Ghosts in the wires

There’s a negative connotation that goes with the word “ghosts”. It conjures images of frightful things, trapped or angry spirits who can’t move on.

There are all kinds of ghosts, though. Some are happy, some are sad, some are angry. Most are not ready to let go, or if they are, they just don’t know how.

My head — all of our heads — are full of ghosts.  They span the emotional spectrum, from those we happily visit from time to time, to those that come at us out of the blue, bringing a sudden and unexpected shower of tears.  Ghosts of yesterday, of long ago, and even of tomorrows that are no more. They’re wispy and ethereal, impossible to grab when you want.  They’re there and gone, and you’re left with a shadow of a ghost, nothing more until it comes back to visit again.

Every one of my ghosts has a soundtrack.  Sometimes, when I am visited, the appropriate song pops into my head; more often, the song triggers a visit from the spirits in my memory.

I try to remind myself that it’s all about perspective: if you can change the way you look at something, the definition shifts. Good becomes ugly becomes inspiring becomes wrong becomes the way forward. But sometimes, these damn songs force a point of view on me, the emotional memory that goes with each one.

And some ghosts, fresh as they are, have a lifetime of music to play for me.

And for a rare moment,I find myself praying, wishing, begging, for just a little silence. At least until I can find the perspective that makes this look not so painful.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jC4f_6sEY8]

Music as a Blanket

There are times when the quiet of the world surrounds and engulfs you. The rest of the populace has gone to bed, the traffic has gone still, and it’s left to you and the owls and the moon.

Not that this can’t be a wonderful thing, but occasionally, the white noise machine that plays the ocean waves or the Brazilian rain forest to slow your brain to a dreamstate just won’t cut it.  Maybe the voices are too loud — or maybe they’ve gone quiet.

The right songs, chosen carefully and ordered correctly, can be the best blanket you have — to protect you from the cold, or the breeze, or the boogeyman.  You can set it to carry you sleeping through the night, or even to create the dreams you specifically hope to have.

On the rare night that I find myself in an empty bed, or on a sofa, I share my thoughts and dreams with her still, thanks to music, and I awaken warm and refreshed, even if I do long for her skin next to mine.

The Swell Season @ Alys Stephens Center, Birmingham, AL, 26 May 2010 (review)

Normally, I prefer recorded music to the live alternative.  My girlfriend and I differ greatly here — she, I think, backs the intensity and rawness of an in-the-moment performance, where as I really like the feeling of something that is larger than life, through layering and production.  The very nature of live performance, I’ve always thought, makes a cinematic experience improbable at best — think of the difference between the potentials and possibilities of theater and film.

And then along comes Swell Season.  The band is not one that I was familiar with (although I’m not sure how that’s even possible) — singer-guitarist Glen Hansard and singer-pianist Markéta Irglová play a sort of folky storytelling reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.  Just this morning, I’ve learned through the magic of Wikipedia that they toured together, shot a movie called Once, fell in love, won an Academy Award, fell out of love, made more music… It’s not your usual overnight-success rock band story.

I went into the night with absolutely no expectations — I purposefully and uncharacteristically avoided exposing myself to their music beforehand. Normally I like to have some sort of aural anchor for the evening, so at least I’m on familiar ground, but the girlfriend encouraged me to try it differently for this one. I’m glad I did — not that their recorded versions are bad, but the band is enough out of my usual alley that I might have missed out on the big picture of the experience.

Opener Justin Townes Earle played a set of what my brain insists on calling Stephen King’s soundtrack — the kind of music that would fit perfectly over the childhood scenes in IT or Christine, tunes that make me think of radio shows in the 1950s midwest. Usually, the support act sets the tone for the evening, and so my brain was being pulled in the wrong direction completely for Swell Season, who came out after an intermission.

I had a really hard time describing this to the girlfriend in our post-show wrap-up discussion, and I’m fairly certain that I’m still not going to be able to put it into words, but: for the most part, the next two hours was one of only two cinematic live concerts that I’ve ever experienced.  It was a perfect storm combination of the players’ abilities, the sound engineer’s work, and the acoustics of the Alys Stephens Center hall that turned the show into an immersive experience, especially on the more dynamic songs.

A lot of what it boils down to is dynamics and space.  There’s a real magic to letting each song build through volume and attack (or lack thereof) and intensity, and Swell Season have that mastered.  The individual instruments and voices ebbed and flowed from the spotlight, gradually coming to and leaving the focus instead of jumping sharply in and out.  Each instrument had it’s own place in space, clear and precise — and still the emphasis was on the overall picture and combination of sounds. It was the live performance equivalent of Seal’s second album (1994)*, something I never would have imagined possible.

I’d give you a set list, but since I don’t know the band… Some standout moments of the night, though, included Falling Slowly (the song from Once that won the Oscar), In These Arms, Backbroke, and Glen’s solo encore performance of Leave, sung from the side of the stage with no microphone — spine-chillingly intense. It was a night that deserves, unlike so many others, the description “magic.”

* This is the description that gets me funny looks all the time.  It’s a production thing. Trevor Horn is a genius.  Listen to it a lot.

