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September 2007

Music of the Week — September 30, 2007

Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball; Red Dirt Girl; Stumble Into Grace

As everybody knows, Emmylou Harris came to prominence in the 1970s as a vocalist and band leader who primarily interpreted other people’s work in a country-rock style. Her work in that vein is extremely good, and I’ve always loved her voice, but as a style country and country-rock are not my favorites, so I didn’t follow her work closely and for many years only knew it through a couple of albums, such as the exquisite Roses in the Snow (1980). In later years, through the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s, I assumed she had settled into a pattern along the lines of other artists who were primarily vocalists (say, Linda Ronstadt or Rod Stewart), doing more or less the same thing she always had. It was not until sometime in the late ‘90s when my friend Daniel Nichols sent me a tape that included several songs from Wrecking Ball that I realized she was developing into something far more than a gifted performer.

I’m trying to keep these weekly reviews brief, so I’ll get to the point: with the three albums named above Emmylou Harris has created a body of work that in its combination of beauty and profundity is the equal of anything anyone has ever done in American popular music. The best tracks here are as good as anything by Dylan, Cohen, Waits, Springsteen, or any other of the bardic singer-songwriters of the past forty-plus years one could name. Let me emphasize that: anything by any of them. I suppose one could quibble mildly with that judgment by pointing out how important the producer’s work is in creating the haunting mysterious atmospheres which fill these recordings—Daniel Lanois’s influence is certainly obvious and huge on Wrecking Ball—but they don’t all have the same producer, so we have to assume that Harris is ultimately responsible. Nor does she write all the songs, but clearly hers is the vision that chooses and shapes them.

The term “cosmic American music” was coined ca. 1970 by Gram Parsons, who seems to have been a sort of guru for Harris as well as her tragically lost love (I’ve assumed that he is the subject of the gorgeous and heartbreaking “Michaelangelo” from Red Dirt Girl). It was left to Harris, carrying on alone after Parsons’ early death, to bring the idea to fulfillment in a way that I don’t suppose they could have imagined in the early ‘70s. There could be no more apt description of this music, although it may not give you much of a clue as to how it actually sounds. For that, you need to listen. I included Wrecking Ball in my desert island list a few weeks back, but probably any or all of these three albums would qualify. Possibly Red Dirt Girl would be the best place to start, as it includes “The Pearl,” which would be in the running for the best song from the three and contains the lines:

If there’s no heaven
What’s this hunger for?

That question might serve as an epigraph for all three albums: they’re filled with an intense and even desperate yearning, sometimes spiritual, sometimes erotic-romantic, sometimes both. I’m tempted to quote more of that lyric but you really need to hear it sung.

For biographical and career information, here is Emmylou Harris’s page at All Music, and here is Gram Parsons’s.

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I Don't Get Out Much

It takes a lot to get me to go to a non-classical concert these days. Prices have gotten so high that I can't convince myself that an hour or two of music is worth it, and my wife has very little interest in pop music, and I'm generally a creature of habit, and I'm always a little concerned about aggravating my tinnitis. So it takes a lot to get me to go to the trouble and expense. But with a little push from a co-worker and fellow music-hound I'm off to see and hear an angel a siren Emmylou Harris tonight. Her Wrecking Ball is one of those works that are so good I only rarely listen to them, so it wasn't that hard to talk me into this one.

Co-worker informs me that the bar where we will dine before the concert is rated one of the best in the country by Esquire. I don't quite get that--it's just a little corner bar that also serves sandwiches--my kind of place, but I wouldn't have thought it would be Esquire's. All in who you know, I guess.

Anyway, I will report tomorrow.

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Theodore Dalrymple on the Problem of Good

The always-perceptive Theodore Dalyrymple has some interesting things to say about the question of what causes people to be good.

More recently, perhaps on account of my advancing age, the problem of good has begun to preoccupy me. How is extraordinary goodness possible? Where does it come from? Is it innate? And if it is innate, is it real goodness? For there cannot be real goodness where the possibility and temptation to its reverse is not present.

Read his observations and speculations here (Hat tip to Robert).
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Second Thought on "The War"

Yes, it is really good. But I'm not sure I can watch two hours of anything for seven (!) nights in a row. That means pretty much doing nothing else in the evenings for a week. And they should have put in some kind of break between the two hours. (I know, record it, but that introduces other hassles.) Still, you should check it out, at least.

