Horse Feather’s Justin Ringle Takes Us ‘To The Races’ With Eric Bachmann

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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.


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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”
— “Home”

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


Songwriter’s Point of View: Justin P. Lewis takes a trip to the “Bible Belt” with Diane Birch

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It’s always interesting for me to get a Songwriter’s Point of View piece because they usually give me some insight into singer-songwriter and the person, and sometimes they help me discover music I wouldn’t otherwise choose on my own. Such is the case with Justin Paul Lewis’s choice — Diane Birch’s Bible Belt.

I have never heard of Diane Birch until Justin’s PoV today and I’m grateful to him for pointing me in the direction of this album. Since buying the album, I have enjoyed every minute of its soulful, piano-driven tunes and Birch’s vocals that range from powerful to playful to gentle but always emotional and beautiful. And, as I listen to Bible Belt, I can hear Birch’s influence on Justin in the slight similarities of their respective releases. However, Justin’s friendship and collaboration with Ben Sollee on Rinse, Repeat, Rewind has helped expand the creativity of the EP giving it its eclectic and experimental sound. I am also aware that comparing the two releases and artists is like comparing apples to oranges, although I’m not that sure they’re really that different (beside the obvious).

Now that I’m finished giving a convoluted comparative study on two different singer-songwriters, I’m pleased to bring you Justin Paul Lewis’s Songwriter Point of View where he discusses Diane Birch’s Bible Belt and why it’s one of his favorite albums. And, for those of you who know, know that Justin’s song “Salt” has been on permanent repeat and know how exciting this particular piece is for me. And with that said, I hope that you discover Justin like he has helped me find Bible Belt.


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It was 2009 and I was not far from graduating college at the University of Louisville. Every night I would stay up late writing mini-thesis papers on racial and gender based sociological theory, and drinking coffee and beer until my eyes twitched. Often times I would stream music from the desktop computer or turn on the radio in the other room (why I did not move the radio into the office I have no idea). It would usually be dialed into Louisville’s public radio station, WFPK.

I will never forget one particular evening while listening through the walls, I heard a song that caused me to spring up out of work and sit on my bedroom floor in anticipation to hear who the hell was singing it. I was enthralled. It had such a classic sound that I thought maybe it was an old B-side from someone in the 70s. It had a depthness to it that I wanted to reach by hearing more and more and more. For the first and only time that I know of, FPK did not mention the artist’s name. I was trapped into not knowing who this person was for a few days. It literally had me going music crazy.

Exactly two days later, I heard the song again around the same time of day. I ran into the bedroom, shut the door, and sat in silence awaiting to fix this itch I had with this mystery singer. As soon as Laura Shine, the DJ, announced it was Diane Birch’s “Nothing But a Miracle,” I wrote it down on my college notebook and went to the record store to buy her album the next morning. Snagging that record that morning was honestly as necessary as the coffee I drank to get me there.

Now there are tons of great artists and albums that I could talk about here. Bill Withers, for instance, is a prime example of someone that I have admired for most of my musical career. I could write a few chapters on his songs “Use Me” and “Heartbreak Road,” but Diane’s record Bible Belt is one that I feel could use some verbal love. I feel as if I talk about the classic greats with a lot of my friends a lot of times. Bill Withers, Led Zeppelin, and Radiohead (if you want to call them classic) are always spitting out of my mouth more than most current music, because I have always been extremely picky with current music. It’s not that I don’t appreciate or listen to a lot of the “blogosphere” bands — I really do. I have just only found a few that have pushed me into musical crazyness. Diane’s record has had me saying “I could listen and try to mimic this” for years.

I think the first thing that really caught my ear with Diane was the “soul.” I discovered her in a time when I was attempting to listen to music that would make me cool and fit in with my music savvy friends. Obviously what Diane does as a singer and songwriter is very cool, but it is nothing odd-ball or “I have created my own weird music themed Tumblr blog” worthy. It is just straight honest soul, and that what I just love about this record. Each song is simple, straightforwad and just rips into one funky emotion over and over.

Lyrically I have the same feelings. The simplicity in her words makes each song so powerful to me. The opening track, “Fire Escape,” is a great example of her lyrical simplicity:”Goodbye my love, I’ll be seeing you when my lights go, when I put my head on my pillow, I’ll think of you.” It’s almost as if she took an old love/heartache letter and broke it into pieces to make a song. There is no beating around the bush. And I like that. A lot.

I could go on and on about this record and how it has helped me evolve into the performer and songwriter I have become today. The song “Fools” got me into 1976’s favorite album, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, her gorgeous album cover inspired the use of Mickie Winter’s up close black and white shot of me for the Rinse, Repeat, Rewind photoshoot, and her performances at Bonnaroo got me up way too early before Ben Sollee and I trucked back home that same day. I really appreciate these songs and what Diane does, and I hope you will check her out, often.


Stream & Buy Rinse, Repeat, Rewind EP
Buy Bible Belt
Justin Paul Lewis: Website; Facebook; Twitter
Diane Birch: Website; Facebook; Twitter; Myspace; Youtube




Pickering Pick Discusses The Spirituality Of Richard & Linda Thompson’s Pour Down Like Silver

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“Songwriter’s Point of View” is an ongoing segment we try to keep going on a regular basis, but that’s a hard thing to do. Regardless, it’s always worth it when I get something as insightful as this piece from Pickering Pick. For as long as I have been listening to his albums, I have always heard and felt some kind of spiritual mysticism that I haven’t been able to extract from other albums and now I know why.


