Friday, February 4, 2011


During the process of gathering tracks and sequencing the compilation album that would become In The Orchard Of Osiris, I was acutely aware of the power of music to inspire more music.

From the start, I knew what kind of feel I wanted the album to have, and the word that keeps coming to mind is "autumnal."  I've always really loved Autumn.  It may be my favorite time of year, especially the early part when the days are still warm and the leaves are especially colorful.  Living in Michigan, there are lots of maples, and maples have a wide range of colors they can potentially turn: flaming bright red, a whole orchestra of oranges, golden, a sort of deep cabbage purple, tawny, and every combination you can imagine shot through with limpid green.  A drive north on US-127 will bring you to the birch forests -- unending white-barked trees with leaves turning golden, as vivid as the Gustav Klimt paintings, but real.

Even when the leaves drop and the branches are bare against the sky, there's lots of beauty (although the impending sense of winter can have its emotional downside.)  Last fall, I was driving past a golf course on a fairly windless day, and a couple of the trees had dropped their leaves all at once, almost vertically straight down onto the manicured grass.  They were standing naked in perfect pools of red, shaped like their shadows.  I wanted to go home and paint it.

Autumn is an ideal expression of the interface between life and death, growth and decay.  The forest floor is a rich layering of years and years of fallen leaves, rotten logs, bugs, worms, mushrooms, ferns.  Out of all of that springs the vital and living forest.

To me, this life process, full of color and variety and the complex shapes carved by boring insects and the fervid smell of life processes has a sound, and that sound is Joe Scott's (of White Pines) voice.  That sound is the fluent, elegiac electronics manipulated by Arms And Sleepers. It's in the instrumentation, and deep within the genetics of the songwriting.  That's what I mean by autumnal.

In addition to that abstract, synesthetic definition that blurs sound and wordcraft with images of Autumn, I also had some very direct musical inspirations -- other compilations that I listened to quite a bit while I was putting together I.T.O.o.O. that, in one way or another, fueled my process.

First on that list is Dark Night Of The Soul, the collaboration between Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse that spent much of the two-year period while I was curating I.T.O.o.O. tied up in legal disputes that delayed its release -- as it turned out, until after Mark Linkous had died of a self-inflicted gunshot.  This tragic loss aside, the album is a beautiful listen, encapsulating that autumnal feeling quite well.  NPR had been streaming the entire album even while the record label was barring its release, and I spent quite a lot of time listening to it.

Besides being a collaboration, it also functions as a compilation, since each song is sung (and co-written in many cases) by a different singer.  Each singer brings their own stamp, musically, to each piece; each piece joins fluidly into the whole.  The album blends consistently strong writing with skillful production (although Danger Mouse sometimes sands the edges off things a little too skillfully for my tastes) and great performances from the likes of The Flaming Lips (who apparently appear as an entire band), Gruff Rhys (of Super Furry Animals), Jason Lytle (of Grandaddy), James Mercer (of The Shins), Iggy Pop, Frank Black, Nina Persson (of The Cardigans), Vic Chestnutt, Suzanne Vega, Julian Casablancas (of The Strokes), and filmmaker David Lynch -- who not only sings two songs, but also provides a suite of appropriately dark and surreal photography, making this not just an audio collaboration, but also a visual collaboration.  I appreciate that boundary-crossing aspect of this project.

In a lot of ways, Dark Night Of The Soul listens like a mix tape.  Each singer's contribution sounds a lot like their own band.  And while I could have asked for a slightly more fractured beat here or there, or a little dirtier texture à la one of Sparklehorse's solo albums, this was a collaboration, and one thing Danger Mouse brings to the table is a studied approach to production.  In that regard, it's an unqualified success, and a definite inspiration for my own approach to crafting a compilation.

A second compilation album which I found highly rewarding and inspiring is Lost Tribe Sound: One.  I was given this compilation at a Benoit Pioulard show, and it contains two of his tracks, including a beautiful acoustic performance of his song "Hirondelle."

Like I.T.O.o.O., Lost Tribe Sound: One is only available as a CD.  It's well over an hour of intriguing music from independent artists all over the world, including many who I've never encountered before but who made a lasting impression on me.  I got this album right as I.T.O.o.O. was getting mastered, and my first thought was, "wow, this is exactly what I'm trying to do."

It's an impressive cross-section of exploratory music, difficult to pigeonhole, but full of indie, instrumental, post-rock, electro-acoustic, and evocative sounds.  From the Lost Tribe Sound website:

"Lost Tribe Sound: One isn’t merely a selection of some of the most vital, idiosyncratic and heartfelt music around, but also a statement of intent. Brimming with earthy, woody music that creaks and rumbles, these sounds conjure up those inexplicably elusive yet intensely powerful emotions and will envelop you like a forest floor coming to life."

