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Music

My wife and I laid in bed late this morning, made love while the kids binged on Saturday morning television, had a lazy shower.

Then she baked bread with browned butter for the party at our friend’s place this evening, and my eldest son made chocolate chip cookie’s for his friend’s birthday party this afternoon, and I sauteed batches of mushrooms and sweet onions for another friend’s fiftieth birthday tomorrow.

I’m reducing the extra onions into soup as I write this. The house is full of astringent sweetness, and of C.D. Wright’s reflections on the nature of poetry, and of “Paloma” by MESTIS.

I don’t post about music that often, but I finally got around to Polysemy by MESTIS (it was recommended to me just after it came out, and then again in the summer, but who has time?). It’s a great album – instrumental progressive metal by Javier Reyes of Animals As Leaders. The guitar work is flawless. Each track is well structured. They fit seamlessly together as an album.

A friend at the local record store (recommendation number two) complained that there wasn’t enough diversity in the sound (no strings, no brass, very little synth, no obvious sampling, and so forth), and this might turn some off, but to me it makes for a nice, clean, unified sound. Even on my third time through the album this morning, I didn’t feel that the lack of instrumental variety as a flaw.

You can have a listen on YouTube or buy it in the usual places that shall remain nameless.

I’ve never been someone who writes to music, neither to create a certain mood nor just for the sake of background noise.   When I write, I prefer just to write.

Recently, however, I’ve discovered the immense benefits of headphones when I’m trying to work in the midst of the lovely, terrifying, wonderful, impossible chaos that is my house most days.  That is to say, I have discovered music in the way that most teenagers have long known it, as an insulation against the world, and even with all the attendant temptations to antisocial behaviour, at this point I’ll take anything that lets me get editing done.

I’m also gaining a new appreciation for some of the music that’s been sitting on my drive mostly unplayed since I downloaded it in a fit of musical optimism or since my youngest brother dumped it there in a mostly failed attempt to improve my taste in music.  So here’s a brief list of what I’ve been putting through my earphones as I edit lately, keeping in mind that I have an extremely low tolerance for stupid lyrics and so listen almost exclusively to instrumental music.  These are not necessarily my favourites, but they’re the ones I find myself listening to at the moment.

Animals as Leaders
Do Make Say Think
Explosions in the Sky
Irepress
Jason Becker
Jeff Beck
King Crimson
Marc Rizzo
Maserati
Magwai
Mono
Ozric Tentacles
Pelican
Russian Circles
Scale the Summit
Solaris
The Yage Letters

My friend Sandy Clipsham had a few of his guy friends over last night, to sing, of course, which is what guys most often do when they get together, or so I hear. I had never met any of the others, but they were an eclectic and interesting group, and we spent as much time talking about new media and alternative publishing and movies as we did singing.  There were also homemade brownies, which is never a bad thing. The singing was good too, by which I mean that it was good to sing rather than that the singing was of any great quality, and it made me reflect on the diminishing opportunities to sing with one another in our culture and on the loss that I think this.

I have no data to support this supposition, but I would say that people in our culture listen to music more than those of any previous culture, but that they actually sing and play music with each other less and less. They have an insatiable appetite for professional music, for popular music, for music that accompanies and defines certain mediatized and commercialized lifestyles, but they are increasingly uncomfortable with making music together informally, as amateurs, as communities.  They no longer sing along with one another.  This phenomenon, I think, is partially to do with the diminishment of a certain kind of church culture, and also with the diminishment of things like summer camps and school choirs, all places where people once sung together regularly, but I it also has something to do with a culture that understands music as something to be produced and consumed like any other product rather than as something to be shared within a community.  Although people who call themselves musicians, either by profession or by vocation, are often willing to do music with one another informally, the greater part of our culture is content to consume music, and so it never learns what it is to make music as a community, as amateurs, simply as an expression of community.

Yet, the cost of this inability to sing with each other is considerable.  Anyone who has sung around a campfire, or in a church service, or even in a car with some friends and the radio, knows that there is something immensely cathartic about this kind of singing.  It does not require us to be musicians.  It does not require us to be vocalists.  It does not require is to be songwriters.  It requires us only to sing along with each other, and this singing produces an intimacy between us.  There is a social risk in this kind of singing, certainly, because it is a breach of normal social decorum and because it creates a space in which different rules apply, but it is this very risk, shared between us, that opens us to each other.

So, last night, the five of us took this risk.  We sang along with one another, informally, unprofessionally, without the benefit of practice, without really knowing each other, and we risked looking foolish, or at least sounding foolish, and we got through a few tunes that were none of our favourites but that were recognizable and easy to sing, and it was good. We sang “Cotton Fields“,” I’ll Fly Away“, “Five Hundred Miles“, “He Aint Heavy, He’s My Brother“, “If I Had a Hammer“, and “Down by the Riverside“, and I went home thinking that I need to sing along with people in this way more often.

Despite what the title of this post might seem to imply, it is neither a defense of animal rights nor a commentary on our political leadership.  Rather, it is something perhaps still more surprising, at least from me: a second post on music in less than a week.  It may never happen again, so enjoy it while you can.

My brother Andrew was driving me somewhere the other day, though I cannot now remember where.  He was playing a CD, as he always is, and I was enjoying it very much, which is not always the case for me with Andrew’s music.  Though I do mostly like the instrumentation in Andrew’s tunes, I disagree with him substantially about the musical value of screaming and growling, which probably relates to my dislike of most vocals generally, though it does seem to contradict my appreciation for vocals that are less lyrics than mere vocalizations.  In any case, this particular disc was entirely instrumental, so the question of vocals was moot, and I was really enjoying the sound, so I made Andrew give me the disc when we got home.

