW.
Do it now, as other cities (see below) have sold out!
I like the rambly, literate way that Jesse Elliott always lets his heart and words bleed all over everything. For years with (chapel session alums) These United States, and now through his new project Ark Life, it always sounds like his mind is rambling so fast and so pure that the rest of all of us around him can barely keep up. He is one of my favorite kinds of musicmakers.
His new Denver-based band Ark Life blends together a crew of good musicians to make some fine open-air/open-highway music, all tied up with three-part female harmonies. Tomorrow night they are playing a Fuel/Friends House Concert, and if you’re in Colorado, you should be there.
Let Your Heart Break (live on Daytrotter) – Ark Life
You can download the rest of their Daytrotter session from last week over here. It’s the first recorded material available anywhere on the internets from Ark Life, so if you want to hear more, well, you’ll just have to come to my house show tomorrow night.
Also playing with Ark Life tomorrow night, I am excited to welcome Denver band Poet’s Row for the first time, maybe named after some cool art deco apartments on Capitol Hill? Either way: it’s a show not be to missed.
Nathaniel Rateliff may have one of the most piercingly uncommon voices I have yet welcomed into the chapel. It zings through the air when he lets it loose and it is absolutely impossible not to turn your head and gape. Nathaniel makes music that you can’t ignore, and you really don’t want to. Looking like a hard-swilling sailor stumbled off a boat on leave with his turquoise rings and pearl snaps, he disarms with his cathedral-filling voice that grew up singing in churches and, likely, breaking a heart or two.
I remember hearing Nathaniel years ago, fronting his band Born In The Flood, opening for Kings of Leon on a rainy Denver night. Even with a full, loud band behind him I could tell that this was something special. He has honed his voice as a spry instrument over the years I have known him, and now I find it as powerful in the whisper as the wail. There’s also this wry half-smile behind everything I hear Nathaniel sing, a patience and an insight that this song will, eventually, get you, as it alternates cartwheeling in the best wandering-troubadour showmanship and quietly probing in truths and failures.
Three of these songs are brand new creations, unveiled just for us in the chapel, the grey afternoon before our house show. Nathaniel seems to be in a fomenting fertile stage right now, starting new soul bands (Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, probably my favorite new band name in a good while) and playing with old friends in groups like Miss America (with longtime bandmate Joseph Pope III and other Denver luminaries, incidentally playing May 10 in Colorado Springs for The Changing Colors CD release party).
All of these new songs ache, all of them need to be listened to. I am so glad he’s writing like a maniac these days, and we get to reap the results.
FUEL/FRIENDS CHAPEL SESSION #24: NATHANIEL RATELIFF
February 21, 2013 – Shove Chapel, Colorado Springs
No Place To Fall (Townes Van Zandt)
Nathaniel started the session with this cover, which seems almost unfair to knock the wind out of me so soon. There is such a gentle lilt and cadence to the way he sings those cripplingly sad lyrics about knowing you need to fall, like a slow-motion tumble down stairs. And that sideways wince when he sings the lines, “but I’m sure wantin’ you…”. I didn’t think there was a way to make Townes songs even sadder, but somehow — there it is.
Don’t Get Too Close
This song dances almost mischievously, an easy shuffle even as it warns us not to come any closer, as if it could spin away at any moment. “Wait, don’t come any closer,” it warns, maybe kindly, maybe evasively. “It was something you couldn’t see.” (watch the video)
Forgetting Is Believing
There’s a line in one of my most-beloved poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which places us “when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table” and in the streets there is “the yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.”
This song curls and nuzzles and rises hazily just like that, the siren song of forgetting. (watch the video)
“Can I play that?” Nathaniel asked, eyeing towards the back of the stage at the shining Steinway piano. “Yes, PLEASE,” I replied — and wow. What tumbled out of him is this rueful, elegiac hymn that tugs at long winter days and growing older in frozen slumber.
I’ve been thinking of piano a lot lately, as we fight through the final, sometimes-brutal days of Spring before Summer. Songs like this are why.
DOWNLOAD THE ZIP: NATHANIEL RATELIFF CHAPEL SESSION
Last week I spent some long hours in an old Volvo, driving across the flat beige heart of this country from Colorado to Chicago. The first stop and one of the main impetuses behind this adventure was Lawrence High School in Kansas, and the Room 125 Productions film studies classroom of Mr. Jeff Kuhr.
Jeff and I have been connected through a series of kismet-laced events that started the same week that The Head and The Heart played that first house show for me in November 2010, a few days after Jeff met them across the street from his house in Lawrence and decided on a whim to ask the band if they’d come play some songs in his classroom and talk about their creative process, while his students filmed and learned.
That initial classroom visit has led to 21 other bands and artists coming into his classroom – folks like The Civil Wars, Damien Jurado, Night Beds, Drew Grow & The Pastors’ Wives, Bryan John Appleby, Kelli Schaefer, The Local Strangers, Nathaniel Rateliff, Small Houses, Hey Marseilles, Shenandoah Davis, and The Devil Whale (you could say we have some overlap). Many of the questions these kids come up with would make any serious interviewer jealous, as they shoot past the trimmings to focus in on “the thing behind the thing,” as Drew Grow said when he visited.
