[7 December 2004]
It takes a long minute and a half of guitars, bass, and drums gearing up to hear the first lines being sung on the latest Green Pajamas offering: “In the lonely afternoon / I sit and watch the sky for rain”. This opening from “The Cruel Night”, sung in Jeff Kelly’s hesitant, world-weary voice, is the lyrical set-up for a record that encapsulates a feeling of maybe not loneliness precisely, but the evidence of a space surrounding each of us that no one can inhabit. What makes it worthy of your time is the way the band honors this individuality, taking note both of the moments of solitude and when we embrace the comfort of others.
Ten White Stones is one of two releases by the Green Pajamas to commemorate the band’s 20th anniversary. Twenty years! An amazing feat for any band, and we should take a moment to note the greatness of this, especially for a group still offering such exciting releases. Jeff Kelly (vocalist, guitar), Joe Ross (bass), Eric Lichter (keyboard, vocal), Laura Weller (guitar, vocal), and Scott Vanderpool (drums), hung out for two nights in April of this year and made this live-in-the-studio release. They recorded three songs from previous records (“The Cruel Night”, “Lost Girls Song”, and “(She’s Still) Bewitching Me”), one great cover (Hank Williams’s “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)”), and six new tunes. The centerpiece, “For S”, is one of the best songs I’ve heard in several years. Clocking in at over 11 minutes, it is astounding that it doesn’t feel a second too long. “I keep your secrets / In the same jar you keep mine / And I take them out sometimes / The good ones and the crimes”. This is a song that speaks of great love and commitment, and the chorus of “You steal the darkness from the day” positively soars into another dimension altogether.
What the Green Pajamas have created here is a road record. Ten White Stones is made for long journeys on unfamiliar routes. It occupies a realm of Atmosphere (with the capital ‘A’), something many records strive to achieve but few do, at least not so gracefully. The closest cousins to the sound on this record are Steve Wynn and Giant Sand. It has the feel of watching old movies on a black and white television, stepping outside for a cigarette on a gray, snowy day, burning leaves in your backyard. But this isn’t just nostalgia; it’s smarter than that. This is a band, after all, who penned the song “Holden Caulfield”. An overused literary name-check certainly, but that can be forgiven because the song is about the joy of reading. It’s in these details that the band broadens its scope. The journey slows, stops for a moment, and then branches out to feel the rest of humanity. This is not about escape, but about discovery and possibility.
The Green Pajamas exist in a place where music meets art. That is not to say that they affect a self-consciously important attitude. This is the organic definition, the one where art is, at its essence, a mode of expression for the human race. What the band does, and has done for two decades now, is craft gorgeous songs that convey a particular mood. They build slow and strong melodies and surround them with breathing, meandering guitar lines. The lyrics betray the world: loneliness and frustration but also love and hope. It’s the crafting that is important and the Green Pajamas never forget it. They bring us this art in a determined way, by still being vibrant after so many years and reflecting the nature of their own universe. The fact that they can pull this off in a possibly disastrous live-in-the-studio format only further attests to their hard work and sincerity. The only drawback to Ten White Stones is that it doesn’t sound as good in the home as it does in the car; but if that means I need to drive off sometimes to hear it, I bet my trip will always be well worth it.