08 January 2008

Authentic Celestial Music

The summer down here continues to build. Long, hot, dry days are difficult for those of us consumed with ideas of travel on white peaks and deep snow. At the end of a particularly hot day, when the cool Andean winds blew the heat into the relief of night, I pulled out an album I haven't heard in a few years. The album described below is one of those intensely personal albums that, at times, is difficult to listen to. Like any good album it conjured thoughts and emotions and this particular album reminds me of another time filled with heat and lethargy and a touch of desperation. I thought of that summer while listening to the album again and then I remembered I had written something already about a first experience with the album and a band I can no longer listen to casually. It sounded perfect, then and now. Beautiful and perfect. Below is exactly what I wrote nearly six years ago.

I was a latecomer to the Dirty Three. They have been around much longer than Ocean Songs—the first album I bought—and much longer than the first time I saw them in concert in Washington, DC, 2000. After that night I realized I wasn’t the only one who choked on the humidity in that city, or resented friends as much as I needed them, or who couldn’t placate my feelings about my upbringing. After that night I figured I could join the rest of the world.

The first time I heard the Dirty Three was in 1995 or so. My friend, who at the time seemed to have an Australian music fetish, was the one who gently set their significance in the back of my mind to grow and ripen until it was time for my own discovery. His favorite was the polyphonic moodiness of Not Drowning, Waving. My friend admired the sense of space and place the band explored, the use of traditional instruments and influences, the dark yet uplifting melodies. I liked them, too, although I found their “world beat” tendencies a bit stifling.

At that time, my idea of World Music was the Dead Can Dance and their blend of pseudo chants and gothic ballads, angelic vocals, chimes, bells, and cellos. Music from the mountains and gray, spired cities, not from the rainforests or sunny beaches. I know now that Not Drowning, Waving primed me for the Dirty Three, a band that would take Not Drowning, Waving’s accomplished sense of space, tradition, darkness and light, and sadness and beauty, and do so much more with so less. The Dirty Three stripped away musical flamboyancies, pretension, melodrama, and over-production. They retained—without lyrics—narrative, simplicity with intensity, and a broadly themed (oceans, love, horses, geography) aesthetic.

Back in 1995 I suspect I heard their second, self-titled recording. I took it home with Not Drowning, Waving and a few other Australian currents. I remember my friend using words like “earthy,” “country,” and “melodic,” and I’m pretty sure he called Warren Ellis’s violin a fiddle. While I enjoyed the fiddle in rock bands, my exposure to the instrument was limited and I imagined an instrumental Australian version of Camper Van Beethoven, the Feelies, or Souled American.

The sound was good enough: gritty, raw, sometimes explosive, sometimes melancholy. Everything that interested me. The lyric-less songs threw me off a bit (although I loved Pell Mell at the same time) and the whole package just didn’t set right. I told my friend they were cool and promptly went back to Galaxie 500, whose breakup I could not reconcile. My own aesthetic was creeping slowly back toward earthy, country melodies but I wasn’t quite ready for what I heard. The early 1990s brought the return of American dominated music back to my record collection. This move coincided with the decline of a decade and a half-long series of UK scenes that spawned many similarly fueled years of experimentation, deviance, and self-gratification.

The Factory Records sound of the early ‘80s dominated until the moody 4AD Records collective reminded me that art and depression really did mix, even when you could dance to it. The thirtieth anniversary of the Summer of Love was as good a reason as any for a graduating high-school student to party along with the music. The festivities began as early as the winter of 1986 and the mayhem continued the next six years. The Manchester scene paralleled many personal activities through those years and produced several noteworthy bands and albums, although now most of the music sounds more dated than the music of the decade it emulated. In the end, the Manchester scene felt as artificial as the chemicals that hosted the parties.

The hangover was more difficult than anticipated. As soon as the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and Charlatans UK either died or morphed into irrelevance, St. Etienne, the Orbital, and Ultramarine revived my dance floor. I couldn’t give it up. I was addicted to the beat. I never played around much in the acid house or disco, my choices of beats were always a little more organically inspired. I still liked to see the occasional guitar and drums appear on the album credits. Stereolab made perfect sense to me, as did Swervedriver. I was inspired as much by the hippie-hop jazz of Digible Planets and Definition of Sound as I was the slow groove of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, still, in my mind, the definitive album of brooding rhythm and soul.

The early to mid-‘90s provided a plethora of music that satiated my personal and political spirit. The Republicans were leaving office; Democratic relief was in sight. I graduated from college. European hitchhiking adventures were planned. I needed music to celebrate. Thin White Rope, Eleventh Dream Day, seven-inch vinyl from K Records, and odds and ends from bands like Swell, Uncle Wiggly, and the Miracle Legion could satisfy me for weeks. I collected Unrest seven-inch singles. I listened to Pavement and Polvo. I wept along side my brother at a Reivers concert. I even stuck with the Pixies through Trompe Le Monde. The music was good.

