The Transcendent Quality of Music

I have remarked before that 12 Years a Slave is one of the best movies that I have seen in awhile.  It is not only expertly crafted and conveys its central story with incredible emotional impact, but it also has lots of ideas and themes permeating its margins.  There is a scene in the movie that is of true power where the slaves on the plantation sing Roll Jordan Roll.  This comes at a particularly harrowing point in the movie.  In this scene, especially in the context of the movie, one is made to feel how music allows one to transcend suffering to a degree.  It does not negate suffering, but simply allows one to carry on in the face of it.  Music is not only a source of joy, but also, like all good art should do, allows one to spiritually transcend the human mud of life.  It can allow one to exorcise those emotions that would otherwise tear them apart from the inside.

Recording Ted Hawkins Baby

I’ve been busy playing shows and recording the last few days, so I haven’t been posting a lot.  Today I had simply one of the most amazing musical experiences that I’ve ever had, and probably ever will.  I got to record with Elizabeth Hawkins and Tina Hawkins, the late great Ted Hawkins’s widow and daughter.  I’m not a religious person, but to quote Kurt Vonnegut, a secular humanist, “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”  It was that kind of day.

Right now there is a Ted Hawkins tribute record being put together.  The Shinyribs band is the house band for anyone that doesn’t bring their own musicians in.  Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell is one of the producers.

There is something indescribable when family sings together.  Hearing a mother and daughter sing their husband/dad’s song was extraordinary.  These two sang like angels.  It had that kind of purity and heart that you hear on 1960’s girl group records.  I felt, listening back to them, that I temporarily took a trip outside of space and time.  This was timeless music, as it was pure emotion.  Keith, Kev, and I tracked in one room live, with the two women singing live in the other room.  Let me tell you, it was easy to play well while you were hearing those two songbirds in your headphones.  (We recorded the song above.  The video above is a brief live clip of Ted Hawkins.  There is a recorded band version of this song that we based our arrangement on today.  I should also mention that Elizabeth Hawkins sang with Ted Hawkins on his records and also helped to arrange some of the material.)

There is so much more I could say, but the proof will be in the recording when it is finally available.  Often when you record something you have no idea how the final product will turn out.  However, today was one of those days when you just felt lucky to be there.

P.S.  If you haven’t heard Hawkins’s Watch Your Step album, it is a must buy.  I’ve never heard anyone that didn’t like it.  HIs other records are fantastic too, especially Happy Hour, but Watch Your Step is a front to back masterpiece.

AC/DC, Bryan Ferry, Hieronymus Bosch, and the Washington Monument

One thing I’ve really wanted to communicate to people through this blog, is that if you think of music being visual, it can really open up your appreciation to it.  I want to use two records that I listened to on my recent trip to try and convey that.  Two records that I listened to a lot were AC/DC’s Ballbreaker and Bryan Ferry’s Avonmore.  Musically and aesthetically these records are at the opposite ends of the spectrum, although both artists have a signature sound that they rework in different ways throughout their careers.   I want to write this for the average music listener and not someone that understands the technical side of music.

AC/DC have, per usual, a very stripped down approach to musical arrangement and mix.  There is one guitar in each speakers, bass, drums, and vocals.  The only guitars that are added through overdubs added, that could not be recreated live, appear to be Angus’s lead guitar.  This album is brilliantly produced by Rick Rubin, and I am not always a fan of his work.  AC/DC are a band whose greatness comes from their playing and arrangements.  The way the band play with each other creates their sound.  The brothers Young, Malcolm and Angus, play dueling electric guitars as well as anyone.  The rhythm section play simply, but with a ton of swing and feel.  During the Brian Johnson era, AC/DC’s lead singer, the sound of his voice communicates more than the actual lyrics do.  All of this is presented as straightforward as possible, so that the listener can enjoy what the band is doing and not be distracted by any studio tricks.

On Ferry’s record, again as usual for Ferry, features dense arrangements with a lot of competing instruments.  Everything is also draped in studio effects bringing a sense of mystery to the proceedings.  I have described what Ferry does before as futuristic film noir.  Movies like Bladerunner and Trouble in Mind come to mind while I listen to his records.  Ferry has great musicians like Nile Rodgers and Johnny Marr on his record.  However the performance of the individuals are not as important as the overall sound.