PDLS


I have long since given up trying to categorize my favourite records or rationalize why I like them. I don’t walk around my house trying to decide which piece of furniture I like best, and I don’t sit on my patio and compile a Top Ten of trees in my garden. The green Moroccan armchair my wife bought twelve years ago is comfortable, and I love my guavas, especially in the late spring time.

Similarly, I listen to a lot of different albums from different musicians and I don’t have a favourite, but if I did, it would be Pour Down Like Silver. This is probably the single album which comes closest to connecting with me on all the levels which matter.

The Richard Thompson I hear on Pour Down Like Silver is an altogether different fellow from the Richard Thompson who wrote “The End Of The Rainbow” less than two years earlier on I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. That song is a profound slice of cynical pessimism, concluding an album peopled with drunkards, beggars and whores. Pour Down Like Silver could not be more different; in the course of eight songs (and four in particular), Thompson announces his arrival at a sort of spiritual gatehouse, a new home which finally allows him some emotional respite.

I am very fond of spiritual recordings, especially when they come from musicians more generally known for secular songwriting. Several of my most-loved LPs are by artists who have undergone some sort of spiritual transformation, and who explore their new religiosity in their songs: Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call, Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, The Waterboys’ This Is The Sea, Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans and The Innocence Mission’s Christ Is My Hope have all been played many hundreds of times in my house, and I find the mystical energy of those records immensely appealing. The fragile intensity, or the furious conviction, of a new convert can turn a simple song into a powerful, honest experience.

Some time after finishing I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and during the recording of Hokey Pokey, Richard & Linda Thompson adopted the esoteric, mystical Islamic tradition of Sufism, and it is that conversion which informs the entire atmosphere of Pour Down Like Silver. The arrangements are familiar — if sparser — versions of Richard’s Anglo-Scottish folk-rock, bisected at times by his incandescent electric guitar playing, but despite sounding very much like a Richard & Linda Thompson record, there are elements which set it apart from anything that came before, or anything since; something only hinted at on the lovely 1974 song, “A Heart Needs A Home”, from Hokey Pokey.

There’s a sense of solace and rest which permeates Pour Down Like Silver, a feeling of belonging, maybe, or a sigh of relief. It is more palpable when you hear it in relation to the nervous anxiety and grim pessimism of the previous albums, but even standing alone, the songs on this record flow with a new-found ease which speaks to a calmer mind, a release from fear and worry. “Night comes in like some cool river”, Richard sings on the epic fourth track, opening up a prayer book of desire and regret:

Oh the songs pour down like silver
They can only break my heart
Drink the wine, the wine of lovers
Lovers tired of being apart

The song aches with longing for a spiritual union — the lover this time being Allah, or God, or whatever you want to call it. In “For Shame Of Doing Wrong”, Linda’s voice plays chase with Richard’s voice, round and round in circles, repeating the same refrain: “I wish I was a fool for you again”. Regardless of what eventually became of their marriage, I have little doubt that Richard and Linda loved each other once, but even so they refrain from addressing each other on this album. These songs are devotionals to the object of their faithful spiritual desires; mantras at time, love songs and songs of thanksgiving, and they are never less than compelling.

“Dimming Of The Day” is probably the best-known song from the album, primarily because it has been covered by so many notable musicians: Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and Dave Gilmour have all had a crack at it, but whenever I hear a cover all I hear is a pretty melody and a nice lyric. In the mouths of Richard and Linda, however, the song takes on a far greater significance. Linda ploughs the verses, and Richard joins her on the refrains. In the final verse, we almost imagine Allah finally speaking back to his devotees:

I see you on the street in company
Why don’t you come and ease your mind with me?

It is almost unspeakably lovely just like that, but when the song fades away and segues into Richard’s solo instrumental coda, a re-imagining of James Scott Skinner’s “Dargai”, I am compelled to stop doing whatever it is I am doing and just listen. Shivers down my spine every single time.

“Dimming Of The Day” is extraordinary, but the towering achievement of Pour Down Like Silver is the quiet, reflective devotional “Beat The Retreat”, which features a solo Richard Thompson on a woody-sounding acoustic guitar, with some almost imperceptible overdubs and a sturdy, solemn percussion line.

I’m trailing my colours back home to you
I’m trailing my colours back home to you
This world is filled with sadness
This world is filled with sadness
This world is filled with sadness
I’m running back home to you

The song is a study in simplicity, a heartfelt apology and an acknowledgment of his desire to be reconciled with his spiritual companion. Richard’s vocal delivery is always interesting, but on “Beat The Retreat” it displays a humility which matches his restrained guitar playing. People that know Richard Thompson know that he’s capable of superhuman feats on the guitar. He is simply the greatest living British guitar player, and he has been so for forty years. So to hear him play with such reserve and grace actually adds to the impact of the song. To take the best composition on your record and then play it with modesty and humility takes the sort of discipline that most artists don’t have. And how old was Richard when he recorded this? 25?