This is an uncommon classroom, and a teacher unlike any I ever had in high school. In addition to assigning prep listening homework to his students before each artist session (and having them come up with questions and film the sessions and do the post-production), Jeff composes an eloquent and probing introduction to read to the class that day.
When Jeff read this one last Monday for Mike Clark, all about faith and beauty and struggle in art and in our lives, the recognition I felt in his words made those stupid hot tears well up in my eyes (they’ve been doing that more than usual lately). Even as I write this, it does the same, and makes me think that this course’s content might be some of the most important things these kids learn in high school.
“Again, it’s about recognition,” Jeff said, “and the best art does this — we recognize something, maybe familiar, maybe foreign, but it sets us seeking, questioning, not the great out there but the great in here. And when that happens, when that really happens, you’ll know. You’ve been shaken, you’ve lost your cool, things will never be the same.”
“I’m thinking of a moment like the one the poet Rilke describes in the poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo‘ where upon seeing that piece of art, its power engulfed him, saying to him, ‘you must change your life.’”
“To me, Mike’s music is a reminder of all this, the soundtrack, I suppose. The music, maybe, for courage, for action, for doing something about your shakiness, your oh shit moments, come what may. It’s the music for losing your cool and taking chances, of faith and love and longing — music that reminds you that there is something more, something beyond surfaces and screens.”
Here’s the way Mike answered that:
(the first of five videos total; the rest coming soon)
Spurred by Jeff’s brave capacity for rumination on Things That Matter (one of my very favorite traits, incidentally) and being back in that uncertain space of high school, and hearing Mike talk about his finding music and deciding to change his life — it was a deeply affecting day that helped remind me why I love and need songs like this, and engagement with people like this.
I am appreciative for those passing periods, the pressing past each other in the halls; the sweet uncertainty of confronting ourselves in the other and feeling, for a minute, that rush of recognition.
Jeff is doing good work with those kids. They probably know a lot of things I’ve forgotten. Whatever they pursue, whatever any of us pursue, if we chase that recognition and challenge Jeff talks about, I think we’ll be heading in the right direction, whether that’s to Paris or grad school or a cabin built in rural Alaska. As I walked out the door, I noticed a Friday Night Lights quote tacked on the classroom wall and indeed — with clear eyes and full hearts like that, we can’t lose, not one of us.
I’m real glad that someone like him is running a classroom like that, and you should spend some time in the archives of the videos these students have filmed and produced to help these artists tell their stories.
I’ve been extraordinarily interested in Small Houses lately; both the musician from Flint, Michigan who plays under that moniker, and also, coincidentally, in literal tiny houses that you can live in contentedly with very few possessions (examples: 1, 2, 3). I think I am in a petite lull lately, an inward-turning phase of simplification — maybe spurred by a recent funeral celebration in California and the subsequent reflection on what lasts, or maybe spurred just by reaching a level of total saturation of capacity.
As punny as the small houses thing might sound, it is a theme I cannot escape in these last few months. I have listened to Jeremy Quentin’s Small Houses record dozens and dozens of times on repeat — it is almost all I want lately (alongside that Widower record, and the one from Mike Clark).
Exactly Where You Wanted To Be is an elegiac, piercing record. It costs less than seven dollars. Oh, please, go buy it.
I’m heading on a roadtrip to Chicago next week, and I love the disarming duplicity (and odd optimism) of the line: “And although I said I meant it when I didn’t — let’s dream of Illinois”
Oh, Hiding Out – Small Houses
That’s the first track on the record, and I had a hard time picking which song to post. I will say that there is a piano break at 2:09 on “I Saw Santa Fe” that made me reflexively dissolve into tears the first time I heard it, without even thinking, for absolutely no reason other than that it is this stunningly evocative stab of melancholy and memories, for a moment I never lived through. “The Last Night Of Summer,” “Sarah’s Song,” the dusty windchime distance in the closing song “Homes and Photographs,” man — I could have easily posted any song on this album and written you a novel about it.
I’ve been unable to write about this record, because I have too many thoughts on it. Just get the whole thing, and carve out some months of your life to dedicate to the cause of listening. Full album stream:
And THIS. Reminds me a lot of Tallest Man on Earth with that piano — and completely decimates me.
Last weekend I made up a big crockpot of stew and invited ten Fuel/Friends readers over to my house to talk about Josh Ritter‘s new album, The Beast In Its Tracks, an intensely personal record that Josh wrote in the wake of his recent divorce. The concept behind this pow-wow was that in the same way people get together to talk about books they’ve read and been affected by, it would be interesting to try extending the same concept to the music we so passionately consume.
And passionately do Josh’s fans consume his music. I got over forty entries for this album club in just a couple of days, from as far away as France and England. People wrote long, beautiful, wrenching letters to me about Josh’s music and how it had soundtracked some of their most excoriating moments and months in their lives, as well as some of the most joy-filled. Some I kept closing and returning to because they were almost too flooded for me to absorb all at once. They were some of the most visceral connections I’ve ever witnessed in the time I have been writing this blog. I felt honored.
I picked ten folks that could feasibly come to my place on a random Sunday night, and ultimately the ten of us sat huddled around my laptop after dinner while Josh skyped in to talk to us from his Brooklyn apartment, shortly before he headed out on this long tour. Of course he was joyful, and of course he was thoughtful, and gracious. Most of us piped up with a question that had been on our minds after listening to the record — and all of us enjoyed his ruminations, his literary references, and his laughter.
