Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Vulnerability: Cold & wet make you vulnerable to sickness; lack of sleep can too. Lack of sleep makes me vulnerable to waves of emotion. Our boy was sick Friday night and all day yesterday -- he's mostly better this morning -- but yesterday was a particularly sobby day for me. I'm a cryer anyway, but when I'm particularly sleep-shorted, I can be moreso.

* * *

The other day in a vulnerable state I listened to this song over and over and cried and cried.

"A Fine Start," by Veda Hille, from her 2005 album Return of the Kildeer. Unsurprisingly, it's the album's first track. Hille is not only a songwriter, singer, pianist, and lyricist, she's also a composer of uncommon grace and facility, a spinner of lovely melodies and textures with a melodic, rhythmic, motivic, and harmonic density lightly worn that's unlike anything else I know. This tune has a signature Hille motif in the cello, and a quiet melody. Hille can sing equally beautifully quietly or ragingly. Unlike the typical strain in Adult Contemporary and Indieville, her quiet mode does not signify defeatism, resignation, weariness, or a sense of being over-matched by life. Her quiet mode signals intimacy and tenderness. This one is one of her tenderest. She sings, "Think of all the people fucking under lucky northern skies / What a fine start, a fine start, a fine start to someone's life." Singing the word "fucking" tenderly and without irony -- a little miracle of art. I don't know a better song about birth or conception.

* * *

I've also been listening to my friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey's EP, "Twoscore." Five of the collection's seven songs paint a portrait of the life of a post-40 married former scenester, coming to terms with what all the various facets of the portrait mean.

In the jaunty melodic shuffle-rock of Silver Shoes, the singer remembers the old scenester days fondly, portraying himself as a marginal scenester who belongs there only in the shadow of his friend, the wearer of the silver shoes, "the king of the fools," while the singer "shuffl[es] behind, making up my mind." "You always seemed like you belonged there / Or should I say you just belonged because you were there / I stumble in a part of your shadow / content to lay low / in the glow." It's a panegyric to a friend, without jealousy acknowledging that "You had all the nerve and all the charm I never could muster" -- there's no jealousy because "we had so much fun / we never knew the meaning of 'over' / Say good night and walk into the sun," the last line moving melodically downward as the accompanying guitar moves melodically upward, beautifully setting up the jubilant guitar solo out of Badfinger (Jay is a master guitarist and sound colorist). When the idea of belonging comes around again after the solo, it goes, "You always seemed like you belonged there / You made me feel like I belonged too." And ending with a touch of Nashville, the lead guitar playing the first three notes of the opening melody. Tasty Ringo-esque drumming throughout from Phoebe Summersquash.

The next song, the medium-slow country ballad Someone Like You, the singer is returning to the scene to hear another friend sing -- "so good to see you / shining brightly like before" -- but now the singer isn't sure about belonging: "and if I ever belonged I sure / do not any more." And then Jay sings, "Never believed in magic, put my faith in sleight of hand / To me there is no mystery, just a few chords and a band" -- ah, the faith of the craftsman, downplaying the role of magic -- but how does the craft cohere without magic, how does some craft work better, and if you can know that, then can you write a perfect song every time? Jay proceeds to possibly contradict himself, as the song's chorus confirms the magic of personality and charisma, the nerve and charm he couldn't muster in the preceding song are not simply a matter of knowledge and will -- there's a magic to them. And if there's a magic to personality and charisma, does it not follow that there's a magic to music and art as well? (Sorry, Jay, to be arguing with the philosophical position your song takes -- it's a really good song that makes me want to disagree, that compels me to wonder whether the song disagrees with itself.) Beautifully crafty arrangement touch: A joyous two-note steel guitar lick by Jon Graboff immediately following the singer's happy praise for his friend, "Undoubtedly a star."

Twoscore , the title track, is in the heavy epic mode of George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" album or early stuff by the Band. The singer wakes up, surprised to be 40 and not unhappy about it, taking stock of his life half lived, coming to terms with his youthful self. Not very many songs like this, and it's gorgeous. A beautifully complex emotional moment in the vocal harmony on the line, "Some things are meant to last," Jay's lead vocal tender and hopeful, Phoebe's high harmony allowing itself a moment of ecstasy. Complex song, heavy with the years but full of strength and will and wisdom.

The album's "rock" tour-de-force is a country-rock cover of the Beach Boys' uptempo teen drama Girl Don’t Tell Me in slow heavy 6/8 meter. Brian Wilson's tune was a tour-de-force in itself, his brilliant attempt to write a Lennon-Beatles song in the style of "Ticket to Ride" or "I Should Have Known Better"; it's one of the few Beach Boys songs without vocal harmonies, featuring a great vocal from Brian's brother Carl. On Jay's cover, nice harmonies and drumming from Phoebe, great melodic bass playing from Jay's friend Jeremy Chatzky (who is now with Springsteen on the "Seeger Sessions" tour), and lovely steel playing from Graboff. Jay debuts his harmonica on this one.

About the remaining songs, Bad Party is a tuneful, medium-fast country pop number with tasty Chatzky bass playing and beautifully detailed lyrics of emotional alienation and relationship breakdown (I've covered this song live); West of Here is a peppy tuneful number with Beatle-esque background "Sha la la"s, nifty arrangement details, more tasty Chatzky bass, and a hot guitar lead from Jay; and Hell Gate is a morose but very pretty waltz with lovely CSN-style harmony vocals.

Jay's singing throughout is emotionally nuanced and true; the arrangements are lushly detailed without being fussy; the recording is gorgeous. I'm psyched. Yeah, he's my friend, our families go back together generations, I've known him since before I can remember, we've played together on and off since junior high, so, right, I'm biased, he's practically a relative. But -- you can hear the music for yourself. I don't know how long he'll keep the songs up for free, so check them out now.
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