How Low Can Your Fuse Glow and Warm You
189 · 10 September 98
Richard Buckner: Since
It will sound stupid, or derisive, or both, to say that I think the most inspired detail of Since, Richard Buckner's third album, and first new one since I came belatedly upon last year's Devotion + Doubt, is the color scheme of the packaging, but I mean three things by this. First, holding this folding cardboard CD case in my hand, the light through the linen shade on my desk lamp gleaming dull-ly off the grain, I realize that this album is the one that completes, in my subjective accounting, a critical mass of physical design innovations, and shows that we have, collectively, finally accepted the transition from LPs to CDs. It has been a stock complaint, ever since the migration began, that much of the joy of album art went out of the world when the size of the canvas shrunk, but unless you believe that the wrapped Reichstag is proportionally superior to the Mona Lisa, there was never any inherent validity to this charge. CD packages do have less surface area, while they're still in their retail cocoons, but in compensation they offer a potential wealth of concealed planes after you open them. I remember the thrill of opening new LPs, of course, especially after I learned the trick of sawing the edge across the knee of my jeans until the plastic heated up enough that you could pop the jacket open without tearing the shrink wrap (although the next thing I invariably did was tear off the shrink wrap, so I'm not sure what the point of the trick was), but often the insides were a big visual disappointment. Maybe there were lyrics printed on the sleeve, maybe there weren't. Maybe the label on the LP was interesting, but probably it wasn't. Maybe, one out of a hundred times, the band had scratched a message into the center ring of the master, although I can't think of any examples that were poetically memorable. Conversely, and you can do this test yourself to see if you've reached the same awareness I have, I am rarely disappointed in that same way when I open a CD. Just taking the two dozen CDs sitting in my still-planning-to-write-about-this pile as a reasonably random cross-section of current output, eighteen of them have non-trivial artwork on the CDs themselves, and seventeen have booklets with good parts you can't see from outside. Only five of the twenty-four, now that we've solved the engineering problem with the tabs in the middle of the clear CD trays, use the old black ones. Yes, CD booklets provide a smaller painter's canvas than LP jackets, but this misses the point that LP sleeves were only a canvas, for all practical purposes two-dimensional (go ahead, list the great LP spines in rock history). CD cases have moving parts, and secret compartments, and books and pages and opportunities for progressive disclosure. There are different clasps, different mechanisms for holding the CD, different formats for the booklet (if there is one) to unfold into. The designer (and CD cases are a design problem, not just an artistic one) has, if anything, more opportunity for innovation, not less.
Since is actually the only non-jewel-case package in my current stack. It's a three-panel cardboard gatefold case, the lyric booklet tucked into in the left-hand sleeve, the CD into the right (but opening outward, so you don't have to bend the package back along a spine to extract the disc). A series of pale photographs works its way across the available panes: nine frames of a candle being extinguished, on the cover; glare in a window, and a glare from Richard, when you open the first fold; a distance study and an alcohol lamp in a hallway, when you open the second one. The booklet, my favorite part, is printed vertically, so it opens like a calendar, on rough, brown paper, entirely in low-contrast light-gray ink. As a result, you have to experiment with light angles in order to find one in which the text is visible at all, although the font, once you solve the color problem, turns out to be extremely clear and readable. I don't know to what extent this design is intended as a conscious visual translation of Richard's musical style, but that's how I take it, a parallel almost too literal: Richard's music also threatens to vanish into itself if you listen to it from the wrong angle, and yet is starkly clear once you find the right place to sit.
And the third reason this package enthralls me, in a way a combination of the first two reasons, is that the differences in both packaging and music between Devotion + Doubt and Since are at once subtle and significant. It's virtually impossible for Since to affect me the same way that Devotion + Doubt did. Since cannot be the first time I hear the uncanny spectral turbulence in Richard's exquisite voice, cannot be the record on which I discover his reverence for forgotten back-country folk idioms, songs that rustle with the ancient aplomb of barrow soil. But unless we are resigned to a world in which every musician gets one album and then is gone, or a world in which an artist is compelled to reinvent themselves from scratch with each release (and these are minor variations on the same rule), there has to be room for incremental improvement. Devotion + Doubt's booklet also unfolded vertically, with a careful two-tone color scheme and meticulous typography, but the CD sat clipped in a plain white digipack tray, and the only photograph was the moon on the cover. For Since, my impression is that designer Tim Stedman was given no constraints, and while I have a feeling that he really wanted the bar code on the back to be rendered in the same ghostly silver as the rest of the type, instead of its functional black, I think the inset serrations on the inner edges of the CD and booklet sleeves have to be considered a bigger detail triumph than the bar code is a loss.
