March 19, 2023

Assorted Gems: What Comes After the Blues


(rec. 2003/rel. 2005)

I think in LP sides. Basically all the time. Sometimes it may not be practical (for instance, it isn’t really fair, is it, to feel miffed at Neil Young + Promise of the Real’s generally excellent album The Visitor because it’s a three-sided album instead of a straight-up proper double) but at this point I can’t stop myself. It’s just such an elegant form. 15-22 minutes to a side. A pause in the middle. Two openers, two closers. Two chances for an artist to grab hold of a listener (or, two challenges: fail either and the album fails). Two distinct structural, spiritual, emotional arcs adding up to a whole. The grace of it! The possibilities, the inexhaustible possibilities!

I don’t know who first had the idea of using an LP side break to draw a formal or stylistic as well as a structural dividing line (while keeping the ideal of a single, cohesive album that’s great when heard straight through). It doesn’t matter, because being the first to do something doesn’t guarantee you’ll do it well. But I’m aware of a few great examples across time, like Neil Young’s Hawks & Doves, with its quiet, beautiful, haunted, acoustic Side A made up of songs off Homegrown (Little Wing), Homegrown outtakes (The Old Homestead), and more recent experiments in folksy psychedelia (Lost in Space, Captain Kennedy), while Ben Keith helms a rocking hoedown of deceptively simplistic, pseudo-patriotic, hilariously inventive (“up there on the old Dew Line...”) punk/country songs on Side B. Neil’s On the Beach, too, though most of its songs stem from a single set of Rusty Kershaw-produced sessions, keep signs of life close to the front, allowing the band to stretch into soft, starry-eyed languor on the first cut of Side B, and then eschewing the band altogether for the two slow, lonesome, sad, and/yet hopeful closers. Brian Eno’s Before and After Science follows a similar pattern, with the bouncy pop songs (such as they are) collected on Side A, except for the most mournful, which opens Side B, its leftover cheer like a boat disappearing into the sunset, so that, in the concluding four tracks/seventeen minutes, there’s nothing left to hear but the monotonous, endlessly various motions of the tide. Micah Blue Smaldone’s magnificent album The Ring of the Rise has a Side A which is mostly light—though you can feel the darkness clawing at it—and a Side B thats mostly dark, if tinged with the partial light of Harbingers and the brighter light of Iris.

I don’t know why albums aren’t structured this way more often. Jason Molina didn’t either, which is presumably why he made (well, the Magnolia/Pyramid double album, for one thing, but also) What Comes After the Blues. If you’ve never heard this album—Magnolia Electric Co’s first studio offering, following the barnstormer live record Trials & Errors—stop here. And don’t come back until you’ve listened to the album in full...

...awesome, right? Even if the songs and performances haven’t grabbed you yet, you’ll admit that when an album opens with the defiant, richly colored rock and roll of The Dark Don’t Hide It and long-time friend/collaborator Jennie Benford’s song The Night Shift Lullaby, and then barrels on into Leave the City, Hard to Love a Man, and (bridging the side break) Give Something Else Away Every Day, you really don’t expect the band to just vanish. But while there are contributions from bandmates on guitar, dobro, and fiddle on the acoustic Northstar Blues, Hammer Down turns out to be Jason solo, and I Can Not Have Seen the Light just Jason and Jennie. The band never returns. A little past halfway through Molina’s first proper band album, we’re left with, for all intents and purposes, only Molina and his wounds. What comes after the blues? Nothing, just more loneliness.

As for the material, there are eight out of eight perfect songs, plus steel guitar by Mike Brenner, who may have been (in more ways than one) Jason Molina’s Ben Keith—and Mark Rice’s stunning drum fills—and Albini on the boards—and Mikey Kapinuss trumpet part on Leave the City—and... I could go on, or you could go listen to the record again and start finding out for yourself.

I love that the bandleader & songwriter does himself one better after what was spiritually and sonically, if not officially, the first Magnolia Electric Co record, where The Old Black Hen and Peoria Lunch Box Blues (two Jason-penned, guest-sung songs) opened Side B. What Comes After the Blues makes room for a five-minute song Jason didn’t even write. The Side A closer, moreover—Hard to Love a Man—was on its way to the songwriter’s scrap heap when the album’s guest songwriter Jennie Benford, who loved it and had worked hard on the harmonies and a fingerpicked guitar part, intervened. The idea to open the album with the grating, aggressive sound of an electric guitar strumming an Am chord was also not Jason’s. And Hammer Down, the album’s sole 100% solo cut, was written in the early morning of one of the very days the band spent with Albini at Electrical Audio, powering through the full-band takes. So though structurally the album implodes into loneliness, at heart it’s a group effort, and that camaraderie shines through: the lyrics that the album ends with may be conflicted and torn, but Jennie’s voice is right there with Jason’s, keeping him company, mixed just as high.