Pull up a chair.
Josh Ritter: Can I just say first of all, you guys, this is really awesome, I’m so honored, so honored. Thank you so much for doing this — this is incredible.
Heather: Oh man, we think it’s pretty exciting. I was thrilled to get a chance to do something where we get to actually get together in person and talk about music. We were just talking about how so many of our communities are not physical communities, so we don’t get to actually sit down and talk about things that matter to us, music-wise. We’ve all enjoyed even just already tonight having food and talking and all that. So thanks for giving us the opportunity to do that.
We’ve got a couple questions that different folks have come up with, and we thought we’d just start in, if you’re ready.
JR: Yeah, totally.
Maddy: So, Josh, with So Runs the World Away, you talked a lot about your writer’s block before that and how hard you were working to just consume music, literature, museums, get inspirations from wherever you could – feed the monster, as you said. Then with this album, it seems like you got inspiration that you didn’t want, internally, and I was wondering what you were also consuming, what you were reading, what you were listening to, while you were going through the process of writing this album.
JR: What I’ve noticed about writing records (and it’s not too much different from other things in life, I think) is that you’re so influenced by the external surroundings, but you’re most influenced by the choices you made on the last thing you did, you know? And with So Runs the World Away that was just …those were big songs. I had the compulsion to really write big songs, but also, I felt like I needed to put big things in my brain, you know? Like with songs like “Orbital” which was a song that I wrote just trying to…I just wanted to get “the big bang” into a song. I wanted to figure out the process, see if I could get it as concise as I could.
That was something that was really fun to do, but it also kind of felt frantic — like I was a stopped-up bottle and then suddenly I was free and trying to get as much written as I could at one time, really frantically. And that was without a personal external pressure. There wasn’t anything going on in my life that I knew at the time that was really pushing me in that direction. I just wanted to make something big, just because I thought it would be fun. And I felt that the album before, Historical Conquests had been kind of a scrappier thing; I wanted So Runs the World Away to have a little bit more orchestration to it, you know? So the museums, and the books I was reading at the time, that really helped me to do that.
With The Beast in its Tracks, obviously I was thinking very much about this major event in my life that was the catalyst for all this writing. You’re right, that experience really threw my influences into stark relief. The things that really mattered to me at the time, I went back to them like comfort food, you know? I went back to some of the writers that I really loved for a dose of what they had given me before….like definitely Flannery O’Connor. Or, also Fleetwood Mac — Fleetwood Mac was a big thing for me because I felt like — there’s a guy, Lindsey Buckingham. He can write a guitar line that has two notes in it, and it’s so badass. And he plays three notes and he’s gone, like that’s it. And I liked that kind of unselfish playing. I loved reading …I went back and read Deadwood, which is a book that I really loved, by Pete Dexter. I was also reading this book called The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which was so good, mostly because I was interested in just that pace of the life. That book got me interested in other things in life besides what was going on in my head. To read about somebody who was interested in everything in the world, and had some really tragic things happen to him, but he still just pointed himself forward, you know? I guess the actual experience might be a catalyst, but it doesn’t give you a new vocabulary, it just realigns the vocabulary that you already had.
Seth: So, the great folk songwriters write great stories, and it’s not usually about their own life, but they look at the world around them and they respond to it, and they tell the world’s stories. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I read in an interview where you said you haven’t in the past really liked writing autobiographically. And wondering…this album seems obviously very much an autobiographical album, and wondering what gave you the freedom to put that hat on, so to speak, or to begin writing, opening up that door to yourself as far as what poured into the songs. What was that process like, if there was a process?
JR: I have to write about stuff. For most of my life, I’d been writing about the things I thought about and the things I saw, and I pictured this album kind of like walking across the desert and everything’s going fine – and then suddenly, you come to the Grand Canyon. So you can write about anything, but then you come to the Grand Canyon, and it’s undeniable and it’s right there, and if you turn around and you don’t write about it, you’re kind of a coward. You’ve gotta do it.
This is an important experience. So many people have it, it’s not just my own experience. And I would never write about it if it was just my own experience. It’s something that lots of people go through; a broken heart is something everybody goes through, so I just wanted to write about it in the way that was most open to everybody, while still being able to make sure I could tell the things that really mattered to me. But it was definitely a decision. I thought the idea of sitting down and writing about other things was so unthinkable to me at the time. I feel like after a while, of course, the power of that sort of stuff goes out, because you can only tell so many stories about yourself; you have to tell other stuff. The last thing I want to do is really bore people with that stuff. So I feel like this is a pass. I gave myself a pass in this one regard.
Seth: George Oppen said “Like a bull in a china shop: it is striking for a while. After that, the china shop becomes a bull pen, and the bull is an ordinary bull.”
JR: (laughs) That’s great!
Jon Jon: I have one that kind of follows up on that. Since this album is more autobiographical, and since you’ve only been singing these songs more recently, how has it affected your shows? Because now you’re coming out and feeling things — maybe you don’t feel them at that moment. Are you sort of like a method actor and you get yourself inside those past emotions, and if so, does that make your life more hurtful? Because that would seem like reliving painful moments night after night would be really hard. Are there ever songs you can’t play or anything like that, just because you’re feeling them so strongly?