Then two albums appeared that re-tuned me into my forgotten youth and shoved me toward the future. Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne and the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall had as much to do with the epic family road trips from our home in Colorado to my parents’ home state of Texas as they did the small A.M. cube radio with the on/off click bar and single, fuzzy speaker I listened to constantly a dozen years earlier. The movement toward heavier guitars and burley vocals and the movements in electronica to split into a hundred sub-genres (Will someone please let me know the difference between jungle and drum and bass or ambient techno and trance?) caused me to seek sounds more rooted in my own history and less in a particular category. My social and musical experiments were slowing; my livelihood was forming.

Soon thereafter Joe Henry’s Kindness of the World introduced “mature” into my vocabulary. He even covered Tom T. Hall’s “I Flew Over Our House Last Night” and I know that the original played in my parents’ station wagon at some point during the mid-1970s somewhere between Amarillo and Wichita Falls. There are points in Hollywood Town Hall, Anodyne, and Kindness of the World where it’s impossible to tell what year or even what decade the songs came from. It was the first time I considered the throwaway musical meaning of “timelessness.”

I understood that to produce a timeless sound meant to produce a sound that involved more than music, more than played notes or strummed guitars. Timelessness meant the inclusion of history, politics, geography, folklore, and legend, but that none of those variables should lean one way or another toward a particular time period. Difficult to categorize, yes, and maybe even a cliché, nevertheless a real and attributable component in some artists and not in others. The music is active, ever changing, and always relevant, whether it is heard in the back of a station wagon traveling through the Texas panhandle, or in the back of an Opal traveling through the mountains of northern Italy.

Two years later, after living in the woods of Idaho and living in Europe for a year apiece, I heard the Dirty Three. In 1995 I also heard the song that would epitomize for me the somewhat slippery notion of timelessness. I was involved in an Internet discussion group that focused in general on the music of Uncle Tupelo. The discussion group called itself No Depression. As far as I can tell, members of this early Internet group later went on to publish the magazine of the same name and expanded on the then emerging alternative country scene. I was in on a tape trading session that passed around a live recording of Richard Buckner just after the release of his album Bloomed. The recording wasn’t quite ninety minutes and to fill up the remaining space the tape-maker generously provided a few of his own favorite songs. The first of these songs was Gram Parsons and “The Return of the Grievous Angel.”

I was aware of the influences on bands like Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks, and others but at that point I had not taken a step back to explore the influences on my own. “The Return of the Grievous Angel” is, by my account, one of the great American (musical) novels or, in the truest sense, a great American poem. Though not always credited as such, fan and poet Thomas Brown gave Gram a copy of his poem “The Return of the Grievous Angel” and Gram liked it so much he put it to music. That transaction produced a four-and-a-half minute song whose legacy dates back at least to the mid-nineteenth century and continues to influence musicians and writers into the twenty-first century.

The poem’s themes are fairly typical: a wanderer returns to his one true love and describes his experiences, his loneliness, and his longing for love. Within the words, though, lies a history of Western American expansion, the fall and decline of American pop-culture, the expanse and beauty of the American landscape, the restlessness and deep insecurities of the American male figure. Calico bonnets, amphetamines, truckstops, the Bible, and desert towns all further the story of a young man—indeed, a young nation—in search of something to believe in, to trust. Finally, the wayfarer sees the elephant. He meets the devil and the deep blue sea and decides, instead, to heed the words of his true love. Twenty thousand roads fill the landscape and every one of them manage to lead back to the same place, the same home.

In 2000 I found myself temporarily broken-down on one of those twenty thousand roads, specifically somewhere inside the beltway that surrounds Washington, DC. More specifically, a long way from anything I considered home. I just returned from a trip out West where I was able to revive my senses and spirit. During the break I stopped in on one of my most beloved record shops. I asked my uncharacteristically friendly music store connection in a store full of uncharacteristically friendly employees—a far cry from the shops in DC—some of her recent favorites.

“Have you heard the new Dirty Three album, yet?”

“No,” I said, “I didn’t know there was such a thing.”

Truth was, at the time, I didn’t know anything new was available from anyone in any genre, let alone the Dirty Three. My unread subscriptions of music magazines were months behind. I had only read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and that took me nearly a half-year to complete. I bought a couple albums haphazardly but couldn’t concentrate on them. Beyond that I was blind to the world.