Lyrically/thematically, it might be said of this album in particular, and Jason Molina’s writing in general (at least the post-Songs: Ohia catalogue, which is what I’ve been getting to know), that the exploration of darkness and apparently inescapable personal (or, as in The Dark Don’t Hide It, universal) doom is not what it may sometimes seem to be—a tribute, or a toast, to despair—but, rather, the very act of spitting in despair’s face.

When Jason sings in death’s voice, “See, I had a job to do / But people like you are doing it for me / To one another,” the violence in his voice is at once a bitter, ironic accusation and a sincere challenge to himself and the listener: all right then, if that’s the case, and clearly it is, then let’s stop

In the incredible opening lines of Leave the City (and by the way, Jason’s writing is one of the best examples I can currently think of, of what it is exactly that songs, as an art form, have over poetry or prose fiction; read the best Molina off the page and you have license to shrug, but hear the same words set to the chords and melodies Jason selected, played by the band he put together, and sung with that inimitable phrasing, with emotion drawn from the noblest parts of the singers spirit——and feel your heart shatter), the sadness is offset by the gentle, broken-down humor of that afterthought.

And for my third, perhaps most potent example, let me quote my favorite lines in what is currently my favorite song on the record—Give Something Else Away Every Day, weary as the desert moon—here’s how they go: “It was easy making myself the same / It was easy making myself less / But to get better? / That’s the hardest thing.” Again, you have to hear Jason sing it, and you have to hear the band back him. But when you do, what you’ll have heard is not an admission of weakness, not someone confronting an impossible task and taking a daunted step back; no, you’ll have found a beacon that burns strong enough and bright enough to guide someone out of the dark once and for all.

[P.S. Highly recommended further listening: the charming, insightful, and articulate Brent Walburn hosting a roundtable discussion with several players on the album, about the album. Worthwhile for, among much else, a fantastic Albini anecdote and a member of Magnolia Electric Co shitting all over my favorite song.]

March 16, 2023

The baffled explorer's springtime report

In the past twelve months, I’ve had the good fortune of finding my way to not one, not two, not even three or four, but five brilliant songwriters. In a great year I make two such discoveries, tops.

In the case of Pain of Salvation’s Daniel Gildenlöw, I had an overdue awakening to the excellence of an artist I’d long treated with skepticism. I’ve detailed my road into Daniel’s arms elsewhere, but I want to note that watching the long and beautiful documentary series I Set Myself on Fire, which covers the making of Road Salt and some of the touring done on its behalf, helped. In it, Daniel is vulnerable, honest, funny; charismatic, in short. The devotion to band and craft that he displays helped me learn to respect the albums I don’t love (the early stretch, up to and mostly including 2004’s “BE”), but sheer awe overcomes me once that dedication collides with music I can’t really imagine sounding better than it does, or being better-written than it is (2007’s Scarsick on).

Then there's Ragnar Zolberg, who co-wrote the music on Pain of Salvation’s In the Passing Light of Day. Before his stint in Daniel’s band, Ragnar had a power-pop group and a darker, quieter, more ruminative solo career; he continued to put out albums while he served as Daniel’s second/lead guitarist, and so he has gone on doing—modestly, without fanfare—since leaving. And as my journey through his discography has revealed, it’s all gold, from 2008’s The Circle (Darker Side) right through to last year’s Forest Lovesongs and Hjartastjaki.

Ragnar writes and sings with a fearlessness and directness that won my heart at once, and I really mean at once. Of Artistry, the first solo song of his I tried, had me captivated, in disbelief, before my first listen to it was over. His songs have made me cry God knows how many times. If it was from Neil Young that I learned how powerful an “unvarnished heart on sleeve” approach to lyricism and delivery can be, Ragnar revealed how vast and deep that kingdom really is. 