JR: There are times when I feel that songs are super important to me in the moment, onstage, but it always sneaks up on me. Sometimes it becomes very emotional, but I’ve never been one to feel like I can let the song totally control me in those moments. When I’m on stage and singing, my body — I just go to sleep, in a way. Any pains or aches or anything you’re thinking about for the rest of the day just disappears. It’s an amazing thing that I think happens to a lot of performers. I’m really lucky that it happens to me, because singing songs every night has to be a new experience; every time it has to feel real and new, and the only way for that to happen is for you to just go into that kind of trance. And it’s not even an arty-farty thing, like it’s real — it’s a real trance moment, and it’s the most fun thing being up there, which is why I really enjoy singing a song like “Kathleen” even after ten years, it’s just so much fun and so enjoyable.
With these songs, I had my say when I wrote them and when I recorded them. And now when I play them, my responsibility is to play them really well and to play them in a way that people can relate to them. I feel like you spend a lot of time working on your recipes and trying them out, and then when you open the restaurant you want everybody to enjoy the food, you know what I mean? It feels that way. I want these songs to feel good and to be fun, and also to be useful, to be whatever people want them to be. When I’m on stage, I have to play them as powerfully as I can. Or hey, maybe I’m just talking crazy, maybe they will affect me. Maybe when I see you at the Ogden, or whatever, I’ll be just a wreck!
Heather: Have you played these songs a lot yet?
JR: I’ve played them a little bit, I took the band up on a small tour of kind of the Eastern seaboard and Canada to try them out. I don’t want to be the guy that plays the entire record in a night, because I know that there are a lot of songs that people would like to see…we want to play other songs too. So I want to make sure that if the new songs fit in, they fit in well, and that we fit the right ones in at the right times, so they just feel like part of the gang when we start playing them.
Ben: Hey Josh. So, we’ve all heard a lot of breakup albums dealing with similar circumstances, but I feel like yours is one of the few that comes out pretty uplifting for going through such a tough time. Were there times when you were writing this album, or when you started out with this process that you were writing more …vengeful songs? If so, when did it turn into the result, because I feel this record comes out on top.
JR: Yeah. That’s a really good question. I think first, partially, it was a question of “What do I feel good playing?’ The other thing was that, while I write songs for me, I also can’t help but see the other people that will eventually be in the room when I start playing it. I feel the weight of saying something that is really true. I want to see if it feels true to me. When I first started writing after all that stuff went down, I was writing really angry, angry songs — really mean, vengeful songs. They weren’t any good, they were just terrible — they were badly written, they were full of thrashing around. It’s just like if you were to throw an angry Chihuahua in the water. It was like that, and I could feel it, but as I wrote them they were a way to feel like I had some sort of power in what had happened to me.
As time went by those songs just kind of sat there and I knew they were no good, but I still felt like I had an attachment to them. So what Sam (Kassirer) did, my producer, he said “You just clear the deck and come up and record, and we’ll record all that stuff.” And we did. And just hearing it recorded and seeing it the way it was, that was useful just to get it out of the way. That was approaching on catharsis, and putting those songs to rest and kind of saying “Yeah, these are no good” was important. Getting those out of the way really made it possible to do what came next.
Heather: That’s a good answer. I think that’s good to think of it as getting it out and getting it out of the way, and that Sam was able to see the need to do that, and that you trusted him enough to get that out there and do it, and see what happened to it, you know?
JR: He’s an amazing guy, he’s was really generous. He knows I don’t want to be a mean guy.
Heather: Nope. You don’t.
Em: Hello. So I feel like most of your stuff before, like Bringing in the Darlings, was told from “Josh the storyteller”, and this is more of you as a person on this album. So do you think that’s your new voice, or was there a way you could have gotten all of this out and still had the same outcome for yourself, telling it more from a storyteller sort of way?
JR: I don’t think I could have, you know? I think there are people that can. And I certainly think there’s this tradition of really great storytelling …I think Bruce Springsteen can tell beautiful stories like “The River” — he just tells these stories so well, even though they didn’t necessarily happen to him. I had spent all this time writing these “larger” stories in songs, and it ended up becoming something which I’m really happy about but that couldn’t have gone on any longer. I think I was starting to feel the fray of that pretty hard. Because it limits you in some ways — things can only get bigger and more ornate, and stories can only get more complicated, and then suddenly they become dissatisfying, or they become too long for a song.
So I really think I got to that point with So Runs the World Away, and I didn’t really know what else I was going to do, and then that stuff came along and knocked the wind out of my sails and made it kind of impossible to write about any other stuff. Other stories just pale in comparison to your own story when it’s happening, you know what I mean? It’s more fun to wallow in your own story than in some other story. I think this might be the beginning of some new stuff, although I don’t think about it as necessarily autobiographical, so much as like… there are great albums like Wildflowers, that beautiful Tom Petty record, or Time (The Revelator), a Gillian Welch record, which aren’t autobiographical, but have a beautiful personal voice to them, without being larger stories.
Jon Jon: I have a question from Faith –who wasn’t able to make it– she said congratulations on the baby, and she was wondering how that has changed your outlook on life and your perspective, and how that has maybe changed your music?