For me, it is probably the most perfect example of the marriage of substance and arrangement, lyric, delivery and emotional honesty by any musician on any record. It’s what I hear in my head when I think about what I’d like my own music to sound like. And to a lesser extent that is true of the entire album. The arrangements are solid, but sparse, with great peaceful spaces in between the percussion, guitars, vocals, and the lovely accordion which at once conjures both a British folk atmosphere and a reedy, diaphanous eastern element which serves to enhance the aura of quiet mysticism.

Having said all of this, and listened to the album through a few more times this morning, I’m still not sure how to quantify my love of this record. I’m profoundly grateful to have discovered it all those years ago. I don’t know what I would do without it. It is peace and grace and humility and harmony and honesty, and if you don’t crave those things, then perhaps it will never reach you on the level it reaches me. But give it a try anyway.

Buy Richard & Linda Thompson’s Pour Down Like Silver
Stream & Buy Pickering Pick’s (Tropic)
Pickering Pick: Bandcamp; Facebook; Twitter; Yer Bird


Jeff Zentner’s Inspiration Is Poetic

Listening to Jeff Zentner’s new album A Season Lost, I had a feeling that Jeff would be an interesting person to talk to and get to know. And, I was right. When I asked Jeff if he would write a “Songwriter’s Point of View” he enthusiastically agreed, and asked if he could right about his favorite poet instead of a favorite album. And once I read about his inspiration, I definitely caught a glimpse into his songwriting, clearly seeing this inspiration in his lyrics. But not only can his inspiration be found in lyrics, it can also be felt. While reading this post, I could hear his songs playing as the soundtrack to each and every poem written by Joe Bolton. So, I encourage you to read on about Jeff’s inspiration and get to know him and his songs.

I discovered the Kentucky poet Joe Bolton about five years ago or so. I had played a show in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and a good friend, Jonathan Treadway, himself a brilliant poet, recommended him to me. His aim was true. The first poem I ever read by Joe Bolton was this:


“The Ohio”

Seven miles south of anywhere

You’d rather be, it is autumn

What sweetened shrivels,

What shriveled falls,

And what fell is leaf-rot,

A sick rich scent on the air.

You are paling, you are bored,

You are zipping up your jacket

And walking into a dynamo

Of twilight and raw wind,

Tossing your hair as a brief bruise

Of pink scores the horizon

Seven miles north, below the lights

From the bars and dance halls

Of small towns, the Ohio swells

With a cargo of barges,

And catfish twist through the bones

Of what never bothered to rise

These words hummed through me like I was a tuning fork. I resonated at exactly this frequency. I couldn’t get my hands on his book quickly enough. His poems have been collected in a single volume called The Last Nostalgia. When I got it, I could only read in small doses, such was the beauty and heartbreak it contained. Joe Bolton wrote of the landscapes and the heartscapes that I knew. He wrote of a building up and breaking down. He wrote of the beginnings and the death of love and life. He wrote about rivers and the pale twilight of winter evenings in the South. He wrote about desire and nights alive with the smell of wild honey. His poems were filled with wonder and despair in equal measure. His words made the most beautiful music I had ever heard.

 

…The old and the new songs of heartbreak sound the same

It’s only when the needle grinds in the grooves

That a sadness greater than your own comes on,

And the dead begin to live again, in you

“The Prototypical Ghosts”

Joe Bolton is virtually unkown. You will never hear him mentioned in the same breath as other poetry greats such as Rilke, Rimbaud, Gilbert, and Whitman. But you should. He has soared to their heights.

 

…And when the sun, slipping

Behind a staggered row of pines

In Northern Mississippi or Tennessee

In late August,

Hangs the needles in its distant, momentary fire,

Then lets them go,

And the bickering cries of the gathering starlings

Rise in praise of the falling dark.

“A Hymn to the Body”

I was asked to write this “Songwriter’s Point of View,” which normally features songwriters talking about the work of other songwriters. Make no mistake, there are many brilliant songwriters whom I love and who provide me with great inspiration. In fact, some of my favorites on earth appear on my latest album. But when it comes time to truly go to the well, so to speak, I look to my poets for inspiration. And Joe Bolton is supreme among them. I believe that a song should have lyrics that can stand on their own, and be read as poetry, without music. Lately, there is no music more beautiful to me than beautiful words in front of my eyes and the sound of wind in my ears. The Last Nostalgia is my lodestar for every phrase I write. It is gospel to me. I have never written quite the same way since. The title track from my album The Dying Days of Summer is a tribute to Joe Bolton.


After the many-colored but mostly blue

Seasons of our two solitudes – the hours

Of longing and the flight from longing, the years

Spent remembering as if memory were true –

We stand together on a balcony

Above the city of losses, the city of lights

Bouncing back off a starless sky, the city

Where we’ll try to save this night from the death of nights.

Ours has become a life in which the self

And the self’s other begin to anticipate the chances

Taken in the name of desire. Desire:

That sweet song the body sings to itself,

Or under the best of circumstances

The song two bodies sing to each other

“The Name of Desire”


…Now, coming back to the place in autumn,

You watch rose- and wine-colored leaves swirl down,

And, seeing the stones now barely break the ground,

Think: So this is what it does to things, time.

The creek leaf-choked, you can hear the grass die.

