Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sticky Note Radio

One of the greatest forms of procrastination I have found is "music popping." Ah, yes, you say, Golden Music Guru, what is this "music popping"? Well, my child, it is that fantastic realm you enter when you begin to look up an artist, and it leads you to another artist, and a song on a compilation album with another artist you must discover, and pretty soon you've gone from Gilbert & Sullivan to Jamie Cullum.

Often I will find myself deftly searching a new artist I've heard of or run across and I will suddenly find myself in a tidal wave of music, and as I begin to pick my way through it, soon I am hopping from artist to artist like a frog on lilly pads. This is how great music is found. You start looking up one thing, it leads your to another, and suddenly you run across Nightwish and realize Finnish metal is your one true calling and a love afair is begun! It is this innocent clicking and playing and wondering and pushing that is the real expansion of musical tastes. You're reading an article about your facorite artist, they mention their favorite artist, and suddently new worlds open.

I have also developed the nasty habit of collecting musical names on sticky notes, which get posted on the Nightwish poster next to my desk. Here we have the name Andrew Bird, who I've heard much about but never really "gotten in to," persay. Next to him is Juana Molina ("from Daddy") who I was directed to listen to. Next to her is The Blue Nile, who's first album, I've learned, is one of those gems that sets the electronic 80's junkies from the casual listeners. Then we have Inara George (lead singer of The Bird and the Bee), Sonos (funky little group that I came across on a Barnes & Noble Sunday album, and haven't found since), Neko Case (great homework album), Miranda Sex Garden (madrigal singers gone Goth), Renaissance (British folk revival from the seventies), Bat for Lashes, Sigor Ros, Bela Fleck, Abigail Washbutn (= Sparrow Quartet), Celtic Legacy (metal), After Forever, Visions of Atlantis (more chick metal), and a quote from House ("I was right, and more satisfyingly, you were wrong.") Also up there is a sticky note reminding me that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard (just remember).

I am delicately working my way through each artist or group, listening to an album or two, reading the wiki band bio, and connecting the dots. If I'm ever at a loss for what to listen to, I pick a name and look it up. More often than not that just leads me to adding MORE names to the poster. It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it! And there is nothing quite as fantastic as coming across a great resonator, or music that knocks my flip-flops off. That is, of course, the end goal in all this: finding the music that most perfectly hits the Point of Resonance, that shakes my soul and makes me yell YES YES YES THIS IS WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT!!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Rake's Progress: "Hazards of Love" Review

Listen to it once. Listen to it twice. Listen to it five times, and you’ll still have no idea what it’s about. But you’ll like it.

“Hazards of Love” has all the makings of a great Decemberists album: a root in folk, blatant yet cryptic lyrics, odd instruments that pop up when you least expect them (harpsichord, anyone?) and a story that you must work to understand.

The story is what drives this album. It is a concept album, no doubt, with recurring musical themes and characters voiced by guest artists. But the Decemberists would never settle for something so easily done – instead of a straight narrative, the story of Margaret and her lover William is broken up by “The Rake,” a man hell-bent on regaining his freedom from life as a widowed father. The most frustrating (or delicious) part of this album is that it takes a few mighty listening to really decipher what is going on and to whom each voice belongs.

The story begins with William telling the tale of his true love entering a forest, or taiga, which requires a Wikipedia run to define (a biome covering Alaska, Canada, and upper parts of Europe). The album is full of words that aren’t so common these days, adding another layer of interest. Margaret, voiced by Becky Stark, encounters The Queen, voiced by Shara Worden. The tale of Margaret, William and The Forest Queen (and the mysterious child she bears) is convoluted at best, but the enigma of it makes it even more entertaining for the avid listener.

Margaret’s song, revealing thoughts during her journey early on (“Won’t Want For Love (Margaret in the Taiga)”) is the real gem of the album, juxtaposing Stark’s New Folk voice with a driving guitar accompaniment that could have come straight off a Led Zeppelin album.

After William finds Margaret, they sing a love duet, “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?” accompanied by sighing guitars and an accordion.

The Forest Queen makes her first appearance with “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid,” and Worden’s full, rustic voice gives her an edge that could chill bones as the Queen reprimands her “son” for abandoning her. It is here that the narrative really starts to take shape and draw the listener in.

This is followed by “The Rake’s Song.” It details the marriage of the narrator (the only character to break the fourth wall to address the audience) with gritty, expressive lyrics that could only be pulled off in such a cavalier way by the Decemberists. “I was wedded and it whetted my thirst until her womb started spilling out babies,” explains the Rake. “What can one do when one is a widower, shamefully saddled with three little pests?” He goes on to detail how he rid himself of each child, which is most effective when heard for the first time with the music.

Cut to Margaret, who in “The Abduction of Margaret” is being picked up on horseback by a man (the Rake?) with unsavory plans. The Forest Queen is willing to help the abductor, who will remove the threat of Margaret from her son, and is willing to help him cross the river.

“Annan Water” is one of the more rhythmically interesting tracks, and the wavering accordion chords throughout the song add a layer of anguish. Here, William is attempting to cross the river in order to get to Margaret. He pleads with the river that if he is let to pass, when he comes again the river “may have [his] precious bones in return.”

Margaret’s abductor tells her to give up hope in “Margaret in Captivity” as she cries out for her lover to save her. This is followed by the third reprise of the “Hazards of Love” theme “(Revenge!)” and the voices of the children murdered by the Rake return to haunt their father. The warped children’s voices recount their deaths and assure their father they are still around him. The music is disjointed, with a harpsichord that feels appropriately out of tune. It is the most sound effect-heavy track on the album. The tongue-in-cheek, carefree attitude with which the children sing is creepy, but satisfying.

The story ends with the fourth and final tune in the “Hazards of Love” sequence, “(The Drowned).” William has retrieved Margaret, and the water around them is slowly rising. They exchange wedding vows as their ghosts join the water. The song is slow, almost textbook “indie” style, to end the tale with a wistful attitude, complete with whammy-heavy guitars.

This is a landmark album, taking the concept album beyond anything it has been before. The format of the storytelling is such that it is beneficial to read through the lyrics on their own. The words by themselves are a completely different artistic medium when experienced on their own and add a layer to the listening.

There has not been such a satisfying album in years. Because of its musical and narrative structure, it asks the listener to return to it over and over, without becoming boring. It requires lots of thought and attention before it fully reveals itself, which is what the concept album is all about.