I was shown more of the kingdom when, a few months later, a list of music recommendations by Colleen Kinsella of Big Blood included the Yoko Ono albums Fly, Approximately Infinite Universe, and Feeling the Space. Big Blood’s 2017 album The Daughters Union is dedicated to Yoko, and on 2020’s Do You Wanna Have a Skeleton Dream?, 11-year-old Quinnisa, the band’s occasional third member and perennial firebrand, named Yoko Ono alongside Joan of Arc as someone who “changed the century.” Colleen’s 2022 list got me investigating the individual albums, whereby I learned that Fly and Approximately Infinite Universe are double albums. It’s usually when I discover that some intriguing artist I’ve been investigating has made a double album that I commit to giving them, and it, a proper try. So with Yoko. By the end of Side A of Approximately Infinite Universe, my mind was in splinters. By the end of Side B I was completely won over.

That was autumn. Come winter, I fell in turn to Richard Dawson, having stumbled on the cover art to The Ruby Cord in the week of its release and gazed at it awhile in that "Oh, right on!" kind of way. Reading up, I learned it was a double album. Well alright then. I also realized that I had previously read intriguing reviews of Dawson releases (Peasant, Henki), and played a track or two each time, but things hadn’t clicked. Time to try again, because reviews of The Ruby Cord (mixed reviews, no less) made it sound phenomenal. And it was, it was. I started with The Fool and loved it. Went on listening in order. Loved the gentle Museum and especially its poignant, level-toned catalogue of the photographs on display. I was floored by the next song up, The Tip of an Arrow, with its gorgeous Hisaishi-esque verses and unabashedly heavy metal (via folk) refrains. And the album closed with a song that made me think of Big Big Train. I think the sequence of my thoughts about the Big Big Train/Horse and Rider connection would have gone something like this: "How could that even...? What?! Too good!!!"

So then of course it was right back to Track 1, the 41-minute, LP-length opener, Disc 1 of a double album in the form of a single song: The Hermit. One of the best songs ever, as it turns out, a story that starts with a dream, awakes into the quotidian and not exactly lonely present, gazes backwards in a long and riveting, mostly a capella flashback, and concludes with a holy vision of the essence of life, suffering, and death.

Research showed that Richard Dawson has a band (Hen Ogledd) with, ahem, a double album (Free Humans). The album opens with the wild and evocative masterpiece Farewell (those lyrics, good lord! I mean, the thermal baths? and the sadness! and the bassline!). What exit did I have? And Crimson Star? "We were naked! We were naked!" But while those were both primarily Richard compositions, the contributions of his bandmates proved that, evidently, they were mad geniuses as well. Thus on, also, to Bulbils...

And now, with a mere month to go before my awakening to the splendor of Gildenlöw and Zolberg is a year old, the doors of a fifth hidden palace have opened to receive me, and here I am, already a diehard fan of Magnolia Electric Co. How did I not find, and fall for, Jason Molina earlier?! Greatness always seems blindingly obvious after the fact. How, I wonder afterwards, could there have been a time when I was into Neil Young and Bob Dylan, but not yet into Brian Eno? How could I have spent so long adoring the Frusciante-helmed Red Hot Chili Peppers albums without delving into his solo discography? And how is it that, given my already multi-year interest in the generation of songwriters born in the 1970s, I found my way to the likes of Chadwick Stokes, Ned Collette, and James Jackson Toth, even (through the Vic Chesnutt/Undertow Orchestra connectionthough I also, unwittingly, saw him drumming for Monsters of Folk at their Beacon Theatre concert in 2009) brushing up against Molina collaborator Will Johnson, but skipped ignorantly past the lighthouse that is Molina himself?

But all to its rightful season, of course. If you gathered every pearl on your first plunge, where would you find the time to live with your discoveries, to learn from them, to be nurtured and hallowed and remade by them? It would be like trying to enjoy the gentle, patient rolling of a mountain stream when you’re standing under a waterfall.

February 17, 2023

Skeletons at the Feast 2/17/23

On this February day, a new Al Joshua record has come. It is called Skeletons at the Feast and it's 75 minutes long, which makes it proper double-LP length: a full four-sided affair, beautifully sequenced. Buy it on Bandcamp and get the FLACs, or stream it if you must, but listen. Be lifted, be muddied, be purified, be puzzled. In any case, listen. Listen to it in full, listen to it often, listen to it carefully, then listen to it again. Let your memories, your thoughts, your sleeping, your dreaming, your waking, your walking melt into Al's melodies and words, into the shimmer and cacophony of the band. Just listen. Let it take root in you as it has, and as it yet will, in me. 