Under the clouds, come. Sit. Hear the grass die.

“Making Love in a Colored Graveyard”

Joe Bolton committed suicide in March 1990. He was 28.


Stream and buy Jeff Zentner’s A Season Lost
Jeff Zentner: Website; Facebook; Twitter
Buy Joe Bolton’s  The Last Nostalgia Days of Summer Gone

Bro. Stephen Discusses His Affection For Mount Eerie’s Lost Wisdom

I honestly believe that next guest contributor for “Songwriter’s Point of View” needs no introduction. Bro. Stephen (Stephen Scott Kirkpatrick by birth) has released one of my favorite albums of 2012 (thus far), Baptist Girls, so I’m not sure what more I can say about the man other than he is a great gift to the indie-folk community.

I have spent most of the last few weeks (correction: months) trying to think of a record that I should talk about other than Mount Eerie’s Lost Wisdom. This is the first record I thought of writing about for this piece, but it is the last one I wanted to write about. The reasons for that are pretty simple. This record has affected me greatly and as an artist I am secretly terrified that I rip it off constantly. I don’t think I actually do (correct me if I’m wrong), but it definitely changed my brain and altered my perception of aesthetics when I first heard it. I remember where I was when I first heard it. My buddy Mike gave me an “evaluation copy” of it while he was visiting me in Louisville. I was sitting in the front room of the house I shared with the guys from my old band. Mike had just played me a song on the guitar that ended up being the single to his awesome first solo record, and while we were talking about music he told me, “Hey, I think you’ll dig this. It’s good.” I listened to one song and knew that I was hearing something that resonated with me in a way that I hadn’t thought about before. I didn’t just think that the music sounded nice, or that the guy wrote good lyrics, or a number of other reasons why I like record. I was attracted to all of that at the same time while being entranced by the approach to the recording of the record. It didn’t hit me instantly what made the songs so pleasantly disarming, but I knew there was something special about it.

After months of listening to nothing but this record, I was able to figure a few things out for myself. This was recorded almost entirely live with very few overdubs except for a few harmonies and overlays. This was done with exactly three people. Phil Elverum playing a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar and singing, Julie Doiron singing harmonies/melodies, and Fred Squire playing a fuzzed-out electric guitar in the background occasionally are really the only sounds on this record.

If you’re not familiar with Mount Eerie, then I guess I can tell you that Mount Eerie is the musical project of Phil Elverum who resides in Anacortes, Washington. You may also know Phil from his early work (which is similar in approach and aesthetic) when he played under the name The Microphones and released one of the greatest releases of the last decade called The Glow, Pt. 2. Shamefully, I wasn’t familiar with Phil’s work until Mike gave me this record and I quickly delved into his back catalog and found a songwriter who had a unique and gentle way of subverting the modern song in subtle and powerful ways. He is a bit of a chameleon, which I really like because the songs are personal and natural and I think it’s natural for an artist to express himself with a base aesthetic while manipulating that in tertiary ways. There are chasms of style lying between each record he makes, but they are always obviously Mount Eerie songs. Right after this haunted masterpiece of a record, Mount Eerie released a pummeling record called Winds Poem that could almost be described as “black metal.” Other releases of his contain some of the same songs performed different ways with shared lyrics, themes, and identities which blur the lines of what an artist is much the same way that Elverum’s contemporaries like Will Oldham and Jason Molina have done.

There are a few elements that are pretty obvious upon first listen which have unpacked to mean more to me than I initially took them. Some of those elements are the following: short songs, constantly shifting harmonies/melody interplay, plain-spoken language, spatial intimacy, and imagery from the natural world. The opening line of this record really sets the tone for the whole record.

“I got close enough to the river that I couldn’t hear the trucks, but not close enough to stop the roaring of my mind.”

Here you find a lot of the themes and conflicts within and outside of the artist which are expounded upon throughout the rest of the record. It is the artist at war with a world that is moving too fast, at war with his/her internal self, and the understanding of one’s self through the terms of the natural world surrounding.  The entrance of the harmonies on the wordless tag on the end of this opening line also sets us up for what to expect on the rest of the record as well: the harmony is not crisp or perfect and it is interacting with the melody so frequently in interesting ways that it sounds like a conversation. If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that the harmonic conversation between Doiron and Elverum is so fluid and so reciprocal that at times it’s tough to tell who has the melody and who is singing the harmony. Sometimes they switch in the middle of the line even, and it is this ebb and flow that really provides the record with the underbelly of personality and warmth that connected with me so strongly. It’s almost as if we are listening in to the quiet moments between two lovers balancing love and complacency or maybe it’s the inner world of someone who has come to grips having multiple voices driving their decisions. It’s a complex structure to be sure, but it is also one that oozes comfort and discord in the same breath and often in the same note. That is certainly a sentiment that rings true for me.

