Listen to this track by Montreal-based, Providence Rhode Island originated folk-rock fraternal outfit The Barr Brothers. It’s “Beggar In The Morning”, a single as taken from their 2011 self-titled record The Barr Brothers. The titular brothers Brad (guitar, voice) and Andrew (drums and percussion) had been a part of experimental rock band The Slip from the mid-nineties, but had been playing music in one form or another since 1983 when they were still children growing up in Rhode Island, with Chuck Berry and Miles Davis getting equal time on the record player as they learned their craft on their instruments.
The results of vocalist and guitarist Brad Barr’s songwriting output reflects a sense of emotional gravity and textural variety. His brother Andrew keeps the beat and add percussive accents and melodic accessory on drums and percussion. Classically-trained harpist Sara Page was added to their line-up after Brad heard her playing harp through the drywall, since she was his neighbour. with her addition to the brothers’s sound, the band was officially born. Multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial rounds out the membership, adding further nuance to the whole, which is a meditative and subtle approach to modern roots music that escapes easy comparison.
How did the brothers cover the distance between Boston, where they were based for a decade, and Montreal? It was a question of an odd and unexpected welcome they received in a city that was gaining in stature as a key cultural destination for innovative music.
Listen to this track by Pennsylvanian-turned-New Yorker indie-folk outfit Akron/Family. It’s their Jimmy Page-in-Davy-Graham-mode slice of acoustic guitar and percussion glory off of their 2006 album Meek Warrior. The track can also be found on the MOJO magazine compilation The Quiet Revolution, which corralled a number of so-called “nu-folk” tracks together that year.
This track leapt out at me just because to me it seemed, and seems, to suggest a greater meaning underneath its pristine simplicity. And this is a very simply-constructed song, with sparse lyrics that sound almost like a hushed chant. This is one of the things I like about it. It seems to evoke a spiritual aspect without all of the distasteful baggage which is often associated with using music as a means to convey a spiritual message.
What does “gone beyond/gone completely beyond” actually mean? Well, it’s a translated Buddhist mantra – Heart Sutra – and placed into a decidedly Western musical motif. Yet, because it’s been placed in this context, are there other meanings to be gleaned from it?
Maybe the song points to something as lofty as that the world as we know it is something that we can get beyond, to Heaven, or maybe more accurately to Nirvana. Or, it could mean that the music itself has gone beyond what we think of it – not folk, not pop, not anything but what it is – music being played, with a value beyond simple labeling. The band are certainly adventurous stylistically, with no one genre really being enough to contain their sound.
Or, maybe it’s not that either.
And speaking of spiritual matters, there are a number of murmurings about the spiritual element to this band, although their website is wonderfully evasive of any real hard facts about who they are or where they’re coming from. That is, unless you can pull together the secrets of the universe from cash receipts, doodles, and bowling scores. Yet, perhaps there is a zen value to be found in these things too, the remnants of time spent just existing without thought of anything higher, yet with the potential to attain that higher ground waiting all the same.
Here’s a clip of acoustically inclined London duo and one-time Mercury-Prize nominees Turin Brakes. It’s “Mind Over Money” a key track from the group’s 2001 debut album The Optimist LP.
Right after Brit-pop happened in the mid-90s, music coming out of Britain took on a more sombre tone, and certainly a more moodily earnest one, with bands like Coldplay and Travis filling pages of Q Magazine where Blur and Pulp once ruled supreme. In many ways, this was a drastic swing in the opposite direction of Brit-pop, which was about artifice, and a kind of ebullient irony.
But, maybe it was the letdown of the New Labour movement in Britain that was supposed to be so much more than the staid conservatism that had been in place for so long. Or maybe it was that by the early 2000s, the darkness of the world was too intrusive to be ignored, with planes hitting buildings, the ensuing leaps in political and military logic, and wars on terror splashed out on the pages of national newspapers.
Where this song isn’t an overt protest against the actions of governments, I think there is a certain feeling in it that a time of innocence, of safety is over. Suddenly, the freedom to take risks comes at a higher cost, where keeping ‘blood on the inside and nowhere else’ is a simple, and simplistic mantra.