Heather: And full disclosure: Jon Jon, who’s asking the question, is expecting his first baby in July.
JR: Oh congratulations, man!
Heather: Get ready to not sleep, ever!
JR: Yeah, I didn’t know what to expect. But, I think Haley [Tanner, author, and Josh’s partner] and I have both felt that there is this given narrative about doing music or art or whatever: that in exchange for this chance to make art, you have to give something up – a stable family life, a happy mental life, whatever. And it just — it can’t be. That narrative can’t be true. I feel like you can’t make great art if you’re truly, truly unhappy. The tortured artist is a horrible place to live, you know? It doesn’t give it any more weight or power. Why should any of us who take a chance doing something we love have to give up a chance for a family? I really believe that. It was definitely scary and freaky to think about.
We’re packing up right now and we’re all gonna be on the road in a few days, baby and all. But I think the things that have changed for me, just in these four months since Beatrix was born, I was noticing how my approach to writing has changed. My enjoyment of it has gotten so rich, in that short while. I used to sit around for six hours, like a little prince on a cushion thinking my thoughts, you know? And I don’t have time for that anymore. If I have time to write now, or if Haley has time to write, it’s at most like an hour. But you have tons of time to think! When you’re just walking around rocking her, and you have an idea you can’t write down, you have to hold it in your head, and it rolls around in there like marbles and it gets better and better and better. So when you have that hour and you have one crystal thought, you write it down when it’s perfect. And when you lie in bed exhausted at the end of the day, you can put a pin in it and say “I did that today!” That’s a much more rewarding experience. You may only be able to write one page of a book, or whatever, but a single page now is like gold!
Heather: I think it also changes the stakes, too. When you have kids and you’re doing something creative, the ability and time to be creative is filtered through fire, in a way. You have to fight to dedicate time towards what it is that you’re creating, and you have to really believe in it to carve out a space for it.
JR: Totally! Absolutely! I absolutely agree!
Betsy: So for me on this album, the song “New Lover” was what hooked me into the entire album. And I think it’s because it was the first song I heard, and it was maybe the most honest piece of songwriting I’ve heard in a long time. I was wondering if for you, if there was a certain song or a certain time along the process where it kind of hooked it for you, that this was going to become an album, and that you were maybe writing songs more with the thought in mind that ‘this is going to be a finished product’ that you would eventually tour with and record?
JR: Yeah! That song was “New Lover” for this record! That’s awesome that you thought that. Yeah, I was sitting at my friend Ed’s house, and I was working and writing all these horrible songs that sounded terrible to me. And then “New Lover” came along and I wrote it in the morning. It was still wintertime, but it was one of the first nice days of spring, and this song felt like it came out really fast. I was so proud of it, it was startling to me! It felt I accidentally found a way through the woods and through the emotions, to say — okay, it can be mixed, things can be mixed. Nothing has to be all one way or the other. Our love and our heartbreak, and all that stuff is mixed. It’s never the same thing. It’s never all the same thing all the way through. It’s like, here’s something I wish you could’ve done better, here’s something I guess I misunderstood, and it was my fault and I apologize. And that it can all go through in that complex way.
That was the first time I thought “Well, I could actually have a record here.” That moment happens for me with every record. With the last record, it was “The Curse”, with the record before it was, uh, I think it was “To The Dogs or Whoever” and then like Animal Years, it was “Girl in the War,” and then “Snow is Gone.” There always seems to be one song that feels like it gives you the kind of “pow” of stuff that you’re looking for, then you can take that apart and kind of explode it a little bit.
Abby: Yeah, I have a question! So we’ve talked about sort of different writing influences, and different voices between albums. I’m just curious what writing looks like right now, not just holding the baby and getting some words out at the end of the day, maybe, but actually the mental process?
JR: Sure! Right now when I’m writing, I feel pretty infused, pretty happy. I’ve written some other stuff that I’m just fishing around for, collecting feelings and ideas. Right now I’m really working on my new book, which I’m really excited about. In terms of restraint, the new book is completely unbound and nutso and it’s really fun — written with real happiness.
With Bright’s Passage, I was very much saying, “I think I’m actually going to be able to do this!” This book feels like I’m not worried about being able to get done with it. Right now, I’m just loving it – the feeling of creation, right now it feels like nothing has a bad consequence. I’m enjoying just the act of making something. I’m not worried about anything, we’re all healthy, everybody’s good. I can’t remember a time in my life when I was ever having a such a fully good time writing. The new book feels very biological and fun and sloppy, with terrible language (laughs).
Heather: I have a question for you, Josh. When I was setting up Album Club and getting the entries and reading all of the emails, I was bowled over by how many deeply thoughtful, really heavy, dense stories I got from people who wrote to me their thoughts about how your music had connected with them and what your music had meant to them at very difficult grief-filled hard parts of their life. You do realize that you’re inviting that on yourself even more with this record?! Like – how do you…I don’t even know what my question is, other than just I’m interested to hear what your perspective is on that deep connection between your music and real-life stories that people let you enter into, that you get to play a big part in. That must be pretty overwhelming?
JR: I think that, you know, when I listen to music, it’s medicine. It lets us…we take it when we need it. Sometimes it’s around us and we can’t avoid it and we can’t escape it. But most of the time I feel like those of us who love music and are active music listeners, we find it when we need it, you know? And it has to be for a reason. It has to be because there’s something in that particular music that we need, physically in our lives and in our heads for that moment.