This record turns over and over in my head in a way that I can’t help but mull over every aspect in a way that sends me into a vortex of crazy. Seriously, I could go on and on and turn over every leaf on this record, but it wouldn’t make you want to listen to it and it will just make me feel like an obsessive weirdo. My favorite track on the record is undoubtedly “With My Hands Out” which is a perfect novella of renewal and redemption like a dream where you can’t tell if it was good or bad. The power of this record lies in the imagery it conjures and explains: a burning house in the mountains, a stone skipped in a black lake, the isolation of a hiker surrounded by nature, a night swim, coming across a poisonous snake in one’s front yard. These are a few of the characters and scenes in Lost Wisdom which couple the darkness of Poe, the starkness of Hemingway, and the rural-ity of Thoreau. It’s beautiful and imperfect in all the right moments.


“With My Hands Out”


Bro. Stephen: Website; Facebook; Twitter
Stream & Purchase Baptist Girls
Mount Eerie: Website; Facebook; Tumblr
Purchase Lost Wisdom

The Transfiguration of Tillman: Ramblings by Al James the Unfazed

Al James. What can I say about this man? Everyone on the Portland scene or of like-mind are huge fans of his indie-folk-rock melancholic meditations.

Last year, his band, Dolorean, released an album, The Unfazed, which received a lot of praise in the music mags and blogs; however, for some strange and unknown reason, I didn’t. And, for that reason, I have brought a lot of shame upon Common Folk Music’s head — namely, mine. So, to rectify this gross mistake, I asked Al to write CFM’s next installment of “Songwriter’s Point of View”. After all, I do love The Unfazed. I’m listening to it right now as I type completely baffled as to the reasons why I didn’t write something about it because it is a terrific album. But, I guess it doesn’t matter now because it’s time to read Al’s musings on a beloved indie-folk eccentric and his controversial album…Well, let’s just say, Father John Misty’s Fear Fun, was just that for Al.

Rather than attempt to pick apart an album from the past, turn back the emotional and analytical clock in my mind and write about it from a songwriter’s point of view (obvious choices for this exercise would be anything by the Great Michael Hurley, Damien Jurado’s Waters Ave S, Gene Clark’s No Other, Richard Buckner’s Devotion + Doubt or Dennis Wilson’s masterwork Pacific Ocean Blue) I feel compelled to write about the one album that I have been wrestling with, obsessing over, sobbing to, drinking alongside and fucking to for the last six months – Father John Misty’s Fear Fun.

Longtime friend Josh Tillman sent me his latest album Fear Fun as a download link in November of last year and my love was immediate. I fell hard for Misty from the glorious opening chorus of the first track “Funtimes In Babylon”.


“Funtimes In Babylon”


“I would like to abuse my lungs. Smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved. Ride around the wreckage on horse knee-deep in blood. Look out Hollywood here I come.”

Unbelievable. The first line again. “I would like to abuse my lungs. Smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved.” That’s the entire human experience (at least mine) in one couplet — self-hatred, self-indulgence, lack of self-control, everlasting love of all past and future lovers, self-exploration of the infinite through drugs and other substances, impending death. It’s all there.

If you’ve been reading all the music rags/blogs/tweets, you’ve heard Misty’s story — bored with drumming as an uber-successful Fleet Fox he moves down to L.A. to drug it up alone in the Canyon in hopes of discovering new levels of creativity, humor, sex, enlightenment, wordplay, etc…and, gawdammit, he pulls it off beautifully. His past as a suicidal, breathy balladeer (It should be noted that I am still a fan of his older work as J. Tillman) disappears in a flash of light and JT2.0 emerges as Father Fucking John Misty, the heir apparent to the scuzzy songwriting crew that was lurking around Los Angeles in the early 70s (Nilsson, Waits, Newman, Wainwright, Young, Crosby, Cooder). Sorry, (insert your fave contemporary L.A. country rock band or gentle West Coast hippie songwriter) but Misty’s view of the City of Angels is one that no one else has been able to nail for decades — the heartbreak AND the humor, the sadness AND the joy, the love AND the depravity, the chaos AND the solitude. Fear Fun is chock-full of sly grace, genuine bravado and naked honesty — three things sorely missed in contemporary songwriting (of which I, as a songwriter am guilty of).




More than anything, Fear Fun documents a personality crisis solved — a break from an old way of living/doing/dying and the discovery of a new singing voice, new lyrical vocabulary and utter freedom from expectations. This is why almost every other songwriter that I know is horrified by this album. It is what every songwriter hopes for, but is scared shitless to attempt. (Damien Jurado being the only exception. He has been reborn in a different way than Misty, but has undergone complete transfiguration as an artist nonetheless). For me, Fear Fun isn’t only about great songwriting (It’s obvious Misty is in complete control of his writing and album production/song arrangements). Its importance to me is simply in its existence, in Misty’s existence. It’s the rebirth that matters to me as a songwriter. How do you make the leap? How do you re-wire a heart and an ego? How do you look at financial success and pre-existing band cred in spades and put a fucking bullet in its head? How do you kill a name? Kill yourself as an artist?

If it’s becoming apparent that Fear Fun means a lot to me, well it does. On New Year’s Eve Day I sent Misty and a few other friends a new song written on a $200 Champagne binge captured on a crumby garage band session – “What Could You Do?”.

Is the song any good? Who cares? Doesn’t matter. What’s the point? Fear Fun has changed the way I make decisions, the risks I take, the honesty with which I write and you can’t ask for anymore than this in an album.

But what about Misty’s twitter account? His interviews? His stage banter, Sammy Davis Jr. inspired Japanese whiskey adverts and appearance on Letterman?