"Finally awake. This time really, truly, completely awake."

November 15, 2022

Interview: Ragnar Zolberg on Forest Lovesongs

Ragnar Zolberg, one of the greatest songwriters of our time, made his name in his native Iceland as the frontman of Sign, then reached a wider audience via a seven-year stint in Pain of Salvation. Daniel Gildenlöw of PoS co-wrote the gorgeous, put-it-on-endless-repeat-and-proceed-to-bliss-out title track of 2014's Falling Home with Ragnar: the two of them took one of Ragnar's old, unrecorded songs and reworked it. For 2017's In the Passing Light of Day (probably my favorite PoS album), Daniel and Ragnar tinkered lightly with the Sign song Rockers Don't Bathe, recalibrating it into lead single Meaningless; they took the chorus of a very old Ragnar song called I Lost the Way (nowadays, the closer of a beautiful acoustic album called ROG) and interpolated it (whole) into album opener On a Tuesday; and together they co-wrote the music for another seven songs besides. So if 2022 was the year I finally fell head over heels for the post-2002 Pain of Salvation, it was also the year I fell—a lot harder, as I can now recognize—for the solo discography of Ragnar Zolberg...

...a discography now joined by his newest full-length album, an eight-song slab of glory named Forest Lovesongs. I listened to it so many times on release day alone that I couldn't help sending Ragnar a message and asking whether he'd be interested in doing a Q&A by email. Graciously, he agreed!

I present Ragnar's responses just as he sent them to me, down to the emojis that recall, though they cannot stand in for, his luminous smile.

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Sigismund Ashlay Sludig: First off, dear Ragnar: how are you?

Ragnar Zolberg: I am very well thank you, it’s been a busy time lately with 3 different projects seeing the light of day after a couple of years in the works, it’s been a lot of fun. Thank you for taking the time to write these elaborate observations and questions.

SAS: In December, Forest Lovesongs will be followed by Isafjørd’s Hjartastjaki, which I gather you and Aðalbjörn recorded about three years ago; but you’ve also mentioned two further records forthcoming in 2023. Have you been working on all three albums at once? Did you begin with a huge pool of songs-in-progress, out of which the eight Forest Lovesongs eventually suggested they were meant to be together, or was their affinity clear from an early stage in the songwriting process?

Ragnar: Addi and I finished the Ísafjørd album pretty much in one week and I had already mixed that before the pandemic hit, so it never overlapped with my solo album.

To begin with I set out to do one album, it was supposed to be a crescendo album, starting off softly and then increase in intensity with each song, ending in a full blown metal song. As usual, once I’m in the zone I just keep on writing songs, and although many of them will never see the light of day, I ended up having a lot of songs that I wanted to finish and release. So instead of 1 album it became 2 and not with a crescendo. Forest Lovesongs was not even a part of that, that only came about because I had the Cure cover already recorded and wanted to release it, initially only as a single. Then I thought that it would be a bit cheap to just release the one song, so I started going through some songs I had lying around and found all these other ones that had a similar vibe to them. 

SAS: Like the album cover, Forest Lovesongs is mostly dark, but with some light shining through. While it may not be a lot of light, it’s bright and strong. Could you talk about your choice of front cover? How far along in the process was the image joined to this batch of songs?

Ragnar: The front cover is a picture I had taken accidentally on my phone without knowing it while I was staying at my family’s summerhouse a couple of years ago. That’s where I spent my summers as a kid and the area is called “the forest”.  I saw that picture one day when scrolling through old photos and knew immediately that I wanted to use it.

But yeah usually the artwork comes last for me, I never know how the albums are gonna turn out until they are finished and I like for the artwork to have some kind of connection to the music.

SAS: Your albums have always flowed well, but on this one, the sequencing feels more fluid than ever, more commanding and irresistible. It’s hard to imagine any of the songs appearing anywhere other than exactly where they are. It’s especially true for the four in the second half. Did you go through different drafts of the tracklist before you settled on this one?

Ragnar: Sequencing is one of the things that keeps me up at night and it has only gotten worse over the years. Making my first albums I would decide on it in a heartbeat but now I just can’t stop thinking about it and I try out all possible variations in my head. Luckily some songs scream for a specific place, like “To Learn”, I knew from the moment I wrote it that it should be the first song on a record.

