OMG I forgot I had a blog. LOLZ.
Seriously, sorry for the lack of updates. New job is in “fine dining,” which means “I work until one in the morning and don’t get to as many shows, and then I’m tired all day.”
A while back, I went to see William Elliott Whitmore, a guy with a banjo who I saw open for the Pogues back in March. I was treated to three great acts, a rare treat.
I walked in a couple of songs into the opening set by Josh Small, and was arrested by his stunning, soulful voice. Like Whitmore, he’s a guy with a banjo, sometimes a steel guitar, and for one song an acoustic with four damned strings. His voice is incredibly emotive, his singing is fantastic, and the melodies simply hurt to listen to. Small had me completely rapt with his pained, slightly off-kilter ballads.
Bantering during his set, he was hilarious and self-deprecating, and then suddenly these stunning, majestic, introspective songs just came out of him. He seemed to become a different person as soon as he hit the first note.
I bought his latest record, Tall by Josh Small, and have not stopped listening to it. I can’t. It’s the best thing I’ve heard in a long time. I’m not sure I can even bring myself to mention standout tracks. Go to his MySpace page and listen to “Arc de Triomphe,” and then listen to a slightly crisper recording from a previous record, the heartstopping “setting up.”
The music recalls the folk and soul music of the ’70s and bluegrass, sort of, but as record label Suburban Home’s bio notes, “don’t be misled: this isn’t a lame hipster attempt to revitalize a bygone genre. There is a rare authenticity to Small’s sound that is impossible to ignore.”
Small’s performance was straightforward, devoid of self-conscious showmanship, and honest. As would turn out to be the case with all the performers that night, he seemed to be truly touched by the response of the crowd, and to genuinely appreciate the attention and respect of the audience.
Small sat in on a well-worn Telecaster for a set by Tim Barry of Avail (!) and his sister Caitlin.
It sort of sounded like you’d expect it to sound when the singer of a punk band plays country music with his sister on violin. Rowdy, earnest and intense songs made lush with strings earned a great response from the mostly-full room.
It was a good reminder of the common themes and ideals expressed through punk rock and country music alike. Barry sang of wanderlust, the desire for freedom and the need to make one’s own way through his life. Like Small, Tim Barry came off as honestly grateful for the crowd’s appreciation and happy that people were truly listening.
William Elliott Whitmore builds gorgeous songs out of a banjo or guitar, a stomping foot, and an utterly destroyed rasp of a voice that sounds like it’s suffered for a thousand years. It’s Appalachian folk, or bluegrass, or “white soul,” or something to that effect…
His songs carry weight. The old Saturday night/Sunday morning dichotomy- sin and salvation, guilt and redemption- runs throughout the music, and there’s an air both of resignation and optimism in his whiskey- and smoke-ravaged voice. Straightforward and honest, Whitmore’s songs can really rough you up with their humility, heartbreak and hopefulness.
The slow, dragging, tired ballad “Porchlight” takes the viewpoint of a hardworking farmer speaking to his beloved wife:
would you leave the porchlight on for me?/I come home from the field when it’s too dark to see/would you leave the porchlight on for me?
The farmer falls ill, and the wife stays by his side as he passes away, and in a gutwrenching lyrical turn, Whitmore sings his devotion:
“they say that I ain’t got long for this life/ they say that it’s my time to go/ but darling, you’ve been the most wonderful wife/ that any man could know/ well, you’ve stuck by me through thick and through thin/ since the day you became my bride/ and someday I hope to see you again/ when we meet on the other side”
And the chorus finishes:
Would you leave the porchlight on for me?
would you leave the porchlight on for me?
even though just a memory is all that I’ll be
would you leave the porchlight on for me?
It is simple, it is well-worn territory in folk music, and it is devastatingly effective. There is no need for high-minded poetry or obtuse, intellectual lyrical acrobatics. Just a pure story of a universal truth. It is unpretentious. It is genuine.
After virtually every song, Whitmore leaned up out of his chair, past the mic and toward the audience, and thanked the crowd with an honesty I couldn’t help but be touched by. He didn’t seem to be playing a show so much as sharing his songs with us, grateful for the opportunity and for our applause. Six weeks into a tour, playing a tiny room, this gesture meant a lot. It was unpretentious, and it was genuine.
This kind of stuff is really beginning to mean a lot to me. More and more, I’m finding myself bored and intolerant of “indie rock,” with its avant-garde conceits and grandiose posturing. I feel like a lot of these artists, and I’m not naming names, are trying to create something New and Great without any regard to the traditional, the subtle.
You know what it’s like? It’s like….a baseball player swinging for the fences every time who can’t manage a base hit when it’s needed, or…or…fusion cuisine.
It’s playing without an understanding of the fundamentals of songwriting, and trying to pass it off as if you’re purposefully breaking the rules and bucking tradition.
Bob Dylan knew the rules, and broke them when it made for a better song. That’s what made him great. The Beatles, ditto.
I get the feeling there are a lot of artists coming out whose members don’t have an understanding of rock music’s roots before, say, Nirvana, or maybe David Bowie.
I’m looking at you, virtually every band from Brooklyn.
Anywho, the point, if it can be called that, is that I’m tired of all this ramshackle songwriting (apparently I’m perfectly okay with ramshackle regular writing). Having both a banjo and a Casiotone in your instrumentation, but not having a chorus in any of your songs, does not make you inventive.
I’m finding myself more drawn to well-crafted songs that simply, admirably, build off of our great musical traditions.
Which brings me to my current obsession, DC’s own Justin Jones.
There’s nothing really avant-garde about Jones’ music, but neither does it come off as a throwback. It’s classic folk/country songwriting, with a touch of soul music and a dark, modern lyrical edginess. His voice is gorgeously rich and just polished enough, and he shows a total mastery of inflection and emotive expression in his singing. The voice gets compared to John Mayer’s, which is apt, but here it’s put to much better use than the pap that made Mayer famous.
Jones is more compelling lyrically as well. There’s a darkness and a sensitivity here that feels honest and vulnerable. When, in the defeated breakup song “Dying With You,” the man who’s decided he must leave sings, “I know your secrets/and I know your lies/I know you hide from yourself every night/But I can’t be the only thing good in your life,” the regret at having to abandon his partner is palpable.
From his second record, Love Versus Heroin, “Hope” is a perfectly crafted song. Traditional in structure, lyrically simple, and extremely effective.
In the sprawling, expansive “Let’s Stay Together,” off the new …and i am the song of the drunkards, Jones tells of a damaged lover’s sudden epiphany, cleverly referencing the Al Green song of the same title (both lyrically and melodically) in the song’s climax.
Listen to “Hope” and “Let’s Stay Together” on his MySpace page. Then buy the records. They are exceptional. They’re the only thing that was able to break the spell Josh Small had on me.
Again, and assuming I have any readers remaining, sorry for the dearth of updates. I’ll try to do better in the future, but I’m not promising. I don’t owe you anything, Internet.