I love them, but they don’t mean shit. Fear Fun is all that matters to me right now.






Dolorean: WebsiteFacebookTwitter
Father John Misty: WebsiteFacebookTwitter
Purchase Fear Fun

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: Matt Bauer Explores David Bowie’s Apocalyptic Epic

Recently,  I approached Matt Bauer about writing a “Songwriter’s Point of View” piece, and to my great surprise and delight he gladly delivered. And, buddy does he deliver. However, what really didn’t come as a surprise was his choice — David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Now, I can’t say that I didn’t know because Matt told me it would be a Bowie album in his email reply, but he didn’t say which album. And, when he told me this, again I wasn’t surprised because I thought Matt’s songwriting reflects Bowie’s in the sense that it’s highly imaginative. But, whereas Bowie’s work is theatrical, Matt’s is haunting and humble staying close to his Kentucky roots.

So, it is in his concise exploration of one of rock’s most epic and cinematic concept albums,  he gives us a songwriter’s perspective of Ziggy Stardust.

When I was asked to write about one of my favorite albums, I was pretty sure it would be a David Bowie record. It could have been just about any one of them up until, say, Lodger. I thought about writing about Low or Heores or Hunky Dory or The Man Who Sold the World. It’s stunning how many ridiculously good albums he’s made. In the end I decided on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

It’s basically a modest collection of love songs and little observations on life. Ha! No! It’s a crazy ambitious concept album about a space alien who comes to earth and rises to rock stardom just after earth’s inhabitants have found out they only have five years left to live.

I really love the scope and ambition of the album. Tackling a crazy and unexpected subject, sustaining a story arc through an entire album, describing the making of a star and the destruction of a world in ten songs – I love it when writers really go all in like that.

And as epic and over the top the story of this album is, it’s told with real specificity and often with vivid and intimate moments. An anchorman breaking down delivering the news on T.V., a mother kneeling at her son’s grave, a woman smiling and drinking a milkshake as she still hasn’t heard the news of earth’s coming end, a cross dressing singer taking the stage to laughter only to win over the entire room, Ziggy’s band turning on him and smashing his hands. The album has the sweep and scenery more like a movie or a great television series than a rock album.

Maybe all of this wouldn’t work as well as it does without Bowie’s skill as a singer and actor. His voice and delivery bring real humanity and emotion to such a fantastical story. But as a writer there’s so much to love in words of these songs. They’re crazy and beautiful and not really like anything else.

Matt Bauer: Website; Facebook; Twitter
David Bowie: Website; Facebook; Twitter
Purchase The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

James McMurtry’s “Childish Things” from Ben Fisher’s Point of View

About a month ago, I put out an APB for any songwriter willing to write a little piece about their favorite album and Ben Fisher beckoned to the call. Now, y’all know I love Ben Fisher. He’s the hardest-busking busker in Seattle and I feel privileged that he took the time to write a guest post for CFM. So, without further interruption, here is James McMurtry’s Childish Things from Ben Fisher’s point of view…

If, during your formative years your dad is a novelist, your mom is an English professor, and Charles Bukowski stays at your house when he come through town, you’re likely going to do one of two things. You’re either going to rebel and decide you’ve had enough of the English language and become a gym teacher or insurance salesman, or you’re going to embrace your literary upbringing and do something with it. Luckily for me and many of his other fans, James McMurtry decided to be a songwriter.

My favorite album of his is 2005’s “Childish Things,” which I found one day in my dad’s car. It features some of his best songwriting and storytelling and is a wonderful collection of songs about small town America, about family gatherings and the exodus that occurs afterwards, and about the holidays we celebrate as a nation.

The man is a genius with a pen and one of my friends calls his music the “pinnacle of intelligentsia-rock.” For example, he’s got the uncanny ability to give you a perfect picture of a person in just a sentence. Take the title track of “Childish Things”; the first line is “Aunt Clara kept her Bible right next to the phone in case she needed a quote while she talked to someone”.

Clara probably wears floral print dresses, definitely spends her Sunday mornings in church and is more than likely a little judgmental. McMurtry’s ability to give so much of a backstory with one lyric is something other songwriters would kill for. He could stop there, fill the rest of the song with mediocre lines and I’d still consider it a success, but he continues to showcase his talent in the song’s refrain, which expands on Aunt Clara. “She says I’ll grow up big if I eat all my roast, I’ll still believe in heaven but I won’t believe in ghosts anymore.” Throughout the song he traces images of his childhood (“visions of freeze tag dance in my head”), and by the time he’s grown, he sings “I’m 47 years old now and man I don’t care. All I want now is a comfortable chair, and to sell all my stock and live on the coast. I don’t believe in heaven but I still believe in ghosts.” It’s a beautiful song with a literary progression that recalls his father’s profession.

Also on the album is McMurtry’s biggest hit and what I consider to be the finest protest song written in the 21st century, “We Can’t Make It Here.” Each line punches you in the gut harder than the last, and makes you wonder how on earth this song about social inequality is even more relevant today than it was when it was written 6 years ago.

