Monday, February 27, 2012
Today I've got the pleasure of writing about an independent artist's album on the day of its release. Laike is a Swedish artist whose debut solo album Långt från stadslivets dån is released today on British label Les Cousins, one that's got a special place in my heart for reissuing most of Davy Graham's back catalog and making possible his welcome (if painfully shaky) 2007 swan song, Broken Biscuits. Laike is the artist moniker of a sort of one-man show in Christofer Ståhle; he writes, sings and plays guitar, piano and flute here, though he's joined by a number of friends performing various instrumental duties. Laike's album notes refer to a recent enthusiasm for 1970's British folk rock bands like Fairport Convention and The Pentangle (I also hear some Comus in the violin parts), and I think there's a lot here to compare with that music but there's also a lot more here.
I spend a lot of time as a musician and writer worrying about originality and distinctiveness--not necessarily expecting others or myself to produce a musical product that's never been done before, but rather hoping to avoid the decisions that have been made so many times by other artists that they're both clichéd and (for lack of a less snobby word) lazy. Listening to Laike's debut I come to the realization that the fact that much of the music here sounds stylistically familiar really isn't a problem. As a listener who's pursued some of the same bands, I feel that the progressive folk, acid folk, eccentric singer/songwriter (or whatever you want to call them) fields are specifically underdeveloped and any contemporary artist who makes a point of further exploring those areas has both a rich and varied template to draw from, but also a multitude of unanswered musical questions and new directions to explore. Perhaps I'm biased, but I think that as long as the personality, enthusiasm and artistry match the music heard on this album, there's plenty of room for more music in these areas and it'll be quite a while before their ideas are exhausted.
On to some specific impressions--on first listen, Laike's debut is an unassuming collection of straightforward, gently floating melodies framed by accessibly organic arrangements of mostly acoustic instruments playing parts that are sometimes instrumentally impressive but always designed to serve the songs. As always hoped-for with this kind of music, further familiarization shades the hookier aspects with all kinds of subtle nuances (like psychedelic electric guitars you won't even notice until the third spin) and details that both broaden the experience and speak to Laike's craftsmanship and judgment. For the most part, the songs are split between buoyant folk-rock like tunes as found on the opener "Modeslavarnas marsch," "Gladiatorkamp," and "Du är mer än vad jag ser" (where the violin riff, bass line and Dave Mattacks-like drumming most closely recall the aforementioned British bands), and quieter acoustic numbers like "Ensamhetens borg" (where Laike's guitar takes on a Jansch-esque swing), the playful melody of "Bygger stegar upp till himmelen" and the spare-yet-trippy "Städernas tid blev inte lång." Then there's the stuff that's something more, where jazzier tendencies meld with overt pop instincts and melodies like the great guitar riffing and grooving Fender Rhodes on "Långt från stadslivets dån" or the frantic 5/4 piano riff that anchors the valedictory "Tankefabriken." And let's not forget the spacey field recordings that bookend a few of the tracks, pitting Laike's voice and flute against boundless natural reverb with great textural and thematic effect, not to mention how far they stretch past the folky feel of the rest of the music.
Laike's voice, guitar and flute run throughout as cohesive threads, his voice especially providing an ethereal lightness and impressive depth of expression to the songs, at times reminding me of singers like Duncan Browne and Jorge Ben in its deceptive delicacy. I only read the English lyric transcriptions Christofer sent me after listening to the album a few times--I'm surprised how dark they are in relation to the music, dealing with themes of the oppressive nature of urban life (the title translates Far Away from the Noise of City Life) but also isolation and a frustration with the state of the world. Luckily, the beautiful melancholy of the music and a few moments of hopeful idealism tug the emotional feeling back into the satisfying realm of coldly shining Scandinavian bleakness. Långt från stadslivets dån is an album I'm both happy to share and an album I'm looking forward to getting to know even further--congratulations to Christofer on a job well done and best of luck as he continues on his artistic path and releases this music to the world!
Get it here.
Saturday, February 18, 2012
I'm 11 studio days and nine songs deep into my next album and thinking hard about how the work so far measures up to my standards, where I'm going next, and what's coming in the distant future in terms of post-recording production and an eventual release. Though writing, arranging and recording is a challenging and difficult process, it's mostly straightforward to me and is still ultimately rewarding even when it's frustrating. When it comes to thinking about how I can best represent my music once it's released and how to reach the kind of people who actually might be interested, things get a lot foggier. That's what a lot of this Cheap Seats series is about--what else (and there's potentially a lot of it) besides writing, recording and performing goes into the average independent musician's quest to be heard. One of the fundamental issues that continues to plague my thoughts is the issue of non-commercial music and how it fits into today's bizarre musical marketplace.