I know for a fact that there’s times when I’ve needed to listen to Lucinda Williams or Tom Waits or even Marian Anderson, whoever it is. You don’t know why you want them, but you want them really bad, over and over. We’ve been on a Dolly Parton kick in our house recently. She does something to us right now that must be important. So I think that if you’re lucky enough that you’re making music and people find it useful, that’s what it should be! It should be useful. And if it is, then that’s just the highest praise. It really is. And it’s amazing that it happens.
Maddy: This isn’t a question, but just so you know, I think one of the most impressive things about this album is compared to a lot of breakup albums…a lot of that kind of songwriting can be helpful in that it validates feelings are universal for everyone sometime. And for this one, you do a really good job of doing that, and also offering hope or the ability to imagine something better, which I think is not something that is frequently accomplished with this, and I think makes it all the more powerful.
JR: Thank you! Thanks a lot. That’s amazing, thank you very much.
Mackensie: Last question. What is The Beast? And how do you kill or get rid of The Beast?
JR: Well I’m thinking again of that Teddy Roosevelt book that I loved, and I really responded to this thing he said: “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.” And I thought that is so true, and I needed that so much in that time. You’ve got to keep moving, in hard times more than ever — just keep moving, keep doing stuff. The Beast is really this looming sense that when the sun goes down, your brain is gonna go. You’re gonna melt down. You’re gonna melt down. You can either melt yourself down, or you can keep on moving forward. During that time, I did all kinds of crazy stuff. Some of it was really bad.
I wrote a whole other book, which was a book about a guy trying to make his way across the country and it was ridiculous and weird, and it makes next to no sense. But I was writing it so fast because I was just trying to do stuff. And those songs that I wrote in that time, those were songs that were just trying to keep one step ahead of that feeling that my life was over, and that thing that I really believed in was a lie. I know that that’s not the case now, and of course I would not have believed that for long, but at that time it was hard not to sort of feel that maybe, there was a small suspicion.
So, The Beast is just that feeling of kind of heartbreak and desolation and giving up. I saw a sign somewhere that said “Stop the Beast in its Tracks” and I loved that. I love it.
Heather: Well, Josh…we love you, buddy. We’ll let you go pack for tour, and thank you, so much, for taking this time with us. I love that we could all get together and connect, and most of these people I hadn’t met before tonight. Thank you for giving us a space to do that. I think this is a wonderful thing.
JR: This is awesome. You guys get home safe. Thank you for paying me this huge compliment!
[Thanks to Kevin Ihle for chronicling Album Club in photos, and to the terrific Em for help with transcription as well.]
Radiation City is taking a break from their opening-for-Pickwick and their “Best-New-Portland-Band-of-2012“-ing to come play a sweet Monday night house show for me, with lots of harmonies and creative goodness.
Rad City (for short) are on the Tender Loving Empire label, home of Fuel/Friends-friends Typhoon, Y La Bamba, Loch Lomond, Finn Riggins, etc. I am so happy to welcome them on their travels.
Come join us on Monday night! Because whatever else you are doing, I’m pretty sure it’s not as good.
Widower‘s new record is one of three albums that have occupied almost all of my music-listening time in 2013. Fool Moon is a loamy record that feels like a waterlogged seaside town smelling of salt and rust, like forgetting. Or being forgotten.
This is a slowly-unfolding, melancholy album that wrestles to balance beginning again with battlescars, while being punched clean through with regrets. The night I first heard it, I listened to it once, and then three times more in quick and complete succession. It felt like an oil lamp smoldering the banish some of the damp greyness around me, and has been a constant addiction since then.
Despite some wide open big-sky moments here, like on the opening song “Jumper Cables,” or the sweetly wheeling “Oh Catherine, My Catherine,” there’s this gorgeous hesitancy woven through this record. Nowhere do I hear it more than in the final song “Almost, Always, All Yours,” because really — when are we ever completely anyone’s? I’d rather have a love song like this one than one doused in sweet and empty promises.
Almost, Always, All Yours – Widower
courtships run their course, first loves and last resorts
i’ve been a prince, i’ve been a poor sport
i was almost, always, all yours
when i’m frightened by the sunrise, when it comes as no surprise
when i’m feeling out of sorts, and off-course, of course
i’m almost, always, all yours
and true happiness is heads or tails, never-the-less, it never fails
and it’s every bit as bleak as this week’s weather report
and it’s almost, always, all yours
Buy Fool Moon, and listen often.
Timber! is name of the tremendously appealing new outdoor music festival from Artist Home Presents, the same good folks who curate both the Doe Bay Music Festival (which is now near-impossible to get tickets to) and the Summer Bonfire Series on the beach in Seattle.
This new endeavor will be held July 26-27 at Tolt-MacDonald Park in Carnation, Washington, and seeks to continue to delve into the warm and magical connections that we can create in music on a micro level. The site is at the confluence of two rivers, the stage is lit by bonfires, there might even be some guided stargazing late at night. It sounds like a formula for simple joy, absolutely loaded to the brim with terrific musicians performing both officially and, undoubtedly, unofficially everywhere you look.