When McMurtry comes to town, he plays the Tractor Tavern, where up and coming local folk singers play gigs as well, and inexplicably, he doesn’t fill it. He rides in a van from town to town, hauling his gear into rooms that will become half full at best that night. He takes pictures and fishes along the way. It would be a horribly depressing existence if his music wasn’t so damn good. And because it is, I think it’s a noble undertaking. His mildly monotone voice may put some people off, but if given the chance, go see this man live. He’ll probably play a few tracks off his 2005 release that I’ve listened to countless times. I think you’ll enjoy them.
James McMurtry performing “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” on the web TV show “Corporate Country Sucks”

Ben Fisher’s Bandcamp, Twitter, Facebook
James McMurtry’s Website, Twitter, Facebook
Purchase Childish Things

Moondance from a Songwriter’s Point of View

Andrew Smentkowski continues Common Folk Music’s series on songwriters talking about their favorite albums.

If you grew up in the 70s, your main portal for new music was likely an AM radio. Forget whatever you heard about the golden days of radio (just pray that they’re still to come) because even back then, radio was repetitive and bland. Consequently, many of us from that era grew up with an unwarranted prejudice towards many great songwriters: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and of course, Van Morrison with that godforsaken played-at-every-wedding-reception-throughout-time song, “Brown Eyed Girl.”

It wasn’t until the early 90’s that I began to give those AM radio musicians a second chance, thanks to a girl with much better musical tastes than my own. She started me out on a steady diet of Neil Young and then introduced me to Van Morrison’s Moondance.

I thought about choosing Neil Young’s Harvest for this feature. It really is one of my favorite albums. But Harvest is like the crowning jewel of what country, folk, and rock can be. To me, it is perfection and writing about perfection is just too hard. You’re better off just listening to the album itself.

Moondance, on the other hand, was a first. Recorded in 1969 and released in February of 1970, it was the kind of conglomeration that was still permissible in the late 60’s. With its mix of styles — folk, country, jazz, soul, rock, etc. — it felt more like an opening for future bands to pass through rather than a bar to jump over.

When I first heard Moondance in its entirety, it made me feel different than anything else I was listening to at the time. Christ, it even made me feel good. Not just that “Let’s party!” kind of good but the kind of good that comes after a long time of not feeling good at all. Perhaps it was too many adolescent years of listening to The Smiths, but this was balm for my sadsack soul, right from the opening track, “And It Stoned Me.”

Then the rain let up and the sun came up
And we were gettin’ dry
Almost let a pick-up truck nearly pass us by
So we jumped right in and the driver grinned
And he dropped us up the road
We looked at the swim and we jumped right in
Not to mention fishing poles

Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Let it run all over me

Song number two is the title track, “Moondance,” with its jazzy 50’s sound and sexy lyrics that are delivered in a style somewhere between Dean Martin and Allen Ginsberg. Next, “Crazy Love” comes on with Motown-style backup singers oh-ohing over folky guitar lines. “Caravan,” is where the album really starts to build, adding in more soul elements like horns and the James Brown-style shout outs: “If you would, turn it up. Turn it up. Little bit higher. Radio. Turn it up. Turn it up. So you know, radio.”

Before I discuss the last track on Side One, “Into The Mystic,” I want to back up a decade. Prior to the 60’s, country music was able to do many things well. It was an expert at conveying loneliness, heartbreak and even humor. One thing that didn’t come naturally to country, however, was conveying the ecstatic. Perhaps there just weren’t many mystics back when country music was taking hold of humanity. Or, maybe life was just too harsh in America to dream that big.

Then came the hippies: Jefferson Airplane, The Holy Modal Rounders, The Fugs, Country Joe and The Fish, The Byrds, and so many more. Those folks did a lot for country music. They dressed it up in paisley, stuck a paper tab on its tongue, populated it with a bunch of weirdos, and have been giggling about it ever since. Good for them. Country needed it.

“Into The Mystic,” though, was a step above and beyond what other psych-folk bands had achieved due to Van Morrison’s infusion of soul into the country genre. Before soul met country, singers were only allowed to be emotional if they were victims of some misfortune. You could cry, but only in your beer. And you could feel love, but only if it had no chance of budding. Van Morrison blew past those confines, liberating a new realm of the human experience. More importantly, he made it okay for country music to create new possibilities, not just react to life. Country music no longer had to be real to be authentic. And nothing is more unreal and authentic than “Into The Mystic.”

We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
Hark, now hear the sailor’s cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic

And when the fog horn blows I will be coming home
And when the fog horn blows I want to hear it
I don’t have to fear it
I want to rock your gypsy soul
Just like in the days of old
Then magnificently we will float into the mystic

Side Two of Moondance is great too. But after “Into The Mystic,” it just seems kind of postcoital. And that may be the downfall of the album: it crested too early. At the same time, I’m thankful for that. The pinnacle of country ecstasy is still waiting to be made.

“Yeah,” Spoon is “Alright”: Gimme Fiction from a Songwriter’s Point of View

So, I asked local songwriter and friend, John Radcliff, to contribute a piece on his favorite artist/songwriter and one of their albums, and this is what he wrote…

I was asked to write about my favorite artist/songwriter. To take my favorite album by that artist and examine it from a songwriter’s point of view. Like a lot of people (I think), favorites are always a shifting target. But having said that, I keep coming back to Spoon. They first appeared on my radar about the time Series of Sneaks came out. There was just something about their sound that I gravitated to immediately. So like any good music lover, I dove in head first to listen to everything I could get my hands on. And as the years passed, it was the one band I KNEW exactly when their next recording was coming out. I had my order placed before the release date so I wouldn’t have to go one second longer than necessary before hearing it.