Chris O’Brien @ Red Cat, Birmingham, AL, 15 May 2010 (review)

The best thing about dating someone who is as passionate about music as I am — and who has a lot of tastes that vary differently from mine — is discovering new music, often defying expectations (my own, I should note).

I had heard some of Chris O’Brien’s tracks from my girlfriend, and was non-plussed.  The tracks aren’t bad, not at all — but it’s folk-ish, singer/songwriter type stuff, not really in my wheelhouse. The lyrics are good, but it took me a while to get into those (I’m much more music oriented than lyrical).  But he’s been to Birmingham twice before, and he’s got a hometown connection with my girlfriend, so we decided to go.

It was a great choice. We got there a little early (there were various times listed for the show start, from 8 to 9 PM, and we erred on the side of early), so we caught Hannah Miller and Emily Lynch, two songwriters that played a dual set, alternating every two songs or so. Not bad — Emily was less enjoyable for me, leaning a bit more country, but Hannah has a really nice smoky voice and a good feel for chord voicings.

They finished up, and Chris took the stage… and then got off the stage. Since there were only ten or so of us in the audience, Chris took his guitar and sat on a table in the middle of the coffee shop.  I’m not sure if it was the more intimate feel, or the stripped-down versions of his songs, but the night was really engaging and provocative in a way that I never would have expected. It was a good mix of material from both his discs — he put a lot of life into his old material (hard to do when you play it all the time) and seemed really excited and familiar with his newer stuff.

Chris is on tour right now — make sure if you have a chance you check him out, whether you are a fan of the genre or not.  His songs are moving and meaningful, and he’s got a really good stage presence as well that keeps you there during the breaks. It’s a show well worth your while.

The Music of the World Around Me

I have a tendency to always be listening to music.  In the car, at home, at work — even when I sleep. It’s an addiction worse than many — I just can’t get enough. It’s my last vestige of my own world, of shutting everything else out and withdrawing into my own head, even as I keep pushing forward through the rigors of the day.

Sometimes, though, whether intentionally or not, I find myself in silence.  But even in the silence, there’s music, if you know how to listen.

For a rhythm, there’s street machinery, or the passing of cars at rush hour, or a dripping faucet.  There’s melody everywhere, in the pitches of running appliances or car alarms in the distance or animals. Wind blowing through drafty windows or the cooing of a neighbor’s baby act as occasional fills, adding to the melody.

It’s all about perception — how you see things, how you hear things, how you choose to experience the world around you. You can find solace in the quiet, a moment of peace — or you can find your own new symphony.

How To Destroy Angels

Trent Reznor wasn’t gone long.  His new project, How To Destroy Angels, is a collaboration with his wife Mariqueen Maandig, and if the first release is any indication, it’ll be a return to form (with less anger and destruction of instruments, one would assume).  Great atmosphere here — the slow pulse and spacious piano reminds me a lot of my favorite Nine Inch Nails pieces like “The Day The World Went Away” and “La Mer.”

Check out “A Drowning” at Pitchfork.com.

The death of the wait

In January of 1984, I got to go see Van Halen at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, with Autograph opening up. I was (and still am) a big fan of both bands, and was thrilled to be going to my first ever concert. It was a huge experience, made even more so by having no idea what to expect going in to the show.

Back then, there was no Internet from which to download setlists or even reviews of previous night’s concerts. There were fanzines and newsletters, but those travelled by US post, and were put together with Xerox machines and typewriters. Bootleg cassettes and LPs existed, but were only available at small specialty shops and record collector conventions. Video cameras were bulky and expensive, and so pirated live shows were few and far between.

Last week, I went to see My Morning Jacket at the Alabama Theater. I’m not that familiar with the band, but I was able to listen to random selections from their discography throughout the day of the concert by searching for their material on iTunes and YouTube. Since this was their tour opener, there was no way to know what songs they would be playing — though I reviewed the show, and the next day I had emails and comments asking for setlists and clarifications. My girlfriend (a huge MMJ fan and the reason I went to the concert) had said a few times that she wanted to go back and do it all again, that the show was in her top three MMJ concert experiences (she’s a repeat attender) — and by 10 AM the next morning, I had managed to find a quality recording of the show (bootlegged by an audience member) online, downloaded it, and burned it to a couple of CDs for her listening pleasure.

It’s fascinating to me, the differences of twenty-five years, brought by technology. I remember not a decade ago waiting anxiously for CDs to hit the store shelves on Tuesdays, ready to hear the latest discs that I had been reading about and imagining for months. Fifteen years ago, I would record videos on MTV and tape radio shows because they would get songs from albums that were two or three weeks away. We would read guitar magazines and Rolling Stone and Spin and Revolver to get what scraps of news we could about albums or tours that were in the works. Even five years ago, the bandwidth wasn’t necessarily there to grab songs at a whim or find pre-releases without a little bit of luck.

Now today, release dates are a guide as to when you might start checking the BitTorrent sites for review leaks. If you’re wanting to see a band live, you can read a billion reviews from pros and fans alike the day after their first show (if not sooner), find out if they’ll be playing your favorite songs, watch videos from the current tour on YouTube and maybe download the audio (or video) from a few shows, and then purchase your tickets online before you head out the door.

