Home; that doesn’t match what passes memory by…
I enjoy listening to folk music. I have fond memories of listening to Harry Chapin and can remember exactly where I was when I first heard John Prine’s “Hello In There”, an ode to cross-generational disconnect, or maybe just an ode to sad old people, which resonates with me more the older I get. That’s why I was very excited to listen to and review Caleb Orion’s Hendiadys, with its acoustically driven singer/songwriter style.
The opening track of Hendiadys begins with thin, raspy guitar strumming that has a casual quality, a sort of nonchalant playfulness without being ironic. Titled “A Rafting Song” it drifts through a simple melody with its loose instrumental voicing, with each transitional scrape of the guitar strings heard. The lyrics mirror the straightforward melody, every phrase ending in cutely completed rhymes, mostly couplets. This type of pleasantly sedate song evokes warm feelings of lying in a shaded hammock on a summer day, the smell of grass, or the sound of insects buzzing by. Given this, it seems fitting that a quote from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be included on the bandcamp page for “A Rafting Song.”
All of the tracks off the album include such a quote, whether from well-known novels or poems, or in some cases original poem fragments written by the artist. These cast an interesting light on each track, sometimes revealing obtuse wrinkles and sometimes reinforcing something more direct. In general I think they are effective signposts for each song, and some are very interesting inclusions, but I don’t feel most of these songs really demand this level of signaling.
At the heart of most great folk music are typically great lyrics, and unfortunately the lyrics on Hendiadys for the most part are straightforward, lacking the stylized irony of other modern folk artists like Bill Callahan or the dense imagery of someone like Joanna Newsom. The second track on the album, for example, is pretty campy. I was hopeful that it would remind me of John Prine, a folk artist who was able to write playful songs that felt honest and interesting. With Prine there was a sense of walking into a conversation between old friends, where the inside jokes aren’t known, but the fondness for them, and the familiarity with them is clear. Unfortunately this song’s lyrics don’t feel deeply personal in the voyeuristic way many of Prine’s lighter songs do. This kind of intimacy is missing in “Three Best Friends”, and instead replaced with a very formulaic, almost mechanical, lyrical structure.
The fourth track illuminates further issues with lyrics, with its simple couplet rhyming pattern, and fairly unimaginative content. The recording quality of Caleb’s voice is also drastically different than most other tracks. It sounds like he was sitting too close to the microphone, muffling his voice and creating a melodramatic quality. The unevenness of the vocal quality between tracks is very jarring, but also very indicative of the overall unevenness of the album. Not only is the recording quality hit or miss, but so is the quality and complexity of lyrics and musical structure.
This unevenness strikes me as a symptom of not enough editing, which is a shame since the peaks of the album are actually quite nice. However there are clearly songs, such as “Three Best Friends” and “The Numbers Song” which needed more refinement in terms of lyrics and music, and songs like “Discuss” and “Carthage is Burning” which required more refinement in the recording process. There are also more successful tracks like “The Statue” and “Colors I’ve Never Seen” that have issues with editing. In “The Statue” the lyrics are quite nice but the instrumentation is too simple, and the guitar part too repetitive, so that after a few minutes the song turns into a drone. “Colors I’ve Never Seen” doesn’t have the same issue with its instrumentation as that is much more dynamic, however the lyrical structure this time is very simplistic and repeats so many times that again the song turns into a drone. With all of this unevenness the album construction really suffers, as it’s hard to find any real cohesion or flow between the tracks. A good song will build and finish, then lead into a song with an entirely different recording quality, lacking of emotional depth, and less rich musical components.
There are however certainly good songs. As I wrote earlier at the heart of most great folk music are typically great lyrics, and there are songs on this album that exhibit a great deal of lyrical depth. On the third track, “Ladybugs Everywhere”, the lyrics seem to roll around in a densely packed lullaby of unexpected depth. Phrases like “potted plant brigade”, “laughing circus song”, and “princess party hat” create a colorful landscape for the artist to deftly slip thoughtful lyrics into without being heavy-handed. Lines like “all the dreams you’ve made, and which of the ones have stayed” and “the past is a problem only fools flip their faces toward” are pointedly sung with the same easy tone as the rest of the song. It forced me to consider whether the artist is imploring the subject of the song to continue in blissful ignorance of the past, or whether the goal is to point out what is missed without reflection.