And if you've never heard real Southern accents, now's your chance. The woman from Mobile that they spend a lot of time with has a classic "magnolia mouth" that you don't hear much anymore in younger people.

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Ken Burns: "The War"

I guess this only applies to people in the U.S. We watched the first segment of Ken Burns's new documentary on World War II last night. It's really good. If you didn't see it last night, it's not too late to jump in with tonight's episode.

One small complaint: the narrator does not pronounce "Mobile," the city, correctly. He tries but he just can't quite make himself put the accent all the way on the second syllable, where it belongs. It's "moBEEL," not "MObeel" or, still worse, the way you'd ordinarily pronounce the adjective "mobile" (MObel). It helps to think of it as a French word--it was originally founded as a French city (in fact it was the first capital of the French territory, before New Orleans).

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Sunday Night Journal — September 23, 2007

Nature’s Indifference?

I think every person has a sense that he is at the center of a world which exists mainly in relation to him, that he is the main character in a novel or play. And that’s because he is. We understand that a human author imbues, as far as possible, everything in his composition with significance for its limited set of characters, and that the same event will have a real but different meaning for each of them. So it shouldn’t be difficult for anyone who believes in the infinite creator God to accept that our lives are filled with significance, even at the most mundane level; that we are constantly being spoken to by everything around us.

I don’t mean, of course, that we should try to get a specific message or a bit of instruction out of every little thing that happens. That’s a bad idea, partly because we are likely to hear what we want to hear, as when someone says something like (and I’ve heard this) “God wanted me to have that parking space.” And partly because our minds are too small, our ignorance too great, and we get caught up in trying to unravel things that we simply can’t know—why was this person killed in the airplane crash, while another was briefly delayed by a telephone call, missed the flight, and lived?

Moreover, very little that life is telling us, great or small, is comprehensible till after the fact. Mainly, I think, and most of the time, we’re invited first of all to attend to existence of so much that is not ourselves, and to enjoy our contemplation of it. It’s not just your imagination; the great show really is being put on for your sake—only not for yours alone.

Last night it was nearly midnight when I walked the dogs down to the bay, and I ended up staying there longer than usual. The very bright and nearly full moon was in the southern sky, to my left, just beginning to descend. In spite of the fact that we had been under a tropical storm watch, there was almost no wind, and the soft ripples coming in to the shore did so at a slight angle away from the moon, so that as they rose onto the sand their faces were painted silver by the moonlight. Directly across the bay, in the west and low in the sky, a heap of anvil-shaped clouds rose from the horizon, growing smaller toward the top in a sort of rough pagoda shape, their upper surfaces glowing in the moonlight. Now and then there was a very faint flash of lightning, so far away that I couldn’t tell what direction it was coming from and never heard the thunder. Very thin fast clouds were blowing in from the east, from the direction of the storm, trailing across the moon. Otherwise the sky was mostly clear and when I looked straight up I could see a few stars, in spite of the moon and the lights of town. There was enough moonlight that I could see gulls flying out over the water. The great dark silhouette of a heron came gliding silently into the branches of a nearby magnolia tree, then glided away again a few moments later.

In short, it was hypnotic, and that’s why I stayed so long, even though the little dog, who has to be kept on a leash because we haven’t trained him very well, grew impatient to move on. It was as if the picture was being painted for me. And it was—but not for me alone.

It’s a familiar rhetorical tactic of materialists to point out the indifference of nature to suffering and any human concern whatever—which only serves to show how much one’s philosophy determines what one makes of the facts of the world. We often speak of natural beauty as a sign from God. I’ve begun to think it’s something more: not so much a sign, which implies a distance, as his very voice and face, shown to us in a form that we can see and understand, perpetually speaking to us of who and what he is.

Nature is for all of us; it ought to be unaffected by the fortunes of any one of us. Suppose something bad had happened to me while I stood by the water last night. It’s extremely far-fetched but not utterly implausible that I could have stumbled upon a fifteen-foot alligator and been dragged into the water and drowned, or perhaps just had a limb torn off, or that I could have been bitten by a cottonmouth, or simply fallen dead of a heart attack. Why should the beauty of the night have been spoiled because something bad happened to me? It was entirely possible that a couple of hundred yards downshore, in the city park that also borders the bay, two lovers were enraptured almost as much by the moonlight and the water as by each other. Should my pain have spoiled their delight? Should the moon have vanished from the sky because I was suffering?

