Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fleet Foxes

My Sony mp3 player happily informs me that “every moment has its music” whenever I turn it on. This is partly true. Due to the advent of mp3 players, people can now take their music everywhere. This can make life exponentially better. Instead of taking a walk in the park, you can take a walk in the park with The Beatles or The Shins. Or, to put it in a more negative way, trips to Wal-Mart can become made worse by having Nickelback blasted into your eardrums.

However, some of us dislike the claustrophobic closeness of the earbud. Listening to music with earbuds is like having a conversation with a close talker-no matter how interesting it is, you feel like your personal space is being violated. Around-the-ear headphones are better, but the pair I have are emblazoned with huge skulls, thus making me look like I should be pierced, tattooed, and listening to The Misfits.

CD players, computers, and those nifty chords that let you hook up your mp3 player to the stereo system if you press the “Aux” button, are all good, but when it comes to listening to music somewhere other than the comfort of home or the car, I am at a loss. A boom-box would be pretty retro, but I would feel wrong playing anything on it that wasn’t old-school hip-hop. Carrying my own instrument would be a good idea, but I don’t own a strap for my acoustic guitar. Personal minstrels are out of the question. I would simply have to do without, and hope I that the stores I want to go to play Jefferson Airplane and not Miley Cyrus.

What if, to solve this problem, music was supernaturally played at appropriate times and places? For example, say you’re walking along and you see someone and know that she’s your soul mate. (Assuming you’re a guy.) Suddenly, music from Air Supply magically begins to play. Or every time you were coming back from some event where you had to wear a suit and had to run into Wal-Mart to get some eggs, “Sharp Dressed Man” by ZZ Topp was heard in the immediate radius. It seems like some music is tied to specific sorts of places or situations. Just try to work out and listen to Jack Johnson.

If walking out in the woods just before dawn had a soundtrack, it would be Fleet Foxes self-titled debut album. The album brings up images of early morning sunlight coming through the trees. The four-piece band from Seattle plays a spectral brand of folk-rock, with a bit of a retro pseudo-60s sound. Don’t expect any blues jams or screaming guitar solos.

Fleet Foxes mixes different folk styles, blending American folk with British, Celtic, and Renaissance music. “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” actually sounds like a real folk song. The music on this record sounds like it was coming from a cave, or maybe a room in a castle. The reverb-heavy approach is a recipe for boredom in less talented bands, but fits perfectly with Fleet Foxes’ minimalist style. Lead singer Robin Pecknold’s voice is a bit odd, (He pronounces “staggering as “stagger-eein’”) but is not in the least annoying, and has a strange beauty. He’s backed up by a shimmering electric guitar, and some subdued drums. The drums and guitar on this record are probably the least obtrusive I’ve ever heard. They don’t try to upstage the vocals; instead, they support them. The songs aren’t highly technical, but they’re very tight. There is not a wasted note on the record. Fleet Foxes manages to have a lot of diversity on their record, from the rousing “Ragged Wood”, to the calming “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” The record is full of good melodies and even better harmonies. The harmonies are so tight, it seems like one person is singing, and the reverb-laden backing chorus is the high point of this album. The album is essentially flawless.

This record is great for listening to early in the morning while drinking coffee, at night when the moon is full, or any other time that is full of atmosphere. It is haunting without being depressing If you like 60s folk rock like Simon and Garfunkel or Steeleye Span (Great Celtic rock band), or if you’re looking for something new and different, check out Fleet Foxes and their self-titled CD. Words cannot accurately describe it. It must be heard to be believed.

You can check out Fleet Foxes' Website and by some of there music here.
Currently Listening: Stockholm Syndrome, Derek Webb.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Recent Concerts, Part One.

Bradley Hathaway, Us and the Ship

Location: The old I Love Evelyn building

Friday, January 28

Due to a prior commitment, I arrived at the Bradley Hathaway concert about thirty minutes after the door opened. When I walked in I found that the show had already started, but was surprised to see that Bradley Hathaway was already playing. It turned out that, in order to make sure everyone stayed at the show, the out-of-town headliner was playing first, and the local band (Us and the Ships), was playing last. Not exactly how it is supposed to be, but this is Texarkana.

I didn't actually take this picture, but I didn't have my camera at the concert.

Bradley Hathaway, sporting long hair and a mustache, sat alone onstage accompanied by his acoustic guitar. I did not get there early enough to hear very many of his songs, but his style consists of his playing a simple, repetitive line on the guitar and talking over it. The only artist I can think to compare him with would be mewithoutYou if Aaron Weiss got into Americana and mellowed out considerably. His style was challenging, and it will probably take repeated listening to him to fully appreciate him. There was a lot of giggling in the audience when he got to the lines in one of his songs, “Adam and Eve were naked in the garden, and I want to get naked too. Let’s all get naked. But no, I can‘t do that.” etc. Although it makes sense in the context of the song, it seems as if the song lyrics are directed more toward shocking or amusing the audience as opposed to making a genuine artistic statement. Perhaps I’m wrong.
After he finished playing his songs, he recited a couple of his poems. Bradley Hathaway is no Wordsworth. He falls prey to most of the pitfalls of modern poetry, its egotism, its morbid introspection, and its total ignorance of any poetic devices such as similes.. And his poem about wanting Jesus to give him a hug seemed to skirt the edges of irreverence. However, his poem “Manly Man” was a humorous take on the difference between true Christian manliness and the world’s definition of manliness.
Once Bradley Hathaway finished his poetry recitation, he went to the tedious business of selling T-shirts and Us and the Ship took the stage. I found that this band was fronted by lonely poet Keith Tubbs and one of the members was Skyler House, who had played rhythm guitar for Israel and Fordreamsalike when I saw them open for Abel. The band’s style was described to me as hardcore-influenced indie, sort of in the vein of Edison Glass.
Guess which one can change a tire.