She led me to the small place in the store reserved for the Dirty Three. She took the disc off the shelf and immediately held it with both hands. She brought the disc up to her chest, turned to me, rolled her eyes back, and bent her knees slightly as if to faint. A year or so earlier she convinced me to buy Damien Jurado’s Gathered in Song EP. She is the only person I know who has said that Belle and Sebastian is, at best, decent background music. I trust her. I also trust new albums by the Dirty Three.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s epic without being cloying. The last track is like the song played by the last living soldier after some Civil War battle.”

The American Civil War? Why would an Australian band play a song that sounded like a Civil War tune? The analogy made no sense to my literal mind but I appreciated her thoughtful and vivid associations that the song inspired. I would later understand and believe in the analogy, though not as a demonstration of specific place or time, but rather the evocation of a spiritual triumph by way of emotional devastation and total loss.

I felt flutters the first time I read the title of the album: Whatever You Love, You Are. Its five simple words cut right through the turbulence that circled my life. The statement rang so true but felt so foreign. Whatever you love, you are. Sweet. Gentle. But the title also suggests a sort of urgent self-determination in which case love is not necessarily positive. It is possible to punish others for personal unhappiness that, in turn, provides for some relief. Even in your greatest misery you may unconsciously love to be an asshole. Thus, you are. The statement, then, also stands as a warning: Be careful and aware of what you love.

As a proponent of the small things in life, an advocate for finding deep meaning from seemingly insignificant events, I found the title both great advice and cautionary. I stared at Mick Turner’s album art, read and re-read the short narrative on the inside cover, and smiled at the small, scribbled title of the album tucked onto the back of the disc, almost hidden from view in the swirls and streaks of blue. Then I played the disc.

The Dirty Three’s music is not immediately accessible. Songs work more like compositions or fragments and generally don’t follow typical verse-chorus-verse models. Individual album tracks are much like the separate parts of a symphony, interesting enough on their own but more compelling and, I believe, intended to act as a small part of a larger whole. Theme-based music this is not, although there are definite threads that tie the pieces together, most noticeably on the album Ocean Songs. Generally, though, the threads are open-ended, vague descriptors like love, pain, recovery, and hope, rather than concrete ideas. Meaning is implied through the tone of a song rather than given. This allows songs like “Some Summers They Drop Like Flys” the ability to induce a drunken revelry one night and feelings of claustrophobia and isolation the next. The listener chooses the interpretation. The Dirty Three trusts their audience.

I could see and find the remnants of a foggy battlefield in the dark and plodding “Lullabye for Christie,” but I could also feel enveloped by warmth and hope. “I Offered It Up to the Stars & the Night Sky” offers catharsis and chaos, one complementing and necessary with the other. The band works hard at inclusion through an ambiguous structure. You feel welcome because there is no set message, no weighted agenda; the meaning, while clearly imbedded within the compositions, is for the listener to define. This is the glory of lyrical music without words.

And so it was that I used Whatever You Love, You Are to interpret my situation for a good five months before the band came to town at the end of a very long and hot summer. The band played a club that on most nights draws a small crowd but on weekends, no matter the band, manages to fill beyond comfortable capacity. I’m never sure whether those who show up on the weekend are more interested in the band or catching up on inane topics with friends or co-workers that somehow passed them by mid-week. I can’t recall when the trend started, but it used to be that you attended live shows to see live musicians. This required a certain amount of decency and respect for the performers and those who surrounded you. That way, everyone could quietly watch or dance to the music in peace. Now it seems there is very little distinction between sports bars, cafés, live clubs, or discos. People gather to socialize and whatever distractions happen up on the stage is merely, well, a distraction and meant to be tolerated or ignored. It’s a sign of the times, I suppose; support for the arts continues to shrink, support for the self continues to grow.

Luckily, not even the Capitol Hill flunkies nor the Georgetown frat-boys could compete with the longhaired, skinny Australian who wailed on his violin as if it was his last day on earth. Somehow, that night, in that deranged city of contradictions, the message was clear: the music was not for us, it was a demonstration, and for the good of humankind we better watch. We were given the opportunity to witness the evolution of frustration, sadness, and anger into elegance and beauty. Each song was introduced by an abstract—sometimes funny, sometimes shocking—narrative that summarized, in words, what followed in music.

The show took on a methodology that reminded me of watching Flamenco dancers in southern Spain. The performers were a rotating cast of dancers and guitar players. A dance began with a slow, mournful ballad sung by a guitar player with no dance accompaniment. After the lyrics stopped a dancer would enter and, to the same tune, demonstrate in movement what the ballad just described. Often, though, the movements seemed to react against the sad beauty of the song. The dancer appeared to fight against the song with a violent, angry beauty all her own.

Beginning with slow, meticulous steps, the dance began as a paradigm of control. Soon, rhythms and sub-rhythms broke free and the dancer was left to confront her own emotions. She would unleash a fury of expressions and movements that attacked her control, attacked the ballad just played, and marked herself as independent, vital, and alive. The display would end in a loud swirl of black hair, flesh, fabric, and sweat. In its most exhilarating moments the dance was frightening. It forced you to face all of life’s energies with dignity, courage, and passion. It was an exorcism.