The struggle to define the phrase "non-commercial music" instantly reminds me of the classic US Supreme Court opinion on obscenity and pornography--creating a concise definition is all but impossible, but "I know it when I see it." In the case of non-commercial music, it might easier to define its opposite--commercial music. To me, "commercial music" is broadly music that is specifically created to appeal to the widest audience possible and consequently maximize sales. This is neither necessarily a bad thing nor an absolute category, but under this definition, it's pretty easy to "know it when you see it." In terms of musical characteristics, commercial music is almost always concise (songs under, say, six minutes), utilizes conventional harmony (major or minor keys with occasional implementation of jazz-related harmony), lyrically appeals to specific emotions that most people feel on a regular basis (romance-related, nostalgia, euphoria, sadness [use sparingly]), is full of easily recognizable elements that are catchy and memorable, and often identifies strongly with the conventions of a particular well-established musical genre in order to provide listeners with a clear connection to music they already like. If it hadn't started becoming such a pejorative term and associated exclusively with corporate-produced mass market music, I'd even say that "commercial music" is synonymous with "pop music," but let's not narrow the definition unnecessarily with negative connotations. Like I mentioned before, none of these characteristics are inherently bad and they describe a lot of great music, but surely they don't describe the only way to make good music? It would seem that problems arise when the characteristics that describe commercial music become the only guiding principles in making music.
Indeed--they aren't; all kinds of great music has been made across the years with varying levels of non-commerciality including attention-span-testing song lengths, unconventional dissonant harmony or atonality, unconventional song structure (or complete lack of structure), inaccessible lyrics, a focus on less straightforward hooks, expression of less attractive moods and emotions, lack of easy identification with recognizable genres, and all-around weirdness in the sound of the music and especially the sound of the singer's voice. Naturally, the list goes on and these descriptors have and will be freely combined, mixed and matched with each other as well as with characteristics associated with commercial music. The point is, the more non-commercial elements you employ, the tougher it's going to be to achieve significant commercial success. However, just as making the decision to produce purely commercially-oriented music doesn't guarantee commercial success, plenty of non-commercial music has (eventually) achieved widespread commercial success. Tom Waits is an artist who immediately springs to mind; these days he's a hallowed saint of the independent/weird music world, but it took him a long time to break past the cult status to which his now-classic 1980's albums initially resigned him. So, commercial and non-commercial music aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, and non-commercial music can succeed commercially, it just has a bit less going for it in terms of accessibility. However, it seems reasonably undeniable that certain types of music will never be commercially successful by the conventional measures (like, say, the Billboard charts)--but they have to have some kind of value, right?
I think the Tom Waits example speaks well to the tough-to-quantify value of non-commercial music. Simply put, if you're slavishly working toward the goal of creating music that's as commercial as possible, there's a good chance it's going to come across as boring. There have been innumerable artists treading the exact same path, and the characteristics that define strictly commercial music limit your artistic options from the get-go. Yes, there's joy to be found in those options, but there's also the soulless thirst for the lowest common denominator that makes so much commercial music hackneyed to the extreme. There are many artistically-justifiable reasons non-commercial music is valuable, including one that can even be connected to the all-sacred dollar--the fact that it plays a key role in refreshing what qualifies as commercial music. It's been happening throughout history, from Beethoven to Elvis--the avant-garde does something weird and against the rules, enough people like it and prove that it can make somebody some money, then it becomes an acceptable convention for the mainstream. Tom Waits is a great example, especially considering the fact that a lot of his Captain Beefheart-influenced material introduced just enough commercial elements for Waits to eventually succeed where the Captain utterly failed commercially. Good ideas have a way of rising to the top, and in addition to being aesthetically enjoyable for its own idiosyncratic reasons, each type of non-commercial music is always ultimately connected to the mainstream, whether it's valued monetarily or not.
After working on this music for several months, I have no illusions that nearly all of the songs I'm working on qualify as non-commercial music. Personally, I find an exciting freedom in non-commercial music (which explains why the majority of albums I review here display varying levels of non-commercial characteristics) that means anything goes, as long as it's expressing an interesting idea. If you're not afraid of breaking a rule that'll cost you sales, then your options are unlimited. Of course, it's a double-edged sword and each non-commercial choice you make further limits your potential appeal to the average listener. And aesthetically, the further you tread from the established rules, the more subjective the evaluation of the quality of your work becomes--who says what I think is an interesting or dull idea is interpreted the same way by others (a principle amply demonstrated by the response I've gotten to some of the critical reviews I've written)? This ambiguity is one of my favorite parts about art, since I believe it's ultimately true even when evaluating art that abides by strictly established rules.
