Archives for category: Folk

Where the Dark and the Light Mingle, the debut album from San Francisco’s Gutter Swan, is a song cycle of covers from across what might be called the Americana tradition. Themes of yearning run through all of the tracks, tinged with the seduction and aftermath of indulgence.

The arrangements are deceptively simple. Loryn Barbeau employs the slightest twang in voice which suits the song choices well. Guitarist Steve Egelman pulls gorgeous melodies out of a six-string.

Wayside/Back in Time and Oxycontin Blues (and later in the album the medley of Carole King’s Way over Yonder and Joan Osborne’s Saint Theresa) delve into the desire to be back in a time before addiction took hold. Simple Man gives us just the heart of the rocker from Lynyrd Skynyrd debut album, transforming the plea for a child’s happiness almost into a prayer. Appropriate given the line, “All that you have is your soul.”

All that need be said of C’mon Billy is that Loryn and Steve do PJ Harvey proud.

The first of two Richard Buckner covers, Oscar Hummel, features another straightforwardly beautiful vocal that belies the violence of the lyrics of a lost traveler who mistakenly finds the home of his enemy. (A search reveals that the lyrics are from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a collection that consists of stories told on headstones.)

This is followed by Beekeeper, a song possibly narrated by a less dead Oscar Hummel ‘You all say I’ve crossed a line, but the sad fact is I’ve lost my mind…All I want is to be left alone, tact from me is like blood from a stone.’

I’m not sure I have a favorite track on the album, but Vocal (supplied by Norwegians Madrugada) is the tale of a possible suicide to which Loryn brings these breathless phrases. Just listen to how she sings ‘Dare not walk through the liiiiight,’ in which light is both salvation and death, howled and then almost whispered as the song ends. *Shudder*

The headlong rush into desire and addiction is best expressed here by their approach to TV on the Radio’s Wolf Like Me. The harmonies in which our narrator is a (were?) wolf seducing red riding hood balance on some sweet fingerpicking. The faster pace on this song is a nice balance to Vocal’s near dirge-like pace.

Way over Yonder/Saint Theresa positions Saint Theresa, another song of an addicted hooker longing to be on the other side of whatever life is offering against a more ambiguous longing for a simple escape. Way down in the hollow is a long way from Way Over Yonder.

gs-wtdatlmWhere the Dark and the Light Mingle concludes with Richard Buckner’s Desire, in which our narrator is done with their last partner, having said too much and too drunkenly, ‘shot my insides out with grief and Mr. Kessler’ and just needs to hit the road. Fed up with life and death and lust and addiction, the road beckons.

Gutter Swan’s two members capture the gauntlet of life, death, love, need, and bit of the supernatural, and so many of the various ways we subvert and support these things. As a collection of songs that work individually, the album succeeds, but it excels as a story. Folk blues, country, singer/storyteller songs woven together. Using such disparate and desperate sources makes something far more compelling than the individual tracks.

So this month, I’ll be diving into the studio recordings of King Crimson. I’ve been a fan since the early 80s and have seen them perform four times. (I’ll see them again in July. Woot!) I considered reviewing the albums alphabetically rather than chronologically, but was dissuaded.

While Robert Fripp is the only constant in almost 50 years of KC, both Giles brothers appeared on either or both of the first two KC albums.

There are two ways to consider this album, neither of them very useful. One way is to look for aspects of it that point to what Michael Giles and Robert Fripp would do the following year with In the Court of the Crimson King. The fact is that very little of Cheerful Insanity resembles anything in the first few years of KC. The other way to look at is to consider where it falls in the music being made at the same time. This is more helpful, I suppose, because there are bits of the album that resemble early Moody Blues, early Pink Floyd, generic English folk rock and its proggy offspring (Genesis, Jethro Tull, Yes).

I first heard this album sometime in the mid-90s when I was collecting as best I could anything with Fripp’s name on it. I couldn’t hear anything in it (and still don’t) that resembles the weirdness of that late-70s/early 80s period when he’d been applying that arpeggiating guitar technique to everything he touched (including, for example, the stylings of the first and third Roches LPs. And much as I enjoyed that early prog, Cheerful Insanity just didn’t cut it.