Warren Ellis practiced a similar technique of recognition and release. We were told a story about how he really should’ve gone out the night before but instead he sat in his flat, drank too much, thought too much, and collapsed into his self. Then, as a demonstration, we were forced to witness the cruel realities of social isolation and insecurities, the consequences of not acting in your own best interests but rather retreating into yourself for safety only to find a false sense of security.

The songs began with slow, lovely themes that if you knew them from an album would cause you to breathe deep and think to yourself, “Ah, good, it’s that one.” From there the band rumbled on for several minutes, building acute tension through an assured rhythmic partnership usually reserved for jazz combos. Notes grew deeper, fatter, more rich and intense with every refrain. Then, as a dancer, Warren Ellis would strike out on his own.

Either held out and away from his body or up and above his shoulders, the violin moved closer and closer toward the stars and the night sky. The chorus, steady and sure, was left behind, its melody followed by the rage imposed against it. The violin was on its own and it refused to hold back. Mick Turner and Jim White, both well-conditioned in their separate roles, could only bow their heads. The higher Warren Ellis flew above them the more furious and aggressive each beat on his own instrument. Blowing sweat and spit high off the side of the stage like he just surfaced from deep waters, Warren Ellis flew circles around the stage like a tidal wave or an impossibly black hole.

And just when you were sure the song would implode with a magnificent crash and then utter silence, the Dirty Three, true to their name, worked harder to pull you in, to face the beyond, to touch the sky. And I did. And I knew it would end all right. And more than a few around me did, too. Warren Ellis dropped to his knees, then his back, sweat soaked his long hair and shirt, two of four violin strings ruined in the exorcise. Still with lowered heads, unaware of the exhausted pile of flesh at their feet, Mick Turner and Jim White resumed the original tempo then quietly plucked their instruments to a close.

That is how it continued for the next hour and a half. I went home exhausted but purged, a witness to a range of emotions and the cacophony of responses they produced. Sometimes angry, sometimes intensely violent; often heart wrenching or sad; bittersweet yet hopeful; reassuring and always honest. I can’t even remember if they played an encore. It doesn’t matter. What matters was that they shared some of the same struggles, heartaches, accomplishments, and resolutions that I forgot others experienced.

On the inside cover of the Whatever You Love, You Are album, tucked into a corner of a Mick Turner painting of a dark red (dirt?) road disappearing into blue, is a short narrative credited to no one but suspiciously reminiscent of Warren Ellis’s live introductions. Part of the narrative is as follows:

She lays before you like a golden road and you can’t afford the toll, a bunch of keys and none of them fit, somethings get to rattlin’ round in yer head…So the days roll on and the nights become one, a holy unity, some sounds hit you in a spot you like to go to from time to time and others lie dead on the side of the road, is that the sun or the moon?, whatever, then, like a texan knight, when you stare into those saucer eyes, you know at least somewhere’s safe. The fire ain’t out yet baby.

I can’t help but to connect these words (lyrics) with “The Return of the Grievous Angel.” Both the song and the narrative describe wanderlust, one a return, the other an endless rambling forward. Both find some sort of comfort or safety in a woman. Both involve long roads. Perhaps, even, the line “The fire ain’t out yet baby,” is a nod to the legendary story about the theft and burning of Gram’s corpse out in the Joshua Tree desert. Maybe the Dirty Three intend to carry that cosmic torch (pun intended) far beyond anything Gram could imagine.

The connections, if any, are of course subjective speculation. I want the connections to exist therefore they do. And why not? What is music of any kind if not speculation? Both bands sound inspired beyond their time. Both work(ed) hard to ground their music in tradition and, in doing so, simultaneously create(d) a new standard. In each case, life’s misfortunes spawn a sense of hope and a cause to celebrate. By sharing their struggles through honest narratives, focusing more on the side of beauty than sadness, both offer the listener a sort of redemptive therapy.

I listened to the GP/Grievous Angel album more than once that summer. Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, the American Analog Set’s The Golden Band, the Radar Brothers’ The Singing Hatchet, the Kingsbury Manx, Neko Case, Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt’s solo albums, and Pinetop Seven’s Bringing Home the Last Great Strike all received heavy rotation as well. I even saw great live shows by Yo La Tengo, American Analog Set, Sea & Cake, Neko Case, and Calexico. Nothing moved me quite as much as the Dirty Three.

In the weeks that followed the show I recognized that I had not been living but merely rolling along with the days and nights, searching for comfort, fearing the truth. I dropped like a fly that summer and I will never forget how the music picked me back up and offered me a road back home.

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