And if there is nobility in small, deliberate steps forward, this is also musically as noble as albums come. The persistent hush of Richard's voice has a way of making any song sound quiet, but Since is still a significantly louder record than Devotion + Doubt. "Believer", the opener, with Dave Schramm's spiraling guitar, Tortoise's John McEntire's crashing drums and producer J.D. Foster's humming Moog, provokes Richard into an uncharacteristic shout, and the twinge of horror in his voice as volume cracks it melts my heart. Syd Straw contributes tentative harmony to "Faithful Shooter", and her voice and Eric Heywood's pedal steel make arrestingly uneasy guests, as if they're conscious, as perhaps Richard is not, that his world only barely tolerates the presence of other humans. McEntire and Heywood nudge "Jewelbomb" gingerly toward honky-tonk twang, and for a few scattered seconds it sounds like Richard shakes off his paralyzing dread and starts to believe that music can be a means of escape, not just of expression. Foster's bass and piano push parts of "Goner w/ Souvenir" toward early-REM pop murmur. "Coursed" breaks into country-rock strut in the choruses. "Brief & Boundless" combines a pedal-guitar wail out of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" with a violin-like synth-buzz and a pinging one-note piano part like a submarine searching Superior for the tanker's remains. And "Once" shudders with the nearly-subsonic reverberation of someone stepping on the piano's sustain pedal, like it could hold tomorrows off of serene tonights, not just felt hammers off of vibrating wires.
But the low volume of Devotion + Doubt wasn't a problem with it, for me, and Since hardly abandons the notion of intensity through restraint. The lullaby "Ariel Ramirez" finds Richard playing the melody on guitar at the same time as he sings it, as if concerned that the notes wouldn't otherwise be clear. "The Ocean Cliff Clearing" passes up numerous opportunities for percussion crescendos, letting Richard's guitar, Steve Burgh's mandolin and David Grubbs' spare piano work through the possibilities on their own. "Slept"'s accompaniment is a quiet guitar duet between Richard and Dave Schramm, "Pico" a finger-picked instrumental counterpoint between Richard and J.D. Mournful pedal steel and harmonium infuse the dreamlike "Lucky Buzz". Reedy, ukulele-ish nylon-string jangle rakes through the brief lament "10-Day Room". "Raze", with its finger-picking sine-waving through tempos and volumes, is Richard's one solo performance. And the raw, blaring "Boys, the Night Will Bury You" could be the descendant of plainsong prayers, after centuries of westward expansions, the death of Latin, and the wounding (but not death) of hope.
The trickiest line Richard draws, though, and after three albums I'm assuming it's more than luck, is still the pale and terrifying border between melancholy reverie and abject despair. Turn on more lights, if you need to, or turn some of the ones you have on off, until you can read the booklet while you listen, because the punctuation matters (Richard uses colons the way most people use paragraph breaks, as if the chain of consequence is the purpose and infrastructure of language), because it's worth concentrating, because the flow of the printed lyrics is such that if you don't follow along the whole way you'll lose half a song in the middle finding your place again. "Would you take another trip w/ a candle like her?", the line from "Faithful Shooter" reads, and the conspiratorial shorthand "w/" is half of the intimacy of the question. "If one of us'd shown up (faded, fond & tried), waiting for some rain," he speculates as if he's about to proffer a too-neatly-wrapped hope, but then concludes "not a thing would change", and it sounds like exoneration, not fatalism. "I kept your poem here w/ all my other gear", he admits in "Ariel Ramirez", the drug-addict's sense of "gear" serving simultaneously to underscore the narrator's dependence on the poem and as a reminder to himself that an aging scrap of paper can be as powerful as heroin. "The Ocean Cliff Clearing" is like a re-write of Richard Thompson's "Beeswing" that dispenses with the appealing fiction that people wander away from us, rather than vice versa. "Souvenir", in "Goner w/ Souvenir", must be the least affectionate pet name, but perhaps also the most honest, in love-song history, and I can't decide whether it's more heartbreaking to think that he'd actually say it to her face or to think that he wouldn't, and its appearance is tacit resignation to