The project is called Animals as Leaders, and it is comprised of guitarist Tosin Abasi, who records all of the guitar and bass tracks, and Misha Mansoor, who does the programmed drums and the synthesized effects.  The sound would best be described as progressive metal or post-metal, though these labels may be a little misleading to those unfamiliar with them.  Though the music does include sections that are clearly metal, it is not limited to this sound, ranging through a wide variety of dynamics, and Tosin’s fabulous guitar work is displayed throughout.  Those who are interested in having a listen for themselves can start with “On Impulse” and “Song of Solomon“, and there is also a nice clip of Tosin playing his custom eight-string guitar.

I bought a set of two CDs today, a compilation of blues tunes called The Blues: The Gold Collection, forty songs in all.  This is abnormal for me.  I rarely by CDs at all anymore, and I never buy compilation sets, especially when the compilation is drawing mostly from albums that I already own, but this is a special set for me, because it was my first real introduction to the blues, which has between then and now become my favourite musical genre.  My mother bought the compilation when I was in my early teens, at which point my experience with the blues had been limited to what you might expect, a little Howlin’ Wolf and a little Muddy Waters and a little B. B. King, but this compilation introduced me to a much wider variety of blues artists, from Mississippi John Hurt to Leadbelly to Robert Johnson to Lightnin’ Hopkins.  I fell in love with these musicians, and I began buying their albums whenever I had a few dollars to spare from buying books.

So, when I saw that compilation set again today, sitting in a bin at the thrift store, it seemed infinitely worth its two dollar price, even if the jewel case was a bit beaten and the liner notes had a cup ring on them.  Those two CDs were where a love affair began, and I could hardly leave them to be orphaned, so I decided to give them a good home.  We have already been reminiscing, so let us share with you also:

Mississippi John Hurt, Candy Man Blues
Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jack O’ Diamonds
Leadbelly, Midnight Special
Robert Johnson, Cross Road Blues
Sonny Boy Williamson, Nine Below Zero

I listen to only a fraction of the music that is on my shelves, particularly now that I have children who go through phases of listening to the same album over and over again, so I decided to go through my collection and listen to some of my old favourites yesterday morning, since it was too cold and rainy to do anything outside anyway.  I had already selected some Count Basie, some Mississippi John Hurt, and some Robert Johnson, when I saw The Juliet Letters, which is a collaborative album by Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartet.  I have already mentioned this album once, in my post on developing musical taste, and I praised it then for its lyrical originality, but I must confess that it is something like two years since I have actually listened to it.  I decided to rectify this situation, and I found myself delighted with the album all over again.

Though the idea of a collaboration between a pop musician and a classical string quartet would seem to have as much potential for disaster as for success, The Juliet Letters is much more than a mere curiosity.  It is a concept album that uses Shakespeare’s Juliet as a metaphor of a world in which circumstances sometimes overwhelm fragile human relationships, and each song represents a letter that explores this theme from a particular narrative voice, man or woman, old or young.  The result is a tremendous variety of narratives, lyrical styles, and musical sound.  Though there is a definite musical and thematic unity to the album, no song is like another, and the album itself is unlike any other I have heard.

I had intended just to have it playing as I prepared for the day, but I listened to it from the couch in its entirety, jacket notes in hand, and my kids listened also.  I am not sure why The Juliet Letters was never able to find a wider audience, but it certainly deserves a place in your collection.

My brother Andrew began a music review blog called Indie Scene about a month ago, but then he promptly went on tour with his band The Yage Letters.  Now that he has returned and has begun posting again, I thought it might be an opportune time for me to share what he will be doing.

Now, before I get too far, the title of my post perhaps needs some clarification.  Andrew will not be reviewing only progressive music, as the title might seem to imply. He will not even be reviewing music from an exclusively progressive perspective.  His own music and his own tastes, however, have decidedly progressive elements to them, and this provides much of the tone for his reviewing.

For those who are not quite familiar with the idea of progressive music, and I confess that I am certainly no expert myself, it is an approach to music, encompassing several genres, that contests the forms that have come to dominate almost every musical style in our popular culture.  These popular forms include a song length that is short enough to suit radio play, a chorus-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus structure, a musical hook that occurs in the first few seconds of the song, a production style that reduces bass and percussion to filler sound, and other similarly standard elements.

Progressive music contests these forms in several ways, including a song length that may be quite extended, a structure that employs complex musical progressions that build to a musical climax, several interrelated musical themes that are developed simultaneously, an emphasis on the musical role of all of the instruments in a band, an approach to production that alters the tone of the instruments to suit a particular composition, a fascination with layered and textured sounds, an attention to the technicalities of percussion on all instruments that in some cases approaches the purely mathematical, and various other techniques also.  It is these formal questions that very often dominate the ways that Andrew reviews an album or a band.

Because of his own musical interests, the albums and bands he reviews will mostly be independent, and they will frequently be from the spectrum of styles that are lumped under the label of metal.  For those of you who are immediately imagining the worst that pop-metal has to offer, I can assure you that this will not mean a regular tour through the top forty.  Andrew’s interests are, as I said, largely with independent music, and he will be reviewing local Guelph bands when he can, so his subjects will not often be the mass-produced bands that make up our popular soundscape.

So, have a read.  You just might be entertained.