SAS: Moments like the riff barrage that opens Ekkert Allsstaðar, and the chaos that closes Mountain Roots/Underworld, have gotten me to think of Forest Lovesongs as the sonic successor not so much to ROG II or Sonr Ravns as to 2017’s In the Passing Light of Day. You’ve said that Sonr Ravns was a more traditional sort of metal album before a friend gave you the idea of reconfiguring it as metal without guitars, so perhaps you can see the continuity more clearly, but from the listener’s side, it’s been a while since an album of yours was this classically heavy, and anyway nothing was ever quite as heavy throughout as this. What brought you to the Forest Lovesongs sound? What did the road leading to it look like?

Ragnar: I do see what you mean by that, what happened was after the release of Sonr Ravns I played a couple of shows both in Iceland and Norway with my friends Hálfdán and Skúli and we made some of the songs a bit heavier than they were before. We also played the song “Rockers Don’t Bathe” and I think that song in particular inspired me to follow that soundscape on more songs, especially the two that you mentioned. It’s this kind of slow, sludgy, heavy doom. For whatever reason, I mostly write slow music, even though I like to listen to fast music.

SAS: There are patterns and textures in Rise Above, My Symbol Sól, and Celestía that, with hindsight, point to what I would call the unprecedented fullness and power of the electric guitar playing on this album. The rhythm parts have such presence, and the solos in Underworld and especially Svartskog are insane: integral parts of the emotional arc of the songs they appear in, beautiful, soulful, hummable, heavy. Would you agree that your electric guitar playing has leveled up? If so, are you aware of how and when it happened?

Ragnar: Thank you for that, however, I’m sure that I was technically better as a late teenager as opposed to now because back then I would practice new techniques all the time. During lockdown I started really geeking out on the guitar and I played way more than I had done for years, but it’s more feeling based now, possibly more bluesey to an extent. I have learned in my later years that (in my opinion) good guitar playing has everything to do with the feeling and not so much with the technique involved.

SAS: There is a heavy presence throughout the album of what, to my acolyte’s ears, I think are synths? They push the sound image out wider and higher. They insinuate ghosts into the title track, make Release and Mountain Roots/Underworld soar, and clothe Foraging in folds of darkness. Did their prominence here grow out of the experiments with arrangement in Sonr Ravens? Had you long felt yourself drawn in their direction? They feel like both a new thing in your music’s landscape, and a natural outgrowth of what was there already.

Ragnar: I guess that coming from a more rock and metal upbringing, I perhaps used to think synthesizers were kind of lame, although I have used them a lot in the past but they have always been well hidden.

Now they are not and I don’t mind using them as the main ingredient in a song if that is what the song calls for. I think that comes from my adoration of The Cure, and from songs like “Plainsong” which has a huge soundscape and it’s mostly just synths.

SAS: The opening seconds of To Learn are a brilliant way to start the album. They blew me away on first listen: unusual, striking, instantly absorbing. Aggressive, too, as if you were saying, “Here, listen, this is what I do. If you’re not ready for it, there’s no need to stick around.”

Ragnar: That’s pretty much my take on all the music I make :) I do it for myself first and foremost. But on the other hand, knowing that people might be listening to it sort of forces you to do it properly, with arrangements, mixing and mastering to make sure that there is nothing unfinished that might stand in the way of your listeners connecting to it.

You might also have noticed that I use these reversed loops quite a lot and I often listen to hours and hours of reversed music just looking for those 2-3 magical seconds which I then loop and build a song around.

SAS: In the verses of To Learn, you’re pushing your voice in an entirely new direction. I’m not sure I would have recognized you if, the first time I heard them, I didn’t know what I was listening to.

Ragnar: It’s weird, without thinking or planning on it, this album turned out to have a lot of falsetto singing, way more than I have ever done before… and I have no explanation for it.

SAS: A few songs feature Skúli Gíslason on drums and Hálfdán Árnason on bass: “one of my favorite drum and bass duos,” in your words. Were they part of the magnificent band that performed the Sonr Ravns material with you live, in April 2019 in Iceland? I love the videos on YouTube of that group, the two drummers facing each other and blasting out that album’s precise, spare beats.

Ragnar: They were there yes, but obviously some more people were involved in that particular gig. That album is really beat driven and I was so happy to be able to have those two sledgehammers with me on that show. Hálfdán and Skúli also played with me live as a trio as I mentioned earlier and on top of that they are both in the Sign live band so we have a rich history and a great musical chemistry. 