This lyrical depth continues throughout the album, sometimes as direct lyrics that feel personal and accessible, and sometimes as cryptic and tightly packed songs, that ask a listener to contemplate the meaning of a somewhat convoluted phrase. The final track of the album even pulls from the story of Pygmalion, the sculptor who prayed for a statue he made to come alive, only to have the statue do just that. Lyrically Hendiadys grows as it progresses, with the later tracks being the most inspired, drawing from literary references, using evocative language, and really showing instead of telling the audience.
Musically there are high points as well. “Ladybugs Everywhere”, for example, has a strangely beautiful sonic landscape filled with plunking xylophone, lightly played guitar arpeggios, layered vocals, and even a kazoo. It’s playful without being obnoxious, and this whimsical tone is repeated again on “Vidamo Sei Leyonan”, however this time it’s slower, more thoughtful, reminding me vaguely of the soul-crushingly beautiful Safe As Houses by Parenthetical Girls, which utilized a similar lo-fi playful musical style coupled with emotive and personal lyrics.
The sixth track carries this comparison even further, as “Some Set of Teeth” utilizes the same sub-textual manic passion that courses through Safe As Houses. This is one of the strongest songs off the album both musically and vocally. The instrumentals are layered and nicely produced, with the highlight being the unconventional use of the sound of a live patch cable contacting the guitar pickups and being run through a pitch-shift. It’s inventive and well placed within a song that is seething barely contained emotion.
The vocals on this track match the emotion of the music as well, reminiscent of the vocal styling of Zac Pennington, without the extreme affectation that he is prone to. It was particularly interesting as I feel Caleb effectively walked a fine line of expressing the subtly desperate emotion of the track without slipping into the melodramatic.
It’s clear to me that a lot of thought went into this album, and especially many of the songs’ lyrics, but that the effort is uneven. With a title like Hendiadys, which is a figure of speech, I was expecting a very literary musical journey, and with many of the tracks my expectations were met. There are songs filled with richly textured language. However the instrumentation and general songwriting does not seem to be as nuanced and well understood, and there is an unfinished nature to many of the songs. Caleb Orion seems to me to be a storyteller who is capable of telling compelling stories. If he is able to match his lyrical talent with a more refined and complex musical sense, and write with more consistency, I feel he is capable of making some very interesting music.
You can find the full album here: http://music.caleborion.com/album/hendiadys-that-and-this
It’s been a long hiatus but starting next week I’ll resume posting album reviews on commonswiftband.com. The first time around I reviewed half a dozen bands submitted through this post on Reddit, and will attempt this approach again. Here is the current post on Reddit. My intention, as stated in both posts, is not to review popular music that already garners a fair amount of critical writing and attention. I’m interested in reviewing very independent/underground/garage music, the type of music that doesn’t get a wide audience, with the hope of helping out a few fellow artists by trying to give detailed and thoughtful criticism, and maybe helping them find a few new fans.
Here is a link to the movie I mentioned a few weeks ago that we composed music for. The subject matter is a little depressing, but we’re really pleased with how it turned out. Also, we included a new version of Phoenix. I think it might even be stronger than the original. What do you think?
Listening to music, the place of the critic, and a review of the Monks of Mellonwah's "Stars Are Out EP"
About six months ago I started writing a review of the Australian band The Monks of Mellonwah’s “Stars Are Out EP”. Partway through the review, I couldn’t go on any longer. I was suddenly very uninterested in writing about their music, which frankly wasn’t that bad, but nevertheless I was just wiped out by the experience of listening to it. Let me explain.
I often wonder how other people listen to music. I’ve talked about this with friends and family members, and have even interrogated a few strangers, and what I have found is a fairly consistent set of answers.
There are those people that listen to music and think about the structure/composition of the music, mainly musicians themselves, but not always.