Part of the issue I had was that a very young Fripp only wrote three of the songs. Little Children on side A suggests why Fripp left the lyrics to others after that. This song is notable for vocals provided by The Breakaways who famously backed Petula Clark and Cilla Black on several singles.

GGFSuite No. 1 and Erudite Eyes, which close side B have a more Frippish feel to them than the rest of the album. Suite No. 1, which clocks in at just under six minutes, starts with some Paganini-like runs that are joined by bass and keyboard, but after a minute and a half or so, the baroque gymnastics are replaced with a piano/strings/vocals arrangement that brings to mind the Chi-Lites’ Have You Seen Her. This segment is followed by a harpsichord-guitar duet which is followed by a reprise of the Paganini. A single track broken into three possibly unrelated forms, pulled together by a reprise of the theme? The application of jazz theory to folk motifs is one of the main threads of early progressive rock – it’s just weird to hear it applied so strangely.

Erudite Eyes is really the only song that points to the musical strangeness that was to come. It begins as a waltz, turns into a polka, returns to waltz-time and moves into improvised psychedelic strangeness before the second minute is up.

Lyrically, the whole affair is pretty strange. Newly-Weds suggests the discord of couples keeping up with the Joneses (He worries all day about wolves at his door…but on the other hand, she’s got a ring). One In A Million’s look at a man ‘content with the things at the moment, except the yellow line by the pavement’ echoes Revolver-era Beatles (Eleanor Rigby, Taxman).

The biggest issue I have with the whole album is the interspersed comedic numbers. Most of the songs on side A are bookend with episodes of The Saga of Rodney Toady, a ‘sad young man’ who girls run away from at school dances and whose parents are ‘fat and ugly’ and tell him that will ‘meet a fat and ugly girl just like Rodney’s mother and they would get married.’ These interludes don’t speak back to the music and actually detract from enjoying the album.

Side B’s songs are interspersed with repetitions of the sentence ‘I know a man and his name is George’ spoken in the correct order once and then in permutations (Know I George his name and a man, for example) and in increasingly annoying voices. One could argue that the rearrangements of the words reflect the possibilities inherent in the structured and random mutations of music that lie at the heart of King Crimson’s most intriguing work (for me, this includes tracks like Fracture, Level 5, and Starless).

After this album was released, Peter Giles left, and Ian MacDonald and Judy Dyble (late of Fairport Convention) joined and they made a collection of high quality home recordings released in 2001 as The Brondesbury Tapes. This collection is mainly notable for Dyble’s vocal on an early version of I Talk to the Wind. Soon after, Greg Lake joined and the Crimson King was born.



So after the announcement that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, I decided to listen to his entire studio catalogue. 37 albums. I made it most of the way through. His last album is not on Spotify (Nederland) yet, but here are the pithy comments I posted to the Music Obscurica group of my progress. And links to (usually) related videos.

1. Usually I try to read something, a poem or a short story at least, but each new recipient of the Nobel in literature. My new goal is to listen to one Dylan album per day for the next few weeks. I listened this morning to Dylan’s first album for the first time. I love lots of Dylan, but was never a completist, and knew most of the songs only from other people’s versions. Back in ’91 or so (follow me here), I saw Diamanda Galas on her solo piano tour. Her intro to this song made mention of the original and to Dylan’s ‘awful’ version of it, and that she was there to reclaim it. I quite like her version, but that night was my introduction to…

Blind Lemon Jefferson: See That My Grave Is Kept Clean:

2. Trying to listen to Bob Dylan’s discography. I know there’s brilliance in the lyrics, but Another Side of Bob Dylan is nearly unlistenable. I listen to some difficult music – I crank up Swans’ Public Castration Is A Good Idea for pleasure, but wow, there’s a hole in the bucket Dylan’s carrying his tunes in. [NB: I apparently didn’t post consistently for the first few]

3. A Dylan A Day #(Buick) 6:

This might be the first in his discography that I actually like. This is partly true because it’s the album of his I probably know best. Have owned more than one copy. These weren’t songs written for someone else to improve/do correctly. These were done well in the first place. The presence of other musicians meant that Dylan actually had to sing in key. And yeah, it’s all good stuff/no filler.

I don’t think I prefer the Dead’s version of Queen Jane, but when I think of the song, I always hear Bob Weir’s vocal:

Read the rest of this entry »