In some ways, this is the polar opposite of traditional rock ‘n’ roll rebellion, railing against the Man in a bid for personal freedom. This is more about the kind of feeling you get when you realize that the dealings and methodologies that shape the world pale in comparison to the bigger questions of why we’re here at all – “What does it matter in the grand scheming sky/all that I multiply adds up to nothing”.
These sentiments are not new to the times in which they were created, of course. They are a part of the human experience. As such, this is a snapshot of the human psyche at its most fearful moment; the moment when the absurdities of the world make us question the point of everything. And where the happy, bouncy pop song that helps us gain perspective on this, we need its darker twin just as much to appeal to the twinges of doubt, and the helplessness, that we feel just as keenly.
The middle of the 1980s was mostly about producing hits off of the back of a certain type of digitalized sound, rather than solid material. At the end of the decade, even mainstream audiences were looking for songwriters of substance, shifting the focus away from how records sounded, and more about what was actually being said. As such, there was something of a demand for singer-songwriters again, which helped along the careers of people like Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman, both of whom had monster hits around that time in “Luka” and “Fast Car” respectively.
And among this new crop of songwriters was Shawn Colvin, who had done the rounds in rock bands well before this new folk boom that supported the possibilities for a solo career. For me personally, a lot of the material out of this trend had blanded out by the 90s. And worst of all, the “girl-with-guitar” vibe became something of a cliche, as female singer-songwriters were becoming ghettoized, rather patronizingly, as a sort of subgenre.
This is a shame, since all the while Shawn Colvin was building upon her already considerable chops as a songwriter, coupled with her writing partner Jon Leventhal. By 2006, and with the release of this song and the album off of which it comes, her material shines, as does her voice which is a sultry, smoky instrument that evokes experience out of innocence. This quality is certainly on display here on this song of isolation and regret.
I think some of the best singer-songwriters are the ones that are able to climb inside their material, not only putting words and music together, but able to reveal the emotional core that comes out of the process. I don’t think as many singer-songwriters are able to do this as well as they think. But Shawn Colvin, particularly on this song, proves herself to be in a league of her own.
It’s hard to choose between which tune on this record I like best. I’m a sucker for autumnal music, and this record on the whole is certainly that – you can practically smell the leaves on the ground with this one. And there’s something dreamlike about these songs too, like the music which sometimes filters down from your subconscious just as you’re failing asleep, or just as you’re rising up from a long, good dream. I chose this one because I mistook it initially for that music, the song in your dream which you remember being one of the most haunting and melodic tunes you’ve ever heard, yet forget once you’re awake.
It was the early morning, a weekday, when I was living in London. I had a very long commute, and woke up stupidly early on weekdays. I was in a deep sleep when the radio came on, and ‘Toxic Girl’ was playing – both on the radio and in my dream. When I woke up fully, it was almost with shock that the song was still playing, a gentle, simple melody, rippling like a brook and with those tightly sung, yet also entirely relaxed Nordic voices. I was hooked. This song is made for early mornings, for Octobers.
Here’s a clip of Who guitarist/visionary and rock opera guru Pete Townshend with a solo acoustic take on his song “Drowned”, the studio version of which appears on the Who’s 1973 concept album Quadrophenia.
The reason the Who is in the upper echelon of British Invasion bands is that they helped to expand the possibilities of what a rock band means, and what a rock song can be about too. This doesn’t simply refer to head writer Townshend’s penchant for lofty and ambitious rock operas and concept albums, although these forms certainly became his main areas of concern by 1969. I think the underlying influence they had was making rock music into something which could be confessional as well as visceral. Rock music, Townshend proved, could be used as a vehicle for self-examination.
This approach began with the 1969 album Tommy, and the live versions of the story which came afterward. Ultimately, that album and the ‘rock opera’ to follow, had more to do with its writer than it did with a mythical deaf dumb and blind kid. But, with 1973’s Quadrophenia, Townshend wasn’t just telling his story. He was attempting to take on the stories of everyone he grew up with including, and maybe especially, his band mates.
With this tune, I think there’s a nakedness to it that is even more apparent in his solo acoustic takes, which he’d performed in a number of settings as a solo artist by the 1990s. On the surface, this is a song about the teenage mind, the driving need to belong, to matter, to align one’s identity with something greater. This is what it means to be ‘drowned’ in this song – to be subsumed by something powerful, something that is elemental, and able to deliver one from the crushing reality of isolation often felt most keenly by teenagers.