There are people that are interested in the stories of the songs, faithfully listening to every word, hanging on each syllable; the ideas forming something akin to a mantra, an extension of their experience.
The third group listens to music and cares about how the songs make them feel, only nominally interested in the actual music, often this seems to be manifested in listening to a particular style of music exclusively, or seeing music only as a “mood” tool and not an art form.
There are also those who listen to music with an appreciation for all three of these attributes.
Finally, there is the rarest breed that not only listens for the composition, the storytelling, the emotion, but also is hoping for that special something, a uniqueness in sound and expression that separates and elevates an artist from the march of repetitive mediocrity. The best artists are typically the last kind of listener, some get lucky, but most have worked hard to establish a unique perspective of the world and a way to express this perspective that is equal unique.
So when I talk to people about how they listen to music, I am hoping for a response that I rarely receive. Hopefully that doesn’t seem as pretentious as I think it does, because I often am not listening as critically and thoroughly as I can. It’s hard to be that thoughtful at all times but frankly it should be hard. Artists will spend years crafting a three minute song, putting hours and hours of meticulous work (at least good artists will), and it should take a fair amount of work for the listener to unpack everything in the song, to understand some of the depth of what the artist created.
Yet when music is discussed, most people dismiss music critics saying that musical taste is all opinion, and all music is valid, or equal, and that no one opinion really matters more than another. This is patently false and really quite ignorant if you think about it for one second. Yes, there is an inherent level of subjectivity with music, because everyone who listens to a song can interpret it in different ways based on their own experiences. However, there are elements of songwriting that are consistent, in the same way that an art critic can critique the technique of a painting, or a professor can point out incorrect grammar in a paper, so can music critics or music listeners in general critique a song or album.
There are structures used in music to express certain things, and if they are used in a proper way can express great nuance and power, and when used sloppily or in a boring, non-inventive way they can absolute expose the song as bad, or at the very least irrelevant. This is also very true with lyrics, which at their best are wonderfully crafted poems, and at their worst are juvenile jingles that don’t belong on hallmark cards or 3rd grader’s Facebook status updates.
So, what does this have to do with The Monks of Mellonwah? I’m just not sure what type of listeners they are. Listening to their music I can tell that they clearly do listen to a wide range of music from the last 50 years, and have enough musical talent to pull from an equally wide range of musical styles, however I can’t tell how deep their own appreciation and knowledge of music really is.
The four-piece alternative rock/indie band from Sydney, Australia has certainly listened to their fair share of music. From classic blues, to Jimi Hendrix, Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, Southern rock, to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to Muse, Eastern Conference Champions, Smashing Pumpkins and Jet the diversity of influences can be heard in every song from The Monks of Mellonwah.
Rarely are these influences blended together seemlessly. Instead each track on the Stars Are Out EP represents a fairly distinct shift in style, bouncing from one complete sonic package to another. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact I was very eager to hear how the next song was going to surprise me as each track was ending. This is, after all, an EP which doesn’t have the same implied consistensy or cohesion as a full-length album. An EP in my mind is designed as an advertisement for a band, a teaser showing off the strengths of a band and hinting at the direction of their next full length album, and frankly the Stars Are Out EP highlights the strengths and flaws of The Monks of Mellonwah pretty well.
The first track “Fire in the Hole” sounds reminiscent of Jet or Eastern Conference Champions, mixed with some good old southern rock. It’s straight 4/4 time throughout with familiar growling guitars, a hooky chorus, and the perfunctory bridge solo. It’s well put together for sure, being very polished, and having that manicured feel of a song that has been constructed very carefully. It’s simple, energetic, easy to listen to, and fun. The musicianship is very high, especially the drummer and the lead guitarist, who exhibit very nice control and feel, but the overall song is structurally predictable, and the vocals are too far back in the mix and not that interesting anyway.
