The Last Ingredient is Love - That seems to be a theme this week. All are artists remembering the viewer and listener first.
The National – A Skin, A Night
Last year I discovered the incredible work of Vincent Moon via the Takeaway Shows on blogotheque.net. I was immediately struck by Moon’s entirely unique cinematic approach to musical performance. His varied subjects read like a who’s who in new music. - From Final Fantasy to a newly recorded R.EM. session the results are beautiful and stunningly original. I would contend then, that is why the National hired Vincent Moon to shoot their documentary A Skin, A Night. Be forewarned though, this is not your classic rock documentary. If you are looking for a Behind the Music style expose, forget it. Go tune your cowbell or something.
I have to admit, I’ve been sitting on this review for over a month simply because I could not decide whether I truly liked it or not. In all honesty, I still don’t know. But I can tell you this disc and the accompanying cd of demos and live tracks certainly put me back in touch with one of my favourite cd’s of 2007, Boxer. I expected the documentary component to shed light on the band but Moon’s piece really illuminated the music that comprises that recording. And that is where it works best. By focusing on the music the visuals become secondary. By revealing the true craft of songs like “Blank Slate” and “Ada” the viewer is immersed in the artistry and not the story of the art.
Perhaps that was the intent all along.
The War on Drugs – Wagonwheel Blues
Forty four years ago Bob Dylan sang that the Times They Are a-Changin’. At the time, a self conscious protest song, the piece became an anthem for that generation. In three short minutes Dylan had accurately distilled, in verse, that period of great social and political change. I was reminded of this song for more than a few reasons as I listened to The War on Drugs’ new Secretly Canadian release Wagonwheel Blues. Maybe it was the harmonica and guitar in combination, maybe it was the vocal takes- The comparison seemed inevitable on first listen.
Essentially a twosome comprised of Philadelphians Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile, the duo play most of the music on this recording. The War on Drugs makes music about their quickly changing world. Whether they are changes to their country as a whole or changes to their own lives their songs are allegorical treasures. Little glimpses of contemporary Americana. Introspective and damaged, each one given up like a faded holiday travel photograph. The music, a peculiar mix of post and even classic rock reflecting that exact washed out quality. Imagine Bob Dylan fronting Guided By Voices.
Album opener, “Arms Like Boulders” is dramatic and sets the tone of the record. Rather than coming across as a cynical reminder of what is becoming of the country, and in larger terms- our planet it comes across as remarkably straightforward and earnest. The marching band drums and strummy guitar a perfect accompany to the songs call to attention. And here again I was reminded of Bob Dylan. I was reminded of Woody Guthrie’s depression era themes too. “Taking the Farm” a twenty first century call to listeners to ‘green up’ is catchy and has a certain timeless quality. Not unlike the aforementioned dustbowl troubadour's best work.
Wagonwheel Blues is a fascinating release that illuminates our particular human condition in the best of ways. Even better, if you listen close enough it might just give us the direction home.
Paul Westerberg - 49:00
In true Westerberg tradition 49:00 comes in at 43:55 precisely. For the uninitiated this is almost exactly the same length as one side of a C90 cassette tape- (The likely source of this decidedly “unlikely” release.) Now I say “unlikely” because this recording appeared without the usual industry ‘trumpet blasts’ on Monday of this week. * The single track recording featuring songs, song fragments and 'sonic experiments' is decidedly lo-fi. It’s also absolutely wonderful and for $0.49 it might be the best musical investment I have made in some time. A mixtape for fans made with love, dedication and apparently duct tape.
This spirit of 49:00 is exactly what drew me to Paul’s seminal former band The Replacements in the first place. Their music was, at its best, exuberant, funny, sad, more than a little damaged and ultimately pure. All 'Westerbergian' qualities that began to diminish from their music (and his) as major labels began to dictate style and direction. No, this stuff won’t change your life nor will its unlikely presence shake up the record industry a la Radioheads’ In Rainbows. It will however remind you just how exhilarating music can be. Like some drunken reverie Westerberg’s brief versions of “Eighteen”, “Rocket Man” and “Hello Goodbye” couched with so far ‘unnamed’ Westerberg originals are revelatory. At best, contrary to some critical opinion Paul is far from dead. Let’s hope the next ‘official’ release is half as much fun as this one.
* - The release was self released via server hosts and Amazon, not through conventional distribution means.