So, I personally believe that non-commercial music is valuable both artistically in terms of the potential for innovation and the unlimited scope of expression, as well as for the role that it plays in propelling forward the slower-moving behemoth of popular music. Choosing to make non-commercial music means I'm subject only to my own artistic whims, but it also means I'm further narrowing the already-limited avenues through which I can seek success as an unknown independent musician. It's not a matter of "being discovered" at this point (since there's no major pop label that would be interested in trying to sell this kind of music), but rather a matter of finding ways to connect with the disparate but very real audience that could potentially be interested in the music. It's the how that continually occupies my thoughts--how does any non-commercial musician access the narrower and diffuse selection of people who are interested in non-commercial music, and what does it take in the present day to achieve enough commercial success with that audience to sustain and continue the artistic process? The answers are probably extremely complicated and different for every band or artist, but repeatedly considering these questions will be a key part of this series as I continue trying to outline the labyrinthine choose-your-own-adventure that faces today's independent musicians.
Cheap Seats Part 1
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
After a busy couple of weeks in the studio, here I am back again to talk about some more music (another Cheap Seats installment should be issuing forth pretty soon as well). I first got into David Gray since seeing him live in 2001 when he was just breaking through with White Ladder. Since then I've stayed a fan as his popularity has ebbed and flowed, but it wasn't White Ladder that cemented my support--it was Gray's back catalog, and especially Flesh and A Century Ends, his 1993 debut.
Though Gray's first couple albums display his liking for Van Morrison and Bob Dylan a lot more than his more recent stuff, they're also a lot more focused on pure songwriting than fusing electronic and accessible acoustic elements than his breakthrough albums are. The arrangements mostly center on Gray's acoustic guitar, though there's some uncharacteristically (for Gray's music) overdriven electrics that accentuate some of the album's edgier tracks. What always draws me into A Century Ends is the fact that it's much angrier than Gray's later works--as he's matured his cynicism has often been re-routed into less recognizable forms as he strives to keep his music accessible and prolong his mainstream popularity. Here, though, Gray rails against the apathy and decline he sees in society on songs like "Let the Truth Sting," "Birds Without Wings" and the title track, singing in a sometimes growling brogue and spitting bile with every line. Revisiting this album I occasionally feel that Gray's poetic lyrics are occasionally a bit florid and sound exactly like the kind of stuff an earnest, angry 24-year-old writes (which probably explains why I liked it so much when I was a teenager), but he repeatedly delivers goods that offer insight beyond his years with lines like "when the cat comes/we're just birds without wings."
Also noticeable throughout the set is a sort of dingy grit that comes with the life of a frustrated young artist--"Debauchery," "Living Room" and "Wisdom" abound with grimy urban imagery and a sense of urgent desperation that rarely appears in Gray's works these days. This might be most evident on the quietly simmering "Lead Me Upstairs," which focuses the album's themes of innocence lost and disillusionment into the image of a single romantic encounter. What really balances Gray's youthful angst, though, is a few unassumingly gorgeous tracks that blend the singer's exuberance with an open-ended bittersweetness and depth that's occasionally lacking on some of the collection's more straightforward material. The opener, "Shine" continues to be one of Gray's finest heartbreak songs, based on open-tuned guitar and rising to a crescendo that sees the singer experimenting with Van Morrison-like vocalizations. "Gathering Dust," further develops a quiet sense of searching, featuring one of the album's most memorable melodies (delivered by Gray's wordless na-na-na's).
While it's probably true that A Century Ends presents some of David Gray's least mature material, it's also refreshing to hear someone singing passionately and obviously caring about the subject matter, even if the wide-eyed sincerity of youth is a little overly-apparent. And while the music sometimes suffers the characteristic fate of existing merely as a platform for Gray's voice and lyrics, he does present us with a lot to enjoy in those departments. I've heard Gray speak mildly disparagingly about his first few albums and say that the too-familiar folk rock arrangements were part of the reason he didn't achieve success before White Ladder (not to mention that this album is a way too British-sounding to find widespread success overseas). That may be true, but listen to both albums in 10 years (or maybe even now) and I bet this collection sounds a whole lot more difficult to date in comparison. While Gray has continued to tread middle-of-the-road territory with his recent albums, he always seems to show glimmers of the insight and un-poplike impulses that made his early stuff so compelling. He's got his fair share of detractors who validly point out his overplay and recent blandness at the expense of recognizing his well-developed craft, but I live in hope that his continuing maturity and subtlety will again result in something that aims to challenge more than it does generate another safe adult contemporary hit. A taste of success seems to often instigate a hunger that's fraught with compromise, and that feeling is never evident on A Century Ends.
Get it here.