Hymn-like solemnity, down-home allure
There’s a hymn-like solemnity to “Heartbreak River,” with its dignified pace, swelling vocals, and down-home vibe. There’s also something that cumulatively touches the soul here, although I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it is. Gardner is a young singer/songwriter with an ache in her voice and a depth to her presence, so part of the song’s persuasiveness lies in her performance.
And me being a melody guy through and through, I’m also moved by the solidity of the tune itself, which has a steady majesty, and culminates in a resolution in the chorus as mighty and unshakable as they come: the first half (0:45-0:59) a thoroughgoing set-up for the second half, the second half (1:00-1:14) the unhurried and inevitable conclusion. You see the resting point coming from a mile away and it’s all the sweeter as a result.
As suits the song’s humble power, the arrangement feels easy and tasteful, grounded in simple piano playing, with intermittent violin countermelodies, the occasionally audible guitar lick, and the recurrent punctuation of layered backing vocals. These voices rise and fall with restrained drama (and perhaps a bit of vocal processing?; if so, I like the effect a lot), becoming increasingly central to the song’s complexion. The violin, for its part, hangs back a bit, curbing what might be a natural tendency in this sort of song to pour on the syrup; when it moves front and center for the short coda (3:24), it carries with it the heft and poignancy of a bygone time.
Savannah Gardner, born to British parents, was raised in California, but lives now in the Cotswolds. “Heartbreak River” is a single released back in May; her new single, “Take Me Home,” came out late last month; you can check it out via YouTube. Thanks to Savannah for the MP3.
Even when it isn’t quite like anything else you’ve heard it always manages to be at least a little like something else you’ve heard. This is fun and as it should be.
With confident cockeyed momentum, “Great White Shark” is a fun-house blend of thoughtful art pop and something bashier and more direct. A dignified violin break collides with a chugging, minimal rhythm section; articulate guitar lines locate clearings between earnest chunks of elusive lyrics; a basic verse melody repeats, with reappearing variations, while something resembling a chorus slips in once or twice; the song, while pushing five minutes, passes in something of a fever dream. Welcome to what has become of rock’n’roll in the mid-’10s, devolving and evolving simultaneously into whatever two people in Brooklyn (it’s almost always two people in Brooklyn) feeling like recording. Even when it isn’t quite like anything else you’ve heard it always manages to be at least a little like something else you’ve heard. This is fun and as it should be.
Anyway, I have listened to this song like a thousand times and I am left with two conflicting impressions: 1) its various complexities (in structure, nuance, texture, rhyme) continue to elude me; 2) its sturdy simplicity is grounded in the relentless recurrence of a basic three-note, ascending melody. And I am guessing that if I can train my brain to hold these two antithetical notions simultaneously, I may achieve some new level of enlightenment. Or, at least, would be better able to explicate a song named “Great White Shark” only, it seems, because the phrase slides quickly by in a lyric two-thirds of the way through the song.
Hollands is the married couple of John-Paul and Jannina Norpoth. John-Paul is the multi-instrumentalist, Jannina, classically trained, plays violin. Both are children of professional musicians. Among their favorite artists, according to the band’s Facebook page, are Igor Stravinsky, Frank Zappa, and Randy Newman—a mighty trio if ever there was. “Great White Shark” is a song from Restless Youth, their full-length debut, which was released last month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it (vinyl is an option!) via Bandcamp. MP3 courtesy of Magnet Magazine.
“It’s not my job to create happy music,” says Emily Jane White, a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter. “I’m okay with that.” This may be a tricky stance to maintain for a long career, but you and I can be okay with that too for now if the end result is something as lovely, stark, and textured as “Liza.” Sure, there’s surface-level sadness in the air, but the music, while reasonably simple, offers an enticing depth of sound and spirit right from the outset.
“It’s not my job to create happy music,” says Emily Jane White, a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter. “I’m okay with that.” This may be a tricky stance to maintain for a long career, but you and I can be okay with that too for now if the end result is something as lovely, stark, and textured as “Liza.” Sure, there’s surface-level sadness in the air, but the music, while reasonably simple, offers an enticing depth of sound and spirit right from the outset. The introduction alone is mysteriously satisfying, with its evocative blend of picked electric guitar and violin, and that repeat musical line at the finish, which makes me feel like I’ve just heard an entire story in 24 seconds.
Certainly White’s subtly toasted alto is well-suited to the “not happy” vibe, but I’m actually enjoying more her phrasing and delivery than her tone. It’s not too hard to sound gloomy; it’s hard to sound interesting while also sounding gloomy. I like her off-handed delivery, the way she manages to sound like she’s just deciding what to sing as she sings it, rather than reciting lyrics committed to memory–a particular feat in a song featuring not many lyrics in the first place. And why does the abrupt entrance of the drumming, at 1:51, sound like precisely the thing that needed to be there? Curious. The first verse, re-sung, is transformed by that insistent drum beat, which soon drives the violins into a double-time swirl, creating the feeling of a chase through the woods. The subsequent slowdown (2:56) is likewise sudden but somehow wonderful. We hear the first verse yet again. And that repeat finishing line from the introduction gets an extra repeat at the end of the song, exactly as required.
“Liza” is from White’s second full-length, Victorian America, set to be released next month on Milan Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.
“R + J” – Chris Flew
Does the world need another song about Romeo and Juliet? I wouldn’t have thought so. (Chris Flew himself probably didn’t think so; note the sly non-reference of the title.) And yet when a songwriter hits melodic pay dirt like Flew does with this stripped-down beauty, well, what the heck, one more musical Romeo and Juliet reference can’t hurt.
So maybe I’m a sucker for a simple melody but tell me this one doesn’t reach deep inside you also. And it comes at us right at the beginning: “I tried to understand as I touched your hand/What went wrong today?” A couple of ascending lines, describing a third interval, then the descending line that heads one further note down (to the word “wrong”), setting up the four-interval upward leap (from “wrong” to “today”). Simple, but awesome—it tugs at the heart, and sticks in the head. Building upon that rock-solid start, “R + J” proceeds from there with grace and inevitability. While the acoustic guitar strum remains at its core, Flew adds an evocative violin (probably better called a fiddle in this environment) and a distant lap steel guitar. No percussion used, or required. The lyrics may veer occasionally towards the obvious but Flew means well, and that affecting melody keeps returning and reaffirming the song’s strength.
Chris Flew is a Glaswegian singer/songwriter—that is, from Glasgow, Scotland, but don’t you like the word Glaswegian? More cities should have singular words for their residents, I say. “R + J” is from Flew’s most recent CD Kingston Bridge, self-released in 2006 and scheduled for a re-release this winter. Flew is currently working on a new CD.
MP3 via Flew’s web site.