We tend to forget how lonely and narrow the craft of songwriting can be, especially in these days of sour re-sampled ‘hits’ and hooks-by-committee creativity. To channel the melodic meaning of the universe through your insights and instruments remains an almost indecipherable creative pursuit. How a single human being can summarize the wealth of individual experience into a three minute collection of chords, words, and aural abstracts often seems like a challenge to cheat God. Only someone with powers as omniscient could forge such a solid sonic pact with both music and meaning. It’s rare, but some of that talent tends to trickle down to people on our planet, giving them inspiration to attempt the evocative expression. It’s these dedicated artists that we find as the focus of this month’s Surround Sound, an installment supporting such a harmonious hypothesis. Whether they’re fictional, factual, or fractured, we are given a privileged glimpse into their way of working, such a snapshot providing proof that, even on Earth, there are definite deities amongst us mere mortals.
Once [rating: 9]
Music is often referred to as the soundtrack to our lives, and for many, it’s a sentiment to be taken literally. We fall in love to a certain song, break up over a privately held tune, and treat all celebrations, losses, and interpersonal struggles as objects for underscoring. It’s a proposal that propels the critically acclaimed “indie musical” Once, a film forged out of the former working relationship between John Carney and Glen Hansard (who were in the Irish rock band The Frames together). Centering on the burgeoning relationship between a street performer and a Czech immigrant flower girl, the celebrated outsider triumph took a non traditional route toward its aural accompaniment. Pre-production found non-actors Hansard and Markéta Irglová (noted professionals in the industry) writing the highly personal soundtrack, both separate and in collaboration. The results ended up reaching across the typical music and lyrics to evoke strong, substantive emotion while also providing the kind of minor key mood that prepares us for all the emotional upheaval that the narrative promises. As is the case with releases like this, context is crucial to gaining the full impact of these songs. But once you’ve heard them, they’re hard to forget – with or without the movie to illuminate them.
A perfect example is the opening track, “Falling Slowly”. Beginning with a graceful guitar signature, and building to a crescendo of expressive singing and intricate piano and string driven instrumentation, the song suggests the start of something doomed, as if fate has already stepped in and clarified the possibilities. It’s a feeling only amplified by the duets, where simple aural implications like “If You Want Me” or “When Your Minds Made Up” say more about Hansard and Irglová than any dialogue could deliver. Toward the middle, our male lead has a pair of palpable high points. “Leave” is the most undemanding break up song ever (even the title suggestion sounds more like a pledge than a plea) while “Trying to Pull Myself Away” is an uptempo effort to convince himself that life post-affair can return to normal. Of course, the lyrics suggest something far more complicated. There are also hints of the long lost troubadours here, the sonic semblance of “All The Way Down” to “Pink Moon” era Nick Drake being rather obvious. By the time we reach the title track, we’re hoping for the kind of clear cut catharsis that such a storyline seems to suggest. Instead, we become lost in the apparent ennui, freed only by Hansard’s fabulous finale “Say It To Me Now”. From a whisper to a scream it sells Once as a fabulous and fresh reinvention of a typically tired genre.
You’re Gonna Miss Me [rating: 8]
As an audience member, we rarely get to witness a musician’s mental breakdown through their songs. Instead, the manipulative minds behind the performer’s career tend to tweak out the bad stuff, leaving behind an incomplete portrait without all the sonic shadings. In the case of psychedelic bluesman Roky Erickson, however, the shift was sudden, severe, and very, very public. Before anyone could get him the help he needed, he lost both his audience and his mind. It wasn’t until he hit that most horrible of clichés –rock bottom – that he could pull himself out of his psychotic stresses. In his prime, however, he was like a combination of Syd Barrett and Daniel Johnston with a persona heavy on the weird acid casualty side of ideas. The change manifested itself aurally, as Erickson went from writing normal tunes about love and loss with the seminal 13th Floor Elevators to converting the voices in his head into epic audio tirades against unseen demons, goblins, and ghosts. It’s a path that we can follow, thanks to Kevin McAlester and his in depth documentary, as well as this stellar soundtrack album accompanying it. Covering Erickson’s entire career (including some heretofore unheard demos), we see how a damaged brain can become an even more messed up muse.