No. What we call nature’s indifference is its constancy in beauty, intended to represent that of God himself, a reminder that no matter what happens to us as individuals his presence never fails and his nature never changes, and that beauty is a part of the very deepest fabric of what is. It would be dreary, in fact it’s almost frightening, to think that my own pain could undo it. Where then would be my hope of escape? No, I want nature to be untouchable by my mind, the vast space and time of the cosmos to remain utterly independent of me, and all this imperturbable persistence a promise of eternity and infinity. I’d like to think that if I should die at such a moment as the one I’ve described some corner of my consciousness would, in spite of the pain and fear, still know that I was in the presence of beauty as the darkness came on.

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Music of the Week — September 23, 2007

Joanna Newsom: Ys

It appears that hippies still walk the earth. Not just the survivors of that long-ago age, the often rather dazed-seeming geezers and grannies who show up at rock concerts and political demonstrations, but young people who seem to have adopted the sensibility and the style of a certain element of the ‘60s (without, one hopes, the self- and socially-destructive behavior that went along with it). I say “adopted” but perhaps it should be “reinvented”—maybe this is a perennial expression of an attractive sort of bohemianism rather than a conscious imitation or attempt to revive the movement.

At any rate, here’s an example, which might be described as The Incredible String Band meets Victoria Williams. With the invocation of those names you can figure the word “quirky” is probably going to make an appearance, and indeed it’s a hard one to avoid, tiresome though it may be, when speaking of Joanna Newsom. A quick way to get an idea of what her music is like is to look at the cover art:

If that doesn’t say “hippie girl” to you then you’ve never seen a real one.

I would expect most people to find Ys a love-it-or-hate-it thing: either you’ll find it mannered and affected and possibly unlistenable, or enchanting. I’m firmly in the second camp, more so every time I hear it; I think it’s wonderful, but it’s definitely not for everybody. Its five songs range from just over seven to almost seventeen minutes in length, each an unbroken cascade of long melody lines, complex lyrics, and very…umm…unusual singing. Newsom’s voice has been called child-like but if that’s true it’s a somewhat peculiar child. I would describe it rather as a little girl trying to sound like a grownup (or should it be the other way around?), but that’s only one mode of her style, which is full of unexpected timbres. There are no purely instrumental interludes. The arrangements consist of Newsom’s own harp and orchestrations by the legendary Van Dyke Parks. There’s no trace of rock-and-roll here at all, which, I’ll note in passing, points out the futility of trying to generalize about the state of contemporary (or for that matter post-‘60s) popular music.

Like the best of the Incredible String Band’s work, this is music which takes you into its own strange and fascinating world, restlessly inventive both musically and lyrically, jumping back and forth between the mundane and the mystical, the personal and the cosmic, the playful and the serious. Newsom spent some time studying creative writing, and it shows, but in a good way: not in the sense that she sounds like a veteran of too many workshops, but in that she obviously puts a lot of care into her use of words (including what I’m guessing is the only know instance of rhyming “amen” and “hollerin’”).

Squint skyward and listen:
loving him,
we move within his borders,
just asterisms
in the stars’ set order.

We could stand for a century,
staring,
with our heads cocked,
in the broad daylight
at this thing: joy.
Landlocked,
in bodies that don’t keep,
dumbstruck
with the sweetness of being,
till we don’t be.
Told: take this
and eat this.

—“Emily”

The line breaks and punctuation are my attempt to represent the rhyme and rhythm as well as the sense of the lyric. I had to look up “asterism”; it’s actually the perfect word here.

The “Y” in Ys, by the way, is apparently pronounced “ee,” since Newsom has released an EP called Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band. No, I don’t know what Ys means, or whether it should rhyme with “ease” or “grease” (the noun—and why are those two words pronounced differently anyway?).

Here’s a YouTube clip which combines an interview with a bit of a performance (young single men should approach with caution, as it may be a romantic hazard). Here’s another which is a partial performance of “Emily.” The sound quality is poor, the performance a bit unsteady, and the arrangements are reduced to harp, guitar, and something which looks and sounds like an overgrown mandolin. But between these two you should be able to get an idea of whether you want to hear more.

Update: It just occurred to me to see if there is an entry for Ys in Wikipedia. There is. Maybe you already knew this.

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