Second track is “Swamp Groove” which moves away from a 70′s throwback sound into a more 90′s era sound akin to Smashing Pumpkins. It still has a very safe structure. (Again, I question how they listen to music) The entire song seems to be a variation on the root chords. However, there is a very nicely played guitar solo, and another positive for this song are the vocals, which are richly sung as this is clearly in a better range for the singer, and the oohs and aahs are a nice touch. It has a theatrical quality that never gets fully explored, but was very enticing, and gives me hope for things to come. I think this might be the high water mark of the album for me, as it feels like the most personal and fully synthesized of all of their songs.
“Stars Are Out”, their third song is a departure from their previous rock sound, and is essentially a straight pop song with weeping guitars and moody cry-singing. It’s very well executed again, and could easily be a successful song.
“Stampede”, their fourth song takes another hard right turn going into a funky kind of rock song, slamming a guitar riff out of the 80′s against a heavy funk beat and funk vocal styling. It’s an interesting fusion sound and actually seems like a comfortable place for the Monks of Mellonwah, as the vocalist sounds at home, and the simple yet bombastic instrumentation fits smoothly.
Their fifth song “The Calling” brings in a pop-punk sound, akin to the Black Parade, with synth shrills, droning guitars, and a thinly veiled anxiety. It’s driving, well done, and predictable.
“The Neverending Spirit” is a piano heavy piece, with a very catchy, well constructed piano riff that still feels like a pop song. It does have more inventive guitar parts, and the strange dissonant tones really bring the song together. I feel if they stuck with more songs like this and “Swamp Groove”, they’d have a much more interesting and unified album.
All of their songs seem fully realized as what they are, sometimes that means they are fully realized pop ballads, or southern rock anthems, and sometimes, as is the case with “Swamp Groove” they create something really unique.
Overall the album is very well produced, although the band doesn’t have in my mind a very cohesive sound yet. The musicians on their own are all very talented, with the one exception being that I found the vocalist to be weak. This is partly due to the fact that he was often mixed back in the mix, but when he was farther forward it wasn’t particularly interesting or original. Also, the lyrics are rather poor, feeling like a word-magnet game of rearranging pop song lyrics from the past 30 years. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of depth with these songs, and that’s unfortunate because they really are good musicians, and “Stars Are Out” is a very well produced EP.
Now I don’t want to sound too harsh. In general, all of their songs are individually strong as singles, some more than others, but the EP as a whole leaves me unsatisfied. It feels almost like a mixed tape. You can certainly hear all of their influences and the styles certainly do build an intersting mix of sounds, however I’d like it better if I felt the fusion of these styles more as opposed to feeling like I was being jerked from one style to another.
And this all comes back to what type of listeners the Monks are. Their music doesn’t sound like the music of artists meticulously deconstructing what they listen to, picking apart every element, and using this analysis to create something that expresses a deeply personal expression about the world. It sounds like music made by fans of certain musical styles, without as much work put into figuring out what is their personal style.
I would like to point out that although I associated the Monks of Mellonwah with these criticisms of music listeners and musicians, they are not the only band that makes me feel this way. It is very common that a band puts music out that is either not fully formed, or somehow feels like something very fundamental is missing. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise as it is easier and easier to make and release music, and the number of bands around the world today is staggering. And that’s also not to say that this is anything new. If you listen to music made in previous eras, you’ll find even more musicians that are lacking something. So I guess what I’m saying is, I value cerebral artists that are trying to do something challenging, artists that have something unique to say, artists that maybe haven’t found their perfect expression, but artists that are interested in the complex understanding of what that even means. I only wish that more musicians and normal listeners would take more time to critically consider what they are hearing.
Also, since people have asked for the lyrics for this song here you go:
Wait for the train to slow
and take the stairs from below
She’s waiting on the bench for you
From dessert to dust, from your desk to dusk
half a world away my legs sink in snow, too deep to know
the coming bairn in her
And in my empty room
all that I’ll ever know
through smoke red eyes
now the worldly lies, come clean again, scraping off
Now this will rest behind
in the sun it’s done
Once in the open it cannot hope to live
Sorry for the delay in posts (although I’m pretty sure no one is actually read this). It’s been almost half a year since the last time I posted any new content here, and even now I’m struggling to think of material that I absolutely feel compelled to share.