One record is primal and straightforward, while the other one is impressionistic and slick.  (Though I would argue that what AC/DC does on an album like Ballbreaker is more sophisticated then they are often given credit for.  The way the brothers bob and weave their guitars is not amateur hour, not even close.)  I believe one can absolutely love both approaches.  Music fans are less rigid than in the past, but there are still people that prefer one approach over another.  I don’t think that we need to make such choices, as long as each artist is doing what they can to the best of their abilities.

I think what AC/DC does is monolithic.  It is like the Washington Monument.  It is minimalistic, but powerful.  All fat has been stripped off until you end up with something simple, but riveting.  If you were to compare it to a movie it would be like an excellent Western, where the story is as straightforward as possible, but communicates a great deal through the minor tweaks of the form.

Meanwhile, what Ferry does is akin to Hieronymus Bosch.  He is creating something with a lot going on and your attention drifts to different details and textures, while never focusing on one thing for too long.  I don’t mean that Ferry’s work is like Bosch in the images that it creates mentally, only that there are many characters and images on the canvass, that add up to a substantial whole.

If you think of music like this, in a way where sound is visual, I believe that it can open up many kinds of music that one might not have previously enjoyed.  If I like a record, it is not because it is a certain style, but because each artist is realizing their vision to the fullest extent that they are capable of.  In music there are so many styles and textures.  If you can like dramas, horror films, and comedies, one should be able to like a wide range of musical artists.

RIP Ian McLagen – Oboe Concerto

Oboe concerto
All the best ones are dead
And there’s a song I can’t stand
And it’s stuck in my head

There’s a song I can’t stand
And it’s stuck in my head

Oboe concerto
All I do is drink to absent friends
And there’s a song I can’t stand
And it’s stuck in my head

There’s a song I can’t stand
And it’s stuck in my head

The older generation have tried, sighed & died
Which pushes me to their place queue

Round, rhythm goes round
Round, round rhythm of life goes round
Round, the rhythm goes round
Round, round rhythm of life goes round
Round, the rhythm goes round
Round, round rhythm of life goes round
Round, the rhythm goes round
Round, round rhythm of life goes round

By Morrissey.  This fantastic video was directed by Sharon Jheeta.

I just got back from Australia tonight.  I arrived to the sad news that Ian McLagan, Austin fixture and member of The Faces and The Small Faces, passed away tonight.  I’m exhausted as one can imagine.  I will post more on Ian in coming days.  I actually have a lot to write about after my trip and reading a great deal on the Civil War while away.  I might not have moved to Austin if not for Ian McLagan.  I saw him on my first trip to Austin at The Lucky Lounge.  It was one of those magical nights that helped me to fall in love with the city.  Anyway, I’m upside down from traveling halfway across the globe.  For some reason when I heard the news I thought instantly of the Morrissey song Oboe Concerto.  It says so much with such an economy of language.

Bryan Ferry’s Avonmore

Bryan Ferry has a new album out called Avonmore.   The album sounds like somewhere in between Roxy Music’s Avalon and his 80’s output, however it does feature enough modern touches to no be stuck in the past.  I have always liked Bryan Ferry, from his early Roxy Music days until now.  Although I don’t think anyone thinks Bryan Ferry sings as well as Bryan Ferry does, which is actually part of his charm, his voice has always been distinctive enough to be interesting to me as a listener. 

I know that there are some of you who probably view his music as too slick, but if you think of music as being visual it has the ability to create it’s own world.  I can’t help but think of some kind of futuristic film noir when I put one of his records on. His music would fit perfectly in the Alan Rudolph film Trouble in Mind.  Even his lesser songs have interesting textures and atmosphere.   He has consistently done his own thing outside of the trends of the day.  Even during the glam era, Roxy Music were much stranger than most of the competition.  Their album For Your Pleasure is a beautifully unique oddity. 

If you are someone that likes latter period Roxy Music, or his early solo career, then this album will please you.  He is still out there painting his own universe, for which I am grateful.