Sunday, March 04, 2007

Music and lyrics, tapes and tapes

Image: Jennifer Akkermans

And here I attempt to string together some of the songs I listened to and loved this past week with some childhood memories of music. Watch me ramble! Witness as I fail to self-edit! Read if you must/dare.

The first song I remember seeing performed was a murder ballad, executed by my dad. He sat on the cinnamon tweed sofa in our family room and played "Tom Dooley" -- a particularly convoluted 19th century crime committed to verse -- on a cheap acoustic guitar he'd bought in the Navy before I was born. (Later, I sorta/almost/didn't really learn to play on the same instrument.) We were an audience of two, my brother and I, and my dad, who is not a musician, croaked the notes and fumbled the chords, and we were, nevertheless, impressed. If it didn't occur to my dad that there was anything wrong with singing a murder ballad to little children, it wasn't until recently that I even realized it was one. Because for years, the only words I carried were the refrain: Hang down your head Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry, hang down your head Tom Dooley, poor boy you're bound to die. The song hasn't inspired any great renditions that I've heard. And if you're interested in rigid, tradition-tethered genres like murder ballads, you seek performances that are. Ones that walk around the creaking structure, inspect the plumbing, examine the floorboards for termites, eventually say "yup, it's perfect, I'll take it," then swing a pickaxe at the first available wall.

Few artists reimagined ballads with as much rockin' joy as Fairport Convention. With "Matty Groves," you've got Sandy Denny's rare voice -- grand and aching and relishing the drama of this particularly lusty, grisly, ironic variant on the old Child ballad. No mere humble conduit for the tale, she is the story. Though the instruments would argue otherwise. Even as Denny sings, the fiddle and guitar interrupt and the beats bump impatient. And that long, good-ridiculous psych-drone instrumental almost makes the ballad form seem an excuse for the jam.

Matty Groves - Fairport Convention

From Liege & Lief (Amazon--a steal at $7.97!).

Like my dad, I'm a great appreciater of music with little actual talent. And I lack the will necessary to overcome this deficiency. I took six years of piano lessons and almost every week of those six years, my mom and I performed the following farce: She'd repeatedly threaten to call my teacher and cancel my lesson unless I logged at least a few hours on the bench. I'd whine and procrastinate and finally yield, my eyes pooled with tears and resignation, but only when
the receiver dangled from her hand and she feigned dialing. The problem, I think, is that I didn't envision the possibilities of the piano. I didn't want to be a classical pianist; I liked pop music. And for some reason, I failed to make the connection between Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran and whoever played the keyboards in the Thompson Twins and my own tedious books of etudes. But even in the 80s, guitars were the rock instruments, not the piano. So I didn't end up a piano-playing singer-songwriter like Laura Peek.

Peek is from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and as her bio informs and Web site design attests, loves cats (and what tender-hearted human doesn't?). She reminds me a lot of Casey Dienel. Both offer a shy-swaying breathless bedroom cabaret. And a girlishness, that while not exactly innocent (whatever that is), is free of the ba-dum-dum sexual whatever that I associate with more obvious (and from my perspective, rather false and off-putting) piano-playing sirens like Nellie Mckay. And she's a sharp observer. Sort of a Harriet the Spy neighbor-watching notebook-jotter speculating, just a little removed but sympathetically, on the tics and peccadilloes of others.

These songs are a couple years old, but you can stream some new ones from her forthcoming album on Peek's Myspace page.

Not a Rose - Laura Peek

Oh Lenny
- Laura Peek

Somewhere in my childhood home there's a cassette tape of a recital in which my brother and I performed a duet -- he on clarinet, me on piano. Someone thought this brother/sister collaboration was a charming idea and if I could find the tape, I'd have more than my own memory to prove it was not. As a team, Peter and I (more willingly) made a lot of tapes. We lugged around one of those schoolroom recorders and performed stories and poems and our own versions of radio hits. I still remember the day we sat on the steps of the house of the girls next door and the four of us committed all of the Beatles songs we could remember from my dad's records to tape. Our "Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds" was a masterpiece of uninhibited glee, thanks (if I can brag) to the woozy oohoohoohoohs I tagged to the tail of each iteration of "diamonds." John Lennon would have been impressed.

None of us will ever again sing as freely as we did when we were kids. But with "Tree Bones," Bay area band Port O'Brien captures that loose, summer-afternoon-just-hanging-with-the-neighbor-kids-and-shouting-into-a-box spirit. It's a mess, really. But in the very best sense of mess.
"Five and Dime" also starts wobbly. There are lots of fretsqueakingacousticguitarsadliterateguy songs in my (and your) iTunes library. They have their place, of course. Though Van Pierszalowski's unusually muscular, palpably definite-on-the-downstroke playing should be an immediate tipoff that this isn't one of those songs. And midway through, the song indeed takes a happy turn ("a cue from rock n' roll," a big gulp of sunshine and blue sky). It rides a sea-foam glinting wave, opens to the wide ocean and nothing for those couple minutes makes the world seem so vast and right.

Tree Bones - Port O'Brien

Five and Dime - Port O'Brien

From When the Rain Comes and Nowhere to Run (Buy from Port O'Brien). And their Myspace.

I don't think it was the tape that broke in my first Walkman, but Bryan Ferry's Boys and Girls was the album I'll always remember running down the AA batteries (and those goddamn machines ate batteries for breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon snacks!). I played it at all hours, but late night was best for appreciating what Ferry did so well -- world-weary atmosphere. Oh, those vaporous fictions of blue velvet-lined clubs and man-woman intrigue! If you're not going to enjoy it on the dancefloor, most ambient techno should be heard under the same conditions: after midnight on headphones. (And iPods are a massive improvement on those click n' chug early Walkmans.) Right now, no music has me looking forward to lying in the dark so much as this:

Saturn Strobe - Pantha du Prince

From This Bliss (Pantha du Prince's site). And Myspace.


Anonymous wardo said...

After all this time, this recording of "Matty Groves" keeps my attention from start to finish. A masterpiece. Thanks for putting it up!

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Neil said...

Goodness, I certainly hope there's nothing wrong with exposing children to murder ballads. Because just last night my three-year-old requested for his nighttime music "don't take your guns to town leave your guns at home Bill."

Great post, Amy.

10:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kingston Trio does a great "Tom Dooley."

12:53 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Oh, I know Kingston Trio's Tom Dooley. I'm reluctant to raise the fraught spectre of "authenticity," but can't help think that what Kingston Trio and similar did in the 50s/early 60s (and I'm not counting Dylan here, obvs) was neuter a lot of old folk songs to make them palatable to a broad audience. That song was a huge seller, but I don't hear the lust, fury, irony, even grace that signal (for me) the best murder ballads.

10:44 AM  

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