The two 13th Floor tracks – the recognizable hit that gives the work its title, and “Fire Engine” - argue that our hero wasn’t functioning on all six cylinders to begin with. The later track specifically sounds like a failed Brian Wilson SMiLE cut crammed into The Beatles “Revolution #9”. It definitely prepares us for the worst yet to come. What’s surprising, though, are the pre-problematic cuts where Erickson comes off like a solid Me Decade arena rocker. In fact, his new band (the Aliens) could easily be called Blue Oyster Occult. Genius works like “Bloody Hammer” and “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” appear cogent at first. But then the increasingly surreal lyrics start creeping in, and before we know it, efforts like “Mine, Mine, Mind” and “It’s a Good Night for Alligators” lose us. Thankfully, the compilation compensates for these obviously arcane riffs, referencing Erickson in his more introspective period (the poignant “You Don’t Love Me Yet”) and insightful (the calm, acoustic protest “Unforced Peace”). By the end of the album, our troubled soul has more or less returned to his senses, singing the heartbreaking and brittle “Goodbye Sweet Dreams”. Unlike other musicians whose minds snapped, time and treatment appear to have brought him back – at least, part way. With a collection of creative shout outs like this, it’s a well earned return.
Kurt Cobain About a Son [rating: 7]
Sometimes, it’s easier to look outside, to an artist’s sphere of influences, rather than reflect on the same three album canon over and over again – especially when financial issues like copyright and residuals conspire to mess with your options. For his documentary about the Nirvana icon, filmmaker AJ Schnack (creator of the brilliant They Might Be Giants deconstruction, Gigantic) drew on the numerous sonic references the troubled artist relied on to create his inappropriately labeled ‘grunge” dynamic. In fact, aside from Steve Albini’s overriding desire to distort all guitars, Cobain was a pop songwriter forced to conform to the needs of the scene (Seattle in the ‘90s) and the rock merchandisers (who rightly saw punk’s potential rebirth). He was also indebted to standard ‘70s cockrock, as well as the harsh hardcore subgenre that swept the West Coast of his adolescence. Without using a single note of the man’s amazing oeuvre, and avoiding the more obvious bands (The Pixies) namechecked in interviews, the slightly off center portrait painted is one of a DIY devotee who also enjoyed reflecting on the medium’s previous dinosaur stance. Together, with minor snippets from the audio interviews with Kobain that form the basis for the film, the imagination that drove this determined musician slowly comes into view.
The soundtrack begins on an ephemeral note, where one of the few original pieces – an ambient like drone by Steve Fisk and Benjamin Gibbard – sets the melancholy mood. It prepares us for something more introspective than extroverted. Oddly, this isn’t supported by the next track, the weird inclusion of the Arlo Guthrie novelty “The Motorcycle Song”. Perhaps within the context of the film it works. Here, it’s a glaring sonic stunt. More in tune with our expectations is “Eye Flys” from Cobain faves Melvins. As a simple bass line loops and lunges, fuzzy guitars ‘buzz’ in the background. After almost five minutes, a groove is set and the singer steps in. The lyrics suggest the sort of mental fever dreams the late poet played with. In quick succession, the brilliant Bad Brains prove why they were “Banned in DC”, while the usually atonal Half Japanese go bubblegum with their jaunty “Pour Some Sugar On It”. By the time The Vaselines arrive to offer up their cryptic ear candy (“Son of a Gun”, a great track), the image of Cobain as a craftsman is clear. He channeled all his loves – Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Leadbelly, all present – into an intriguing amalgamation of personal primal scream and amiable AM radio. He had as much in common with the Butthole Surfers (represented by “Graveyard”) as he did with fellow scene stealers Mudhoney (“Touch Me, I’m Sick”). Even highly specialized tastes like Scratch Acid (represented by the arcane “Owner’s Lament”) make perfect sense within this decibel dynamic.