[6 October 2008]
With Peace (For Mom), Jon Whitney has assembled something rare: a consistently listenable Various Artists double album. By their very nature, compilations can be patchy and infuriating as flow is sacrificed to accommodate things that really don’t belong together. Equally, most double albums can seem like a better single album is in there crying out for judicious editing. Peace (For Mom) is a trim beauty, though, with little or no chaff. The album takes us on a cool aesthetic journey that along the way makes pleasant introductions to some of the stranger names outside the musical mainstream and renders them accessible. It’s a labor of love, completed just a few months after Marilyn Whitney passed on, and seems a very fitting tribute to her. I say that because amongst other things, she bought her son his first records, took him to concerts, drove him to DJ at a local radio station when he was still a teenager, and in 2006 was in the audience to support Brainwaves (his festival).
A Place to Bury Strangers start things off with “Sunbeam”. This lush and suitably hushed track is as good as anything from their self-titled debut. The group never erupts into ‘The Loudest Band in NYC’, although they eventually click into hyperdrive and unleash waves of quite gorgeously treated guitar. Antony’s contribution, “You Are My Sister”, is a great example of his oeuvre: voice center stage, dramatic pacing and phrasing that is almost unique. He does, though, deliver a strange line that seems contradictory in this context: “So many memories / There’s nothing left to gain, from remembering / Faces and worlds no one else will ever know”. Antony’s voice is convincing, but he’s wrong: there is always something to gain from remembering.
Little Annie’s rendition of “Smile” sounds as if it could fit snuggly into the soundtrack from Withnail & I (around the part where Monty is reminiscing about “his sensitive crimes in a punt with a chap called Nigel”). Boduf Songs produces perhaps the best track he’s ever recorded, and “ Little Song for Jon” benefits from a clarity and focus that is not exhibited on his forthcoming disc. There is delightful swooning alt-pop from Boy in Static on “Stay Awake”. Caribou also pulls out a career-equaling best instrumental “Hummingbird”, which sounds like electro-pulses are somehow emanating from the wired feet of drunken dancing flamingoes.
More contrast comes from “Life in Life” by the Paula Kelly Orchestra, which has a slightly seedy 1960s movie feel akin to Cilla Black doing “Alfie”. A gothic folk thread also runs through Peace (For Mom) on pieces such as “Woven Clouds” from Carter Tutti and “This World Is Not My Home” by His Name Is Alive. Both these tracks sound quite dark, and yet have a contrasting light and airy quality also found on Marissa Nadler’s “Stallions”. Perhaps Marilyn Whitney was fond of our equine friends, as Current 93 contributes “All the Pretty Horses”.
Disc two has a muted beginning with Andrew Liles’s sparse piano piece “The Comfortable Illusion of Meaning”. Matmos’s “Staircase” offers an appropriate sense of an ascent, although the layered synthetic spirals of sound left me somewhat queasy. Throughout this release, Whitney proves adept at the art of compilation and he provides contrast immediately by including the aching dreamy pop of Monster Movies doing “Vanishing Act” (complete with the painfully succinct line “I’m not ready for this, I won’t ever be”. Ouch.) Longer tracks from Fridge, Stars of the Lid, Windy and Carl, and Keith Fullerton Whitman all hit the spot. Fridge’s piece utilizes (sparingly) the voice of a child for a rather poignant effect. Sybarite provides another dollop of cathartic pop music with “Mochi Swt”, wherein the line “I remember how you took my hand” stands out. Amanda Palmer does the sad yet uplifting ballad “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark”, her sensual voice accompanied only by piano. Buried midway through disc two is “Family Tree”, the opening track from Sandro Perri’s Tiny Mirrors, one of the best albums of this decade. Perri’s expressive voice and impressionistic lyrics brilliantly convey the conflicting emotions of family life in an inspiring song that almost recalls the laidback acoustic-funk of Shuggie Otis.
The collection enters an unapologetically lush, sad phase with the gentle harmonies of Rivulets’ “You Sail On”, with its talk of hospitals and parting, and the ethereal wave and pulse of Ulrich Schnauss’s “Wherever You Are”. Again, Jon Whitney gets the ratio of instrumental to voice just right. Things brighten with the 17th Pygmy doing “I Know My Train’s a Coming”, one of the jolliest approaches to the acceptance of mortality (and faith in an afterlife?) that you could ever hope to hear. There is quality in abundance on Peace (For Mom), and the tracks are either exclusive, alternate takes, or chosen for their meaning. All were donated by the artists.
Brainwaves 2 takes place in Boston this autumn, and Marilyn Whitney will be there in spirit. Her son writes: “Proceeds [from this release] will be donated to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass, where my mom volunteered after her retirement. Additionally, a stone bench has been erected at the top of Mount Pollux in Amherst in her name. Visitors are welcome.”
Note: Jon Whitney is, amongst other things, the man behind brainwashed.com, the Brainwaves festival, the Sound Your Eyes Can Follow, and Killer Pimp records. D.M. Edwards also writes for brainwashed.com. This particular review is dedicated to Mary Edwards.