Hyperbolic?  Perhaps, but pretty accurate also.  I found this to be a very enriching listen, and I'm interested in digging up more from these artists and learning more about this label.  It's generally a downtempo listen, rich with subtle melodies.  Subtlety is really a good descriptor for this album: it's wonderfully recorded and even when it's experimental it's a tightly woven fabric of cellos, intricate counterpoints, sedate tempos, and dark timbral backgrounds that are never distracting, they all serve to transport the listener.

You can listen to a preview and purchase the album here  -- although Lost Tribe Sound prefers the term "barter."  This one has my whole-hearted endorsement, if you're looking for something new, interesting, varied, and versatile.

Finally, the third CD I found inspiring was an older compilation called The Machines 1990-1993, a compilation gathering the groundbreaking 7" releases put out by Simple Machines Records.  Simple Machines was founded by Kristin Thomson and Jenny Toomey, both of whom are very active in independent music, both as musicians and as arts activists.

Toomey is perhaps best known as a member of the bands Tsunami, Geek, and Grenadine.  She founded Simple Machines initially to put out a series of 4-song 7" releases, respectively called Wedge, Wheel, Pulley, Screw, Lever, and Inclined Plane.  The records featured their own songs plus their peers in the indie-rock community such as Lungfish, Bricks, Nation Of Ulysses, Jawbox, Velocity Girl, Scrawl, Unrest, Rodan, and Superchunk.  The label later released a jaw-droppingly good tribute album to Beat Happening.  If you know me, you know that this is all musically right up my alley.

Toomey has gone on to be appointed Program Officer for Media and Cultural Policy in the Media, Arts and Culture Unit at the Ford Foundation.  So for those of you who regard participating in art and music with a baleful eye and a muttered "get a real job," she did!  And she now works to make it possible for other artists to make a living at what they do.

In 1990 I was an awkward high school sophomore, and only vaguely aware of indie rock.  Though my tastes have always been fairly catholic, I think I was listening to a blend of Robert Johnson, fIREHOSE, The Cult, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Iron Maiden at the time.  It would be a few more years before I knew what a Superchunk was.  If I saw The Machines at the mall music shop (which I think I did, actually),  I probably regarded it with curiosity but passed it over.  After all, the sleeve was embellished with silver ink and the song titles were arranged around an exploded diagram of some sort of gear-laden machinery -- my type of visual nerdery.  Had I taken a chance on it, my fledgling mind would no doubt have been melted by its punky blend of murky guitars, impassioned singing, spoken word performance, and cover versions of Simon & Garfunkle's "I Am A Rock" and Wire's "Reuters." 

It would be many, many years later that I would stumble on it for four bucks at a resale shop.  Actually it was this past fall when I had stopped in to put up a flier for the previously mentioned Benoit Pioulard show.

And there, ensconced in the liner notes, was the label's philosophy: 

  • put out music we love and sell it for a fair price;
  • make everything we do beautiful, interesting and friendly;
  • pass on skills and information (to avoid reinventing the wheel);
  • use our record packaging to educate, not just to decorate;
  • see personal pleasure and fun as measures of success;
  • endorse a measured application of caffeine (within reason) to humans who have the drive to do something creative and often exhausting with their spare time, so they can still get up and go to their dehumanizing jobs so they can make enough money to buy more caffeine;
  • support our peers' efforts by working with other small labels, bands and local businesses to sustain a productive, self-sufficient punk/la la network and;
  • answer our mail and return phone calls.

Simple Machines Records really epitomized the DIY mentality:  most of their releases included an extensive booklet detailing exactly how to put out your own records.  I'm adopting many of their principals, and I've definitely benefited from their openness about the joys and frustrations of putting out independent music.  You can read the Simple Machines story here.

Honestly, nothing happens in a vacuum.  I don't feel that acknowledging my influences diminishes ITAV's output in any way at all -- I think it enriches and elevates the experience.  When I was going to college for my studio art degree, I remember there always being a student or two in every class who denied having any influences, and resisted studying the work of other artists.  They were fiercely protective of what they saw as their artistic purity.  I think I understand that stance -- we all pass through it at some point as creative individuals -- but I also find it patently ridiculous.  It seems more like an indicator of artistic insecurity; something that stunts your growth and, more often than not, accompanies work that is either highly derivative or revolves around a "bag of tricks" that ultimately goes stale.

I think it's impossible not to be influenced by nearly everything; and perhaps most of all by the experiences -- the great records, the stunning paintings, the beautifully-written novels -- we revisit over and over because we find aesthetic resonance in them.

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