Part of me is a huge fan of all of this. I’m a data junkie and patience is not my strong suit, so being able to find out anything and everything about the upcoming Pain of Salvation or Devin Townsend albums and listen to song samples is exciting and important to me. I can check out audio and video from shows I could never attend, across the country or across the world, and record those alternate versions of songs that I love to my iPod for listening anytime, any place.

But I remember those days, those days of old when we would run to the record store uphill, both ways, in 2 feet of snow and hundred degree temperatures in our shoes made of wood. The excitement that would build all day on Tuesday, as we sat through school or work, thinking about the new CDs hitting the stores, and how awesome all those songs might (or might not!) be — that would eat at us, but in the best possible way. Going to concerts having no idea what surprises might be in store, what songs might get played. Finding that bootleg recording of rare b-sides or amazing shows that you had heard whispers of but never imagined hearing was a once in a year occurrence.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m just as anxious to hear Road Salt One in a month, to see Devin Townsend when he tours later this year, as I was as a teenager.  But it feels like maybe something’s lacking, like I know too much too soon now to appreciate it the way I used to.  It’s not age — my passion for music has only grown as I’ve gotten older.

This isn’t meant to be a luddite rant at all — I love technology, that I can fit my entire (and rather large) music collection in a wallet-sized piece of metal that can be played at home, in the car, on the computer, or through tiny ear-bud  headphones.  I love that music can be recorded, bit-by-bit, as perfectly or as loosely as the musician chooses. I love the sound effects and DTS 5.1 surround.

I do feel for those that will never know the anticipation of a new release, and for those that feel that if it’s out there, they somehow deserve or are owed this music.

And I wonder what the music fan who is twelve or thirteen today will bemoan in another generation.

Porcupine Tree @ The Tabernacle, Atlanta, GA, 27 April 2010 (review)

Not to knock Bigelf, who did a great job transporting the crowd cleanly back to the early 1970s for a little while last night — but there’s not a band in the world that could have memorably shared a stage with Porcupine Tree last night.

After a short set from Bigelf, Porcupine Tree hit the stage in dim light, and the video screen exploded in rhythm with the opening beats of Occam’s Razor.  For the next hour, the band played their latest release (or, as front man Steven Wilson refers to it, a song-cycle), The Incident. Some songs had related video that played on the screen behind the band (notably, Time Flies and The Blind House), while others were presented straight-forward, five musicians playing great music.

Following The Incident, the band took a ten minute intermission (helpfully broadcast on monitors through the venue, for those of us that hit that bar) and then came back for another hour of music, with a nice selection of music from their last five or six albums.   Even after the intensity of the first hour, the band’s energy levels were on high, all the way through the two-song encore of  The Sound of Muzak and Trains.

Porcupine Tree started out as a looser, more experimental psychedelic sort of band, and has gradually coalesced into a progressive hard rock act who are not afraid to dip into epic songs from time to time.  Their live playing has become as focused as their songwriting over time as well.  The rhythm section (Colin Edwin on bass and drummer Gavin Harrison) is locked tight, even during the songs featuring odd time changes and flailing near-dissonance.  Keyboardist Richard Barbieri provides the ambience and atmosphere that underpins even the heaviest PT songs.  Up front, touring guitarist John Wesley provides a calm balance for Wilson’s energetic, bouncing frontman performance.  Both swap lead guitar roles, and both provide the sole vocals on the stage. Somehow, these five manage to sound equally stripped down and massive, as though there were twenty people onstage instead.

The Tabernacle is a fantastic venue to see live bands of all types, and it never fails to sound absolutely fantastic — everything from stripped down solo acoustic performances (Jim James’ “Bermuda Highway” on the Monsters of Folk tour) to crushingly heavy metal (Opeth during 2008’s Progressive Nation show) is crystal clear but loud and immersive.  There’s no better venue, I think, than the Tabernacle for Porcupine Tree, whose sound spans from quiet and plaintively tender to brutal and chaotic. It’s also designed beautifully, from both an intimate-music-experience and architecturally, so the entire experience is wonderful all around.

It’s entirely possible that this will be the best show I see all year — and that’s leaving plenty of allowance for any number of great concerts to come.

Setlist:

  1. Occam’s Razor
  2. The Blind House
  3. Great Expectations
  4. Kneel and Disconnect
  5. Drawing the Line
  6. The Incident
  7. Your Unpleasant Family
  8. The Yellow Windows of the Evening Train
  9. Time Flies
  10. Degree Zero of Liberty
  11. Octane Twisted
  12. The Séance
  13. Circle of Manias
  14. I Drive the Hearse

Intermission

  1. The Start of Something Beautiful
  2. Russia on Ice
  3. Anesthetize (Part 2: “The Pills I’m Taking”)
  4. Lazarus
  5. Way Out of Here
  6. Normal
  7. Bonnie the Cat

Encore

  1. The Sound of Muzak
  2. Trains