the idea that she'll never hear the song. "Of course the chase was cheap", says a parenthetical aside in "Slept"; more expensive is being in the right place so no chase is necessary. "Would you ever go home when you waltz off & over? Or, will you stay & lie awake tonight?" he asks, at the end of the song, as if it wouldn't even occur to him to ask for real peace. "Now there's a lock on the door & she doesn't even mind!", "Coursed" adds, as if doggedly continuing the same story despite a perspective shift and a plot reversal, and the exclamation point, which you'd never deduce from listening, carries a universe of outraged incredulity that people can shed what seem to us like their most essential characteristics to be with somebody else, even though that's probably precisely what we were asking them to do ourselves. "A busy line's a long night saved" goes another conflicted relationship tableau ("10-Day Room"), as if distance and unavailability are blessings as great as companionship. "I was such a minor spark (a sucked-up shadow) w/ years until the dress that caught the window bars: too ripped and warm", explains (sort of) "Brief & Boundless", and it's like (I think) a heady romantic transgression from lives before is now a photograph with the faces worn off from rosary rubbing, brandished not for the image but the memory of the image, or the memory of its thrill, or the memory of a younger self still awake enough for thrills. "I came up close & counted through all those fasted hours I nearly miss", goes "Hand @ the Hem", as if he's found a way to jump straight from attraction to regret without the time-consuming process of actually having the relationship in the middle. "Boys, the Night Will Bury You" was spookier, but also made more sense to me, when I thought the refrain was "The boys and I will bury you", making it a hauntingly confused love song based on the wrong-world reassurance that she can die, if she wants, without worrying about what will happen to her next. "Just six months this summer since I've known her that she's been away", says "Once", and it doesn't sound like he's exactly sure how the chronology goes any more, either (six months since he met her, or six months since she left? both? but then what does "met" really mean?). "Even my heroes are almost gone, almost folding from the flame", he sighs, as we, too, start to run out of notes, and the heroes must be paper, like maybe all heroes must be paper. And then, just before the end, when my reserve finally cracks and I beg for any explicit promise to carry me out of this night: "I dreamed of a couple dancing close & drunk in the spray of lights they made. & once, I was dug up, I was sinking, but now I'm longing to be saved." It isn't himself he sees, dancing, and it's not me I see, either, but we both see something, or hear something, that says it's worth another night of plaintive questions, just in case, in the dark, one of them finally strikes an answer.
Willard Grant Conspiracy: Flying Low
Setting noise into suspension in quiet, or vice versa, is a hard trick, no matter how effortlessly Willard Grant Conspiracy also make it seem on their second album, Flying Low. Even more than Richard Buckner's, which have his intent tremble to redirect them, WGC's songs seem to me like expressions of a secluded-shack American subconsciousness that is implicit in much of our folk, country and even rock traditions, but rarely presented this nakedly. This is what square-dance bands play after the dancers have all left the hall, or have all been married off into other clans, or have never been born; this is what the dueling-banjo theme from Deliverance turns into when they stop mugging for the tourists, and pull the rest of their instruments out of the same ancient trunks the family albums, Bibles and skulls live in: acoustic guitars strummed like train wheels turn, mandolins and violins from an ancestry so neglected in their history that they'll glare impatiently at the ethnographer when he asks them about it, string instruments in some range in between viola and cello because that's how big the builder felt like making them, something city people would call an oboe as if without a name it doesn't really exist. There are occasional drums, so we know they know what they are, but for the most part these songs proceed as if anybody who has to ask about the rhythm doesn't deserve to hear them. The vocals sound like Tom Jones might if he'd grown up without anybody fussing over him. Songs are long and slow, but why not, when there is no shortage of time to fill?
