This segment has become one of my favorite things about Common Folk Music. Yeah, I like writing album reviews and features, but I love reading about the albums, books, movies, etc. that have influenced and/or inspired them as a songwriter. For me, getting to know a songwriter or musician through their written word and perspective is just as rewarding as listening to them pour their hearts out in song. And, not only do I learn more about them through pieces like “Songwriter’s Point Of View”, I’m often introduced to great artists.
In this “Songwriter’s Point of View”, Justin Ringle does both. As lead vocalist and guitar player for the popular indie-folk band, Horse Feathers, Justin is also the main songwriter. Known and praised for their ability to tell stories while skillfully setting the mood with their pleasantly sweeping and gently cinematic music, Horse Feathers and Justin are a genre favorite. At least, he is one of mine, and that’s why I asked him to contribute a “Point of View” and the following are his musings on Eric Bachmann’s To The Races.
Although severely tempted to write about Didn’t It Rain by Songs: Ohia, I found that after trying to listen to it again to write something for the task was proving to be a hair too ominous at the moment…But, needing to pay homage to such a great and personally influential record I figured I would at least mention it given the untimely circumstances relating to Jason Molina’s recent death. R.I.P.
I instead chose To The Races by Eric Bachmann. A record that has clocked in just as many spins and I have found to be equally seminal in my own weird idiosyncratic listening habits. I found To The Races around 2006 when my first record came out and I saw it included on a few of the same year end lists. I thought I would check it out with my first thought being that I was familiar with Bachmann since I was a teenager. I devoured The Archer’s of Loaf’s catalog with exuberance I credit to the flood of testosterone in my adolescent body and a growing obsession with marijuana, electric guitars, and vintage distortion pedals. Anyhow, I had missed his other project Crooked Fingers. I bought his new solo record, and, then, proceeded to listen to it consistently for the next 7 odd years.
Upon first listen I immediately connected with the songs and inherent mood created with the sparse production. Here was something direct and seemingly naked. It seemed like a necessary record. I say “necessary” in the sense that the whole thing sounds like it NEEDED to be made by him at the time. Without trying to sound cliche’ there is an underlying urgency, real, or perhaps imagined on my part, that pours out of the recording. When paired with whatever PR bio copy I had read about the making of the record and what was going on in Eric’s life at the moment, the vision seemed concise and clear: musician has problems, musician forsakes normal routine and life, musician goes rogue in van, musician makes record in a vacant coastal motel. A popular belief and model in contemporary music seems to revolve around this story. It’s a tale we have heard about extensively with Bon Iver’s cabin and all that. Forced seclusion/anti-social loner time = great records. It certainly adds to the mystique of the whole process but I have to argue that in the case of To The Races, I really connected with not just the music, but the story as well. Thematically, this idea of displacement and artistic vagrancy is covered widely in the album. This coupled with apparent drug/alcohol dependence, unrequited love, ephemeral relationships, hometown nostalgia, escapism, and a very clear picture of internal conflict is painted with perhaps the songs themselves acting as the only antidote and therapy.
“Ease my mind to find my way”
From the first listen there was no doubt in my mind that all of these things were stemming from very real experiences and here it is exposed to the world. With very little decoration or artifice to soften the blows it’s as if you get swept along on the same trip with the songwriter. But, he almost doesn’t want you to be there:
“I’m no good at riding side by side I travel lean”
— “Carrboro Woman”
This is brave stuff. I have attempted to be this direct as a songwriter and usually flinch. I have to create a certain degree of separation by fictionalizing something just so I can play the song more than ten times and not have a nervous breakdown. I don’t know definitively how autobiographically accurate this album is, but as a listener I’m certainly convinced or would like to believe that it is.
Another aspect to the record is that I enjoy its own sense of vocabulary. “Beast” is used often to imply negative connotations to characters, but is also used by the narrator in reference to himself (“I came upon a wounded beast/and I will try my best to be to you no burden, weight, or beast.”) Perhaps my favorite moment of the record comes in “Genevieve.” If there was ever a song that encapsulated the pain of loving someone who will never love you back it’s this one. Highlighted by the line: “What I cannot have I do not need.” This idea is also used in “Carrboro Women” with “what I want ain’t what I need.” These simple poetic assertions of internal conflict stick out to me. All of the above things act as little guides through the record. It comes off to me as one large piece of work or song with small mantras repeated throughout leading you along, reinforcing mood, and contributing to theme.
I love the songs’ sense of geography and place. There’s a sense the narrator has been somewhere (Spain – “Man O’War”), knows his home intimately (“Home”/”Carrboro Women”), and caps the record with a tandem of songs about leaving it (“Little Bird”/”So Long Savannah”). As one of my closest friends from North Carolina has said many times is that this record sounds like North Carolina to him. I that it is an accomplishment and it’s something I strive for in my own music.
Overall, To The Races has remained a consistent companion for long drives and a model for a very direct style of songwriting. At the risk of making comparisons it’s stylistic predecessor to me seems to be Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. Another record I have poured over for many of the same reasons. In my humble opinion, To The Races has been criminally under appreciated which is not surprising given the climate of contemporary contextual music criticism which values the new so adamantly. It’s like the unfortunate evolution of jeans which seems unnecessary. We started with 501’s…and, now, we have bedazzled-graphic-stitched-straight-fit-whatever-the-fuck-available-in-10-washes. Do all the new choices with things like this enhance our experience or in some ways demean it? I will take the old regular-ass jeans. They work just fine. As a songwriter, To The Races stands as a testament that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel. All we need is a muse and some honesty and suddenly good things happen. Songs communicate things on so many levels and often less is more. It breaks down the walls between the listener and the real human experience we are all eagerly searching for, no matter if you are in front of the guitar or behind it.
Purchase Horse Feathers’ Albums
Purchase To The Races
Horse Feathers: Website; Facebook; Twitter; Myspace
Eric Bachmann: Website; Facebook; Youtube; Myspace