Us and the Ship’s was a band that tried too hard. Keith Tubbs, who is already unable to sing without sounding like he has a stomach virus, gave us a new feature to his onstage persona-dancing. Flailing would probably be a better word-the poor guy looked like he either had some sort of nerve disorder, or that he was being attacked by a swarm of angry wasps. The rest of the band did synchronized head banging, which looked very amateurish. The drummer‘s idea of being good was playing as loud as possible. The songs felt like they lasted forever. A good band can take a twenty-minute long-song and make it go by in a heartbeat. Us and the Ship dragged out five-minute long songs into eternity. I’m not in any way against experimental song structure, but if you are a beginning band, it is a good idea to keep to the tradition verse-chorus-verse structure. It’s pleasing to the ear and makes it easier to write good songs. Amateur songwriters may claim that it makes their music “too pop”, but anything that is not classical or traditional folk music is pop.

I didn't take this picture either. This is why you should always remember your camera.

Us and the Ship’s songs had the typical features of indie bands that try too hard. There were repetitive sections of the music that lasted too long, tempo changes, a pseudo breakdown. Keith even pulled out a harmonica, to do his Dylan-wannabe bit. The final song was the best, one of those indie songs that tries to swing with a bluesy rhythm, but the lyrics were complete gibberish.
My biggest complaint was not with the band, but with the audience. Despite the loud rock music being played onstage, and the energy of the band, they stood stock-still during the entire performance. This is completely unacceptable. It is just as rude and disrespectful to stand still at the front row of a rock concert as it would be to jump and scream at a symphony performance. Standing still during the band’s set says to the band “I don’t care.” I was informed that this was a Texarkana thing, and I can see why. Since Texarkana has almost no music scene to speak of, most people have never been to a concert before, and have no idea what to do once they’re there. If you go to see some sort of rock band, don’t stand still. Jump up and down, clap your hands, bang your head, do the Charleston, do something. But don’t stand still.

You can visit Bradley Hathaway's Facebook page here and Us and the Ship's Facebook page here.

While you're here, read and comment on the other posts. There's some good stuff waiting to be read.

Currently listening: Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper

It was perhaps 1970 when my parents carried me to Nashville and to the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium.  Actually, we went to the Friday Night Opry.  We lived with a Scottish parsimony, so we were staying in a camping trailer at a time before camp grounds could be readily found in the area.  That same frugality explains why we attended the cheaper Friday night show.  But it didn't matter. My folks did wonderful things for me, and since I was the youngest by six years, they were able to do wonderfully kind things for their weird son.  Why weird?  Because I was growing up in the late 60s and early 70s and my musical tastes were all in the direction of country music.  And that did not mean just the popular country singers of that time, like George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, and Johnny Cash.  I liked the old country stars, meaning, those whose heyday was back in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s.

The trip to the Ryman on that Friday night was euphoric.  I was there seeing and hearing Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, the Willis Brothers, and other favorite singers.  Early in the show, one of my favorite acts came out.  Jim Ed Brown, who still performs at the Opry, said something like, "Let's give a big hand to my next guests, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan."

I don't remember what they sang. I know it was powerful.  Wilma Lee was belting out on of the old mountain or gospel songs that they had made famous and all the while she was playing a guitar with zeal. Stoney would play some fiddle in the background and join in on singing the chorus. 

They were great, but there was a sense even in 1970 that this couple were walking on stage from out of the past.  Their looks, their outfits, and their songs seemed more like something from the old barn dances and radio hillbilly music shows of yesteryear than the product of the late 1960s Nashville sound. 

Their tradition was the old pure country and mountain folk music.  It is what is now considered bluegrass music. It was music learn't at the barn dance, the church singin', or the front porch on an evening after working on the farm.  They were singing in the way and with the vigor of those early country artists who thought music was hard work and performing meant giving the crowd a good time.  And while many of those singers nearly starved on the road, they reckoned that the singing lifestyle beat living at the end of the dirt road and struggling to grow corn on a mountain slope. (The other alternative usually involved moving to the city for a factory job.  Those who did that provided the audiences for those who sang.)

I was thrilled a few days ago when Nicholas told me about seeing a Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper Greatest Hits music CD at a local convenience store.  Nope, you don't find them at our rather weak Walmart and Target music centers, and there is not music store in Texarkana.  I know I could have gotten the music from an on-line source, but I never did.  So, I went into the convenience store, bought the CD and some peanut butter crackers. I am looking forward to listening to it in a few days.  I hope it transports me back to that wonderful evening in Nashville many years ago.

More background on the Coopers:
Wilma Lee was born in 1921 in Valley Head, West Virginia, and she grew up singing with her family's gospel music group.  In 1939, Wilma Lee married Dale T. "Stoney" Cooper, who was a fiddler and vocalist for with her family's band. They formed their own group known as Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan. For years they performed on the Wheeling, West Virginia's WWVA-AM radio program and then joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1957.
During their successful years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they had several hits including "Big Midnight Special" and "There's a Big Wheel." They also continued performing gospel songs like  "The Tramp on the Street" and "Walking My Lord Up Calvary's Hill." Hank Williams once said that Wilma Lee was the best female country vocalist around.

Stoney Cooper died in 1977 from heart trouble, but Wilma Lee stayed on the Opry as a solo star and did occasional bluegrass recordings.  Her performing career ended in 2001 when she suffered a stroke while performing on the Opry, but she was able some time later to return to the Opry to greet the fans.

Although largely forgotten today, they were a musical treasure from the Golden Age of Country Music.
For more on Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, click here and visit the Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper Fan Page.