Reading similarities into this music, like Rorschach interpretation, probably says more about the interpreter than the subject, but how else are all those ink blotches supposed to make anything of themselves? The elegant, expansive "Evening Mass" seems to me like Buffalo Tom and Grant Lee Buffalo trying to work out what a Grateful Dead for a generation too uptight for drugs would sound like. The measured "August List" is like Cracker at half-speed, or Bauhaus unplugged and quite possibly sedated. "St. John Street" could be the twilight shadow cast by a Church song, only the silhouette discernible, and even that stretched into some sinister new proportion, in which I can almost convince myself that it looks a little like a distended Led Zeppelin. "House Is Not a Home (Palmdale, CA)" is like a puzzled Neanderthal's cave drawing after an incomprehensible double-bill time-machine visit from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and David Bowie. "Bring the Monster Inside" is narrated in a coarse whisper, like Tom Waits valiantly trying to get through a bedtime story without terrifying the children. "No Such Thing as Clean", despite the drowsy swagger of a somniloquist's Elvis impersonation, is the album's most upbeat interlude, although the eight-minute-plus length, the droning reliance on a two-chord cycle (or are those the same chord?) and the waves of guitar feedback keep it from turning into anything remotely resembling a pop song. The Magnetic Fields-ish "It Doesn't Matter", a woman taking over the vocals for a song, is far less incongruous that it seems like it ought to be, which perhaps should teach us not to assume technologically primitive societies are also socially retrograde. The surging duet "Eephus Pitch" might sound like X if it weren't so slow, didn't keep getting sidetracked into these weird, beepy asides, and weren't as prone to flights of oddly come-hither histrionics. The tense, clipped "Water", which features a synthesizer some researcher must have left behind, turns out like a caricature of a rock song, like an attempted tribute to device's owner and the strange music he listened to when he thought they weren't in earshot. And "Split Tender", another duet, this one built on a low string moan and oblique piano, reminds me of Mark Eitzel in some moments, Jonathan Richman in others.
My favorite thing about Willard Grant Conspiracy records, though, if it's fair to derive a favorite thing from a sample of only two, is their penchant for including environmental noise along with the songs, like making an album without including samples of the aural context in which it was made is somehow dishonest. The sound of a truck passing is the very first noise on the record, and two or three more go by before they finish the instrumental throat-clearing of "The Smile at the Bottom of the Ladder". Radio static opens "Autumn List" and "Bring the Monster Inside" (more than a minute of it, in the latter case); a rainstorm opens "St. John Street"; "Eephus Pitch" starts with what sounds like a neighbor threatening them; and "It Doesn't Matter" begins with an alarm clock (exactly like mine, as I found out the hard, panicky way when I tried to use this record as bedtime music, for which it's otherwise well-suited) and the surreal megaphone exhortations that haunted my dreams through my first four years in Cambridge, until finally I graduated from college and took to getting up earlier, and discovered that they emanate not from my imagination, but from public-works trucks circling neighborhoods in advance of the dawn-shift street-cleaning machines, berating the residents, in the most impenetrable of "r"-less accents, about their having, as if this was a manifestation of a collect civil-disobedient will, neglected to move their vehicles, although where they are to be moved to, given that the car-to-parking-space ratio in Cambridge, even when no street-cleaning is going on, is such that three or four residents spend each night circling sleeplessly, waiting for somebody to wake up and vacate a spot, I still don't know. And where 3am Sunday @ Fortune Otto's, the first WGC album, ended with an audio recording of a fireworks display (a joke that amused me more every minute it went on, which meant I was very well amused by the time it ended), Flying Low concludes with about five minutes of silence (this part I could do without; twenty seconds of silence is more than enough to accomplish the same spacer effect, really), followed by about eight minutes of modem noise, a thunder-shower and the sound from an old, nearly-inaudible television, over which the entire album is slowly recapitulated, one musical motif per song. (And then, just in case you needed more of it, another two-and-a-half minutes of silence.) Ambient album recapitulation is a risky bonus-track strategy, in my experience, the most obvious disasters being Yes' Open Your Eyes (whose bonus track struck me as a significant improvement over the non-bonus part of the album), the Black Watch's Seven Rollercoasters (which replays the entire six-song EP backwards, in real-time, after which I had little desire to hear it again in either direction) and Mistle Thrush's Super Refraction (which has a digitally mutilated reprise that I'm pretty sure takes longer to listen to than it did to make). In Flying Low's case, though, it seems to me like a large part of the point of the songs is how they both emerge from their surroundings and retreat into them, in which case the coda is not only justified, but in a way the end toward which the songs themselves are merely means. The goal is the memory of these songs. The fact that you have to write the songs, record them and listen to them, before you can finally start remembering them, is merely a logistical detail. I'm not sure, as an atheist, that I like the larger implications of this attitude, but given the alternative, songs written to be heard but not remembered, I'll take these stubborn, ethereal echoes and sort out the afterlife later.