One of the best features of Doe Bay for me the last two summers has been the feeling that I was at a music-centric summer camp for grownups, permeated at every turn with these organic, joyful musical connections. I am pleased to help announce the first batch of artists performing at this year’s Timber!
TIMBER! FIRST ROUND OF ARTIST ANNOUNCEMENTS:
KITHKIN (they were jaw-droppingly vibrant and primal at Doe Bay last summer)
RIVER GIANT (I’ve been digging their album)
TEN-SPEED MUSIC (Isaac Pierce)
That is about 1/3 of the artists that are in the wings for this inaugural musical bacchanalia amidst the tall trees, but gives you a good flavor of where the organizers are taking this. There are some very very good announcements yet to come. If you are an artist interested in submitting to play the festival, please click here for the details on how to do that.
Tickets for Timber! go on sale March 19 at 10am. The link for tickets will be provided in advance on timbermusicfest.com. Tickets for the weekend (Friday afternoon through Sunday morning) are only $45, and kiddos 12 and under are free. Tent camping is $20/night for the two nights, and there are a very limited number of yurts, premium camping, and RV sites available (detailed info will be on the website). You should also follow the festival on Facebook.
This is where you should be this summer. We’d love to have you be a part of this special community.
I sat in my dark living room, watching Take This Waltz flicker on the screen for the second time in as many days, and I kept alternately thinking of people that I wanted to recommend the film to, and simultaneously chastising myself for wishing such piercing torture on anyone. I know that doesn’t sound like an endorsement. Take This Waltz is easily one of the best, and hardest, movies I’ve seen in years.
I’m fascinated by the concept of liminality, liminal spaces, and liminal relationships in our lives. I love movies (like Lost in Translation, or Before Sunrise) that plumb the complicated depths of those spaces in our lives which are neither one thing nor the other. I feel like maybe the final frontier of maturity is getting more-okay with just sitting with the unknown, and being content in the shifting. At least maybe it just is for me.
Take This Waltz is from whipsmart director Sarah Polley, who is about the same age as I am, with wisdom and insight that wows me. One of the most telling lines in the movie is at the beginning when Michelle Williams’ character tells a handsome stranger on a plane, “I’m afraid of connections,” referring to her time in airports, “…wondering if I am going to make it. I don’t like being in-between things. I’m afraid of being afraid.” “That sounds like the most dangerous thing in the world,” the handsome stranger replies, and then –of course– the rest of the movie is spent smashing apart that fear.
Another line that floored me comes towards the end, and stuck with me like a burr under the skin. It’s spoken by Sarah Silverman’s recovering-alcoholic character: “Life has a gap in it. It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it like some kind of lunatic.” Huh.
So….all that relevant rambling to lead us to this song that the movie teases us with, one that perfectly soundtracks a pivotal scene at a sexy, boozy, humid summer house party, all warmly lit by Chinese lanterns. There’s no official version released, so this is a pieced-together (but eminently listenable) mp3 made by some enterprising blogger, no doubt. SO. TERRIFIC.
Closing Time (Leonard Cohen) – Feist
(the Leonard Cohen original from 1992)
Director Sarah Polley tells the story in an interview of how she tried and tried to get Feist to record this song for the soundtrack, but was not having any luck by the time filming commenced in Toronto. “We were shooting on a street in Little Portugal at two in the morning, this tiny little street, and these two people ride by on a bike, and I hear ‘Sarah!’ And I turn around and it’s Leslie Feist and Howie Beck, and they were on their way to play glow-in-the-dark Frisbee at Trinity Bellwoods park. And I was like, ‘Hi! Do you want to cover Closing Time, like, in the next two days?’ And she was like, ‘Sure!’”
And there we have it.
The final thought on all this stuff that stuck with me after viewing the movie was uncovered in the bonus commentary with Polley. “We live in a culture where we feel like if there’s something missing that means there’s something wrong.” She goes on to reflect, “Happily ever after contains all kinds of messes, but nothing in life fully prepares us for that.” The soundtrack throughout this movie is marvelous, and the film is messy, and so worth a careful viewing. Or two.
Esme Patterson‘s soul seems to be made of a dark and shiny substance that I understand. This video captures it perfectly, amid all the glittery darting fish. Gorgeous.
This video was made at the Seattle Aquarium with Isaac Ravishankara, who I first met when he taped that one Lumineers house show.
I am thrilled to try a new venue for our next Fuel/Friends house show – on Tuesday we are welcoming Lemolo from Seattle, with You Me & Apollo from Denver, into a spacious rad woodshop near UCCS. It smells heavenly and warm, of sawdust and creation in there.
I actually just woke up from having an elaborate dream about this show, and I can now guarantee you that it was pretty damn cool. It will be wonderful to host Lemolo’s first Colorado show ever! These ladies are from the Seattle area and have been on my radar for a while now – I saw them at Doe Bay Fest two years in a row, and they toured with The Head and The Heart.
They are some of my favorite people to watch play live: the lilting, entrancing ease with which Meagan Grandall sings, and the electrified kickass manner that Kendra Cox attacks her drums and bleepy-bloopy keyboards.
The night will be opened by rising Denver band You Me & Apollo, who I keep hearing amazing things about (like this Denver Post article, wondering if they might be the next big thing out of the Queen City). I’m excited to see them with the woodshop acoustics.