First off, there are many reasons why I haven’t been posting. The lack of energy and concentration I’ve been feeling was caused initially by being rather sick for a few months, however, recently it’s simply a symptom of my time being filled by other pursuits.
Another factor is that I lost interest, after barely starting, in writing reviews of new albums. I may find the inspiration again, as I’m still listening to a lot of new music, but for now I’m going to hold off.
However, over the last six months Al, Brian, and I have been working hard on the new Common Swift album, which is shaping into a very exciting project. We’re still going to have guitar, keys, and drums at the core of the sound, along with our dual tenor voices, and will still play around with time signatures and other structural song elements, but we’re also looking forward to having a more diverse sonic landscape with this album.
The last album, These Safe Homes and the Passing Spirit EP were written with performance in mind primarily, so we limited ourselves to the instruments we could use in a live setting. For this album we aren’t holding ourselves to these restrictions, and have been working with brass, auxiliary percussion, synth, prepared piano, electronic beats, accordion, and recordings of found sounds including a grandfather clock. The focus is on creating an exciting and deeply personal musical expression for an album, and we’ll figure out the live performance later.
Who knows where all of this playing will take us, but its been an exciting journey so far, and although we are a long way from it, we are really looking forward to sharing this album with the world.
Other projects that Brian and I were working on were two films by Arizona film-maker Austin Tyler Lee which have been released this spring.
The first film is “Peaks”, described as “brothers Nathan (Mat Vansen) and Alex (Ron Ferguson) struggle to keep their lives and responsibilities in focus after their mother’s suicide. Forced to live together, Nathan, an empathic painter, and Alex, a busy sales representative, find each other existing on separate worlds. Bound by blood and sorrow, their lives are intertwined, and they depend on each other in ways that neither can communicate to the other.”
Peaks was written by Austin Tyler Lee and the music was scored by Brian and myself. In the film we craft a new version of the song “Phoenix” from These Safe Homes, which is softer, slower, and more sorrowful. We’re very pleased by the way the film’s score turned out, and once it has been loaded online by Infinity Awakened Productions we’ll let everyone know about it.
The second film that we worked on is a music video for our song “Desk to Dust” off our 2011 Passing Spirit EP. We think it turned out really well, and we’ll put a link up to it on our YouTube page later today.
Common Swift has once again been played on The Epileptic Gibbon podcast music show. Ever since we found out about this podcast last year we’ve really enjoyed listening to it, and really think that any serious music fan will appreciate the breadth of unique and original music that the podcast features. The host is knowledgeable and passionate about the music he plays, and helps to show that appreciation for truly original and complicated music is not dead in our time. Here’s a link to the website.
Recently I’ve been writing music reviews, with the intention to be as honest to the music and critically accurate as possible. To this goal I’ve tried to write in length within my reviews, so as to not be misunderstood. I’m also hoping to approach each new album with a fresh and clear mind, which can certainly be difficult. It’s easy to allow other songs that you have heard recently to impact how you consider songs you are reviewing. If, for example, I’ve spent the last hour enjoying “King of Limbs”, and then I start listening to a band that shares sonic elements with Radiohead, I’m likely to notice those similarities more easily, and this will surely impact how I appreciate the band. This is obviously unavoidable, but it’s interesting to keep in mind as you engage in analysis on any subject, whether that is music or politics.
One dimension of this “unconscious association” is where or how you first find out about a particular song. For example, when my mom, who does not share my exact musical tastes, suggests something for me to listen to, I’m not expecting very much. If the song turns out to be decent, I may find myself enjoying it more than I probably should. Likewise if a band mate suggests a song, I’m probably going to have much higher expectations, and am more likely to be underwhelmed by what I hear. This is true, even though the song that my band mate recommends is more likely to be a song that I actually enjoy. I don’t know if this is at all interesting to anyone else, but it does help me to remember the subjective nature of all things.
Be on the lookout for more reviews in the next few weeks, and also some news about Common Swift related videos.