In the story, our young mod hero Jimmy finds himself at the sea in Brighton, the city which was the epicentre of the war between mods and rockers. There he waits to catch a glimpse of his hero, king of the mods Ace Face. Yet what he feels is bereft, lonely, and with the overpowering need to be included, to belong. To me, the visuals of this are so important. To see a middle-aged Townshend singing this tune, is to see that the sentiments in it go well beyond the confines of the story being told. And his latter-day performances of this song ultimately illustrate that the need to find belonging and meaning goes beyond age too. This is what it is to be human, to feel the overpowering drive to make a connection with something bigger than oneself.
Contrast that interview with this interview with Pete Townshend in 2003, when his ‘research’ into child abuse caused him some bother with the law. It seemed that his struggles to come to terms with his youth would be lifelong pursuit that would continue to lead him down some pretty thorny paths.
Here’s a clip of Portishead frontwoman Beth Gibbons in her collaboration with former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb (billed here as ‘Rustin Man’) performing a key track ‘Tom the Model’ from their one-off album together Out of Seasonfrom 2002.
Beth Gibbons and Paul Webb were friends before the former joined and began recording with Portishead. And in keeping in touch, it made sense for the two to collaborate, especially since Portishead aren’t known for a whirlwind schedule of recordings and tours. Besides that, it makes sense for the two of them to make a record together, since brittle, atmospheric music is an area of expertise they both share. And for Gibbons, it was a chance to explore the world of songwriting, as well as expanding on what she is able to accomplish as a vocalist.
Her voice has the description ‘evocative’ permanently attached to it, and here it does what you expect it to do. And similar to her work with Portishead, the evocation of the soundtracks of 60s cinema, with requisite John Barry and Lalo Schifrin influence, is well in place. But a good deal of the album shows that this is only one texture that she has at her disposal. Even though a lot of what she’s doing with her voice adds a lot of dark and spooky atmosphere to the material, on a couple of occasions it sounds downright innocent, as if she’s accessed a tonally emotive area that is more Sandy Denny than Eartha Kitt (see the opening track ‘Mysteries’), even ifKitt remains to be a vocal reference point (see the track “Romance” to see what I mean).
In Portishead, Gibbons’ voice is like a living sampler, able to reproduce the feel of a time gone by. But, here on this record and on this song, her voice is warmer, a bit less distant on most tracks, and is very much the instrument of a performer and songwriter who is very much in the present, even if the material has a certain retro feel. In many ways, it should be world’s apart from Portishead in many more respects. For instance, this is almost an exclusively acoustic record, as opposed to Portishead’s world of samples and technology. Yet, the effect here is similar. Maybe the moods, the melodies, the lyrical themes, are the things which make Gibbons’ work distinctive rather than the tools she and her collaborators have used to get the sound.
For me, this is a great track off of a very intense album, an album I can’t just put on casually. I think it’s possible for music to be beautiful and burdensome at the same time, and this record is a great example. There is something very heavy about it. It’s as if the pair had poured some of their suffering into it, as well as their enthusiasm. There are a lot of contrived albums based around this approach, with a lot of overemoting, and faux-angst sentiment. But, the songs and the overall feel on this record are so subtle, and there are so many little sonic details which demand a listener’s attention, that it’s sometimes pretty exhausting, just because it feels so real. Yet when you’re in it, it’s pretty awe inspiring too.
The skill that Gibbons’ seems to have is the ability to turn her voice into an instrument which goes beyond conveying lyrics and melody at face value. She somehow makes her performance into something more like a special effect in a movie. She creates an illusion, a real sense of location somehow, in a way that I’ve never experienced in the work of another singer. And the aural landscape she creates isn’t always safe, either. Sometimes, it’s downright threatening, but not in a crass or overt way. It’s the subtlety she’s able to employ that makes this track, and the other songs on the album, totally compelling and real – which is why it sometimes gives way to some beautifully chilling music. Perhaps tellingly, there hasn’t been a follow-up to this album.
Beth Gibbons recently released another album with Portishead, Third. Paul Webb continues to work as a producer, most recently on James Yorkston’s The Year of the Leopard.