The funny thing to me is that I haven’t liked any of the albums by Spoon on the first listen since I started doing this. I think it’s because none of their albums have matched the raw grittiness of Telephono or Series of Sneaks. (A little background) After Series came out, Spoon was dropped by Electra almost immediately. I guess it signaled to them that they needed to go in another direction. Subsequently, their sound became more Lo-Fi and less guitar driven. Like I said above, I was not a fan of this new direction. Not immediately, anyway. But the more I listened to each new album the more I loved each one.

The best example of this, and my favorite album by Spoon that I want to examine is Gimme Fiction. Because just like you’d expect, given what I said above, I hated this one the most on the first listen. I really was beside myself thinking this was the end of me and Spoon. I couldn’t even listen to one song all the way through. But just like every other one, I eventually got over not hearing a wall of guitars and I found that I really liked these songs. And the more I came to really appreciate Britt Daniel as a songwriter.

What I like about Britt Daniel is that he crafts songs that are simple in origin but so complex in delivery. What I mean by that is that the chord progressions aren’t anything mind blowing by themselves. But they require a discipline to undersell themselves until it’s time to deliver the hook. As a songwriter, you are told time and time again to get to the hook or a hook by the first minute of a song. That is, if you want the song to be easily accepted. Britt doesn’t introduce the hook until the 2:30 mark of the opening song, “The Beast and Dragon, Adored.” I’m left with this feeling of anticipation through the first 2:30 of the song. Waiting, almost begging for a resolution that ties everything together. When it hits, and then seamlessly slips back into the verse but with an added offset vocal pattern, I just have to throw my hands up and surrender to the uniqueness of my favorite songwriter.

What I like and what I do as a songwriter are two completely different things. I guess my goal has always been to remind you of a lot of artist, but no one artist in particular. But there are things Britt does that have found their way into my songwriting process. He uses the word “alright” in seemingly every song. It’s not that he finds a way to work it into every song, but he uses it as a space filler or segue. The way he uses it, the word doesn’t have any meaning. It’s just a means to get to the next thing. My uninspired, but still very useful word is, “yeah.” I suppose a lot of artist have their “it” word that they use. But it’s something I’m not always conscious of. It just happens.

Lyrically, I write a lot of songs from the perspective of always being on the outside looking in. More because of a personal sense of frustration with communicating with most people, rather than from just being an observer. It’s also an underlying theme of Britt’s songs. Particularly on this album. I’d love to sit down with him and compare where our sense of being on the outside comes from.

A couple of quick examples:

From the “Delicate Place”:

“I got nothing you got something.

I feel out of place.

Looking through your window into that delicate place.”

From “Sister Jack”:

“Always on the outside always looking in”

From “They Never Got You”:

“You, when you were coming up

did you think everyone knew

something unclear to you

and when you were thrown in a crowd

could you believe yourself

cause no one would hear

and just say it again

cause they never got you and you never got them”

Songwriting for me starts with the guitar. Every once in a while the words come first. But most of the time it’s about a chord or a riff that awakens my muse. It’s not so much words that come next as it is a vocal pattern. Britt occasionally plays the keys, but he’s mostly a guitar player. When I watch this video for “I Summon You,” I can almost see him doing that. Just humming along the vocal pattern with that chord progression.

Weight of the world. We all feel that sometimes. Don’t we?

I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about all the time when I listen to “Sister Jack.” But I feel it. I remember writing a song with almost the same chord structure and tempo shortly after this song came out. But mine was about a crazy neighbor and how he would suck the life out of you just by being there. I don’t ever purposely steal anyone’s music, but when it happened I started to realize where these things come from and what it meant to be influenced. It was totally by osmosis. I was always kind of proud of that even though I’m not proud of the song I wrote. It had it’s moments, but I haven’t played it in years. Anyway, this one seemed to stick pretty good.

The more I write on this and watch videos, I really start to hate the guy. Hehehe! Not really, just admire what he does. I’m also very motivated to try to do some songs like these. Just in the sense that I would have one that drug on. But that so much was going, you really don’t care because it keeps your interest. “They Never Go You” is a good example. He just gives himself a long time to sing through the verses. Lots of little quirky things on the album version that you don’t hear here. But, keeping you in anticipation of the chorus and the release of all that energy and the advise that goes against everything he talks about in the verse.

I’ve found myself doing that before and since I started listening to Spoon. Just something to remind myself that there’s another side to that coin. That’s what I think he’s doing here. Talking to himself. In his case, he’s telling how to build up a wall to keep people or a person from hurting him. As he switches to the first person, it’s kind of his way of saying , I’ve been there.

I’m not really sure I’ve convinced you of this album’s greatness as much as I’ve told you how it speaks to me. If you really need convincing, take this song and put it in your car stereo and turn it up to eleven. It helps to be on a straight stretch of country highway when it kicks in. Trust me.

— John Radcliff

Spoon’s Website

Purchase Gimme Fiction