It will be $10 at the door, BYOB. Music starts around 8pm, and the bathroom situation is something we are still working on, so come with the emptiest of bladders (seriously). The woodshop is behind a house, and it is easiest to enter from the back alley, rather than traipsing through the front yard and side yard of the house, like I did the first time I was there.
Let us know if you plan to come via the Facebook event for the show. This is going to be a legendary night.
And I’ll leave you with one of my favorite moments captured on video from 2011′s Doe Bay Fest:
“I want this guy to go out into the world and become the next Otis Redding …I mean, if there was a job opening for the next Otis currently available,” I leaned over and whispered into my friend Ian’s ear while Mike Clark absolutely owned the stage at Shove Chapel during the recording of this session.
Yes, I’m aware that that’s a loaded statement: the broken-down soul of Otis Redding is ingrained my Georgia roots, since my Grampy went to the same Baptist church as Otis did and I like to think it’s in my veins somehow. I’ve known Mike Clark for a few years, as he’s a major player in the Colorado Springs independent music scene (The Haunted Windchimes, The Jack Trades, that “Hey Daisy” handless bike video made up the street from me), but watching his transformation on that chapel stage into an anachronistic band-leading soul singer was notable. My first thoughts were, “Where the hell did this come from? From a 34 year-old land surveyor from Calhan, Colorado?!”
Mike didn’t start playing music until he was 27, and it appears to have been a fairly intense salvific experience for him, that transformation. It reminds me some of Ray LaMontagne’s story, except instead of hearing a Stephen Stills song on the radio and deciding to follow music with everything in ya, for Mike it was a harmonica he bought on a roadtrip and then played for the rest of the 25-hour journey home. You can see that spirit in these performances.
This is a session to tenderize, to dissolve defenses. The chapel session feels a little more gaunt and starkly soulful than his new record. As my friend Adam said, “There’s a darkness here like so much of that older stuff had in it, below the R&B feel. It’s the ‘blues’ part of R&B that people forget about.” Mike’s startling voice pierced that whole church. You felt the weariness, but there’s a wide-open, unadorned quality to the candor here also. These are A.M. radio songs that wake you in the middle of the night or keep running through your head as you whistle the melody.
The songs on Round and Round, his debut record with The Sugar Sounds, make you sway and tap like old rock & roll 45s. This chapel session feels more focused on Mike’s tremendous emergent voice — it’s one you have to stop what you are doing to give it the attention it deserves. And Mike is backed here by an ace band of some of the best other musicians in town: Inaiah Lujan (Mike’s bandmate in The Haunted Windchimes), Alex Koshak (The Flumps), Grant Sabin, Ian Bourgal (The Changing Colors), and Marc Benning (34 Satellite). It is so damn fun to watch them play together.
Put this session on and lay flat somewhere and just listen. Every song they performed for this session feels to me like an immediate classic, something you’ve known for a long time. Out of five songs here, only one is on Mike’s current record. He’s writing songs without stopping, and I am so glad that we get to journey with him.
FUEL/FRIENDS CHAPEL SESSION #23:
MIKE CLARK & THE SUGAR SOUNDS
January 25, 2013 / Shove Chapel
Losing My Cool
Just….go on get out of town. Again: A 34-YEAR-OLD LAND SURVEYOR FROM CALHAN, COLORADO. Something tells me in my belly that with this kind of fire in him, and this band behind him, he won’t stay our local secret for long. Holy cow — some of the most fun I’ve had in church, this one.
Take A Chance
The best descriptor I can come up with for this song is that it is hopefully devastating, wearily wooing. It’s a gun-shy swoon — and I get that. There may be nothing scarier than asking someone to take a chance on you. I like the purpose with which Mike does it here.
That’s How Strong My Love Is (Otis Redding)
Yeah, of course this happened. It’s so humble the way he tackles this one, with all of O.V. Wright‘s wonderfully romantic original lyrics like “I’ll be the rainbow when the storm is gone, wrap you in my colors and keep you warm…” It’s perfect. You should definitely watch it here.
What Lovers Do
At the end of the session, five of us stood around the piano as almost an afterthought, and sang along sweet little harmonies and “ooooh”s to this new creation of Mike’s. I don’t know if I’ll ever post a chapel session song that boasts more simple joy than this one. Watch it here.
Outside everything felt bluntly muffled and icy-silent under the thick blanketing of snow last Thursday, but my snow day ennui was pierced through by the voice of Nathaniel Rateliff, wowing us all in a house concert that was every bit as incredible as I’d been thinking it would be for years.
With just him and his acoustic guitar, Nathaniel held all of us contentedly squirming under the laser of that voice that can slice right through, with such purity and insight.
“Shroud” and “Laughing” are both well-loved songs off In Memory of Loss, his 2010 release on Rounder Records. Nathaniel also recorded a breathtaking chapel session with me earlier that same day, doing three new songs (one on the grand piano), and covering Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place To Fall,” which, oof. That song. Him singing it. I need a moment.
Desirae Garcia (of The Haunted Windchimes) opened the evening, and I think nearly stole the show. Armed only with her bass ukulele and a walloping dose of deadpan candor, her nascent solo career is going to be one to absolutely pay close attention to. The way she can deliver the simplest of lines is devastating.
[top video from audience member Jason: thanks]