SAS: How did The Cure’s two songs, A Forest and Lovesong, become a single entity—the title track, no less? Other than obvious thematic links, what drew you to these two Cure songs in particular, and how did things develop from there? It must have taken some sewing, but the seams don’t show.

Ragnar: It was Hálfdáns request that I would do a cover of “A Forest”, but I didn’t really see how I could possibly add anything new to it so I just sort of blew him off on that but he kept insisting so I started thinking of different ways to make it worth the while. I realized that if it had like a big, emotional chorus I could make it work and one of The Cure’s most melodic chorus is in “Lovesong” and to my surprise I found that the tempo was similar and the key is the same. So it’s like you said those two songs work very well together. 

SAS: The screams at the end are stunning. Once, as I listened, the long scream gave me chills three distinct times before your voice finally faded away. Were you yourself surprised by the intensity? Given the moment at 6:02, when a new riff starts up partway into the long scream, I imagine the vocals were a pre-written part of the arrangement, but there was improvisation involved too, wasn’t there? Those two short, final, scarily desperate screams don’t sound like they were planned. It would be a fearsome thing if you could summon emotion as fierce as what’s on display here at command. And is that riff (the one which begins at the six-minute mark) your own composition? I don’t hear an equivalent in either source song.

Ragnar: Well thank you, that’s a very nice compliment. You are right, it’s all improvised, the length of the end, the vocal adlibs and the guitar line that comes in the end. I don’t really think about stuff like that, it sometimes just comes so naturally when you are really into a song that you’re performing. It’s one of the many magical elements of music I guess :)

SAS: “I will always have the cure” and “still obsessed over the cure”—lines in To Learn and Foraging, the album bookends—are thematically on-point, in context. But... on an album named after a song covering The Cure... are these lines also puns?! As in, “I will always have The Cure” and “still obsessed over The Cure” ? If so, they make for a loving tribute to how the music that we love, and that we clear room for inside ourselves, can remain with us there, and support us, and help us move forward or at least, as you sing in ROG II’s most dismal song, carry on.

Ragnar: It is somewhat supposed to underline the fact that on those songs I really was under the influence from The Cure. But it also has a deeper meaning, the way I see it, we are all looking for the cure. The cure then being a remedy to our overwhelming human experience, we search for it all the time: through money, new things, attention, recognition, love, acceptance, food or whatever, the list goes on and on… All for a brief moment of happiness. I have my own set of tools (cures) to deal with my life, which I have accumulated over the years and they can never be taken away from me. One of those tools is listening to The Cure, bringing the topic to a full circle :)

SAS: You made the switch to predominantly English lyrics way back when Sign was still your main act. But you never stopped writing or singing in Icelandic. At what point, when you’re working on a song, does the decision about language—if it’s a decision at all—usually happen? In Ekkert Allsstaðar, did the words come first, or the music?

Ragnar: The music always comes first for me, and I can’t really say what dictates which language it’s gonna be in. It’s usually based on the first word that comes out of my mouth when I start recording the song. I don’t write any lyrics down beforehand, it’s almost always improvised or thought up on the spot while I’m recording.

SAS: Are the beautiful lyrics in Release addressed to something that is literally inside of you (“a part of me”)—some segment of your character, of your spirit?

Ragnar: Yes that song is about my ego, or the defensive aspects of it at least. I have learned that my life is much easier when I let go of a certain part of the ego trip. The song was written as I was starting to experiment with this idea that I don’t control much in this life and a key element for me is accepting things for what they are and not to take it personally when things don’t go “my way”. That’s the release of this unwanted part of myself that I was singing about. I have a couple of more songs on the same topic, but for different albums.

SAS: Is the “you” in Mountain Roots/Underworld Iceland? I know next to nothing about your private life, and as the lyrics point out, “I’m always hard to find,” but I think I’ve gleaned that you’ve been living, for years now, not in Iceland but in Norway or Sweden—which would make this a song, to some extent, about voluntary exile?

Ragnar: You are absolutely right on that one, I am singing about Iceland. I love the country deeply and I do have a lot of family and releatives there, but my relationship to it is complicated and I prefer to be out here in Norway, close to the woods in a semi isolation.

SAS: Mountain Roots shares a drum pattern with Sonr Ravns’ Mountain Top, and since the two songs also share half a title, I don’t think it’s an accident, or meant to be a secret. Was it a case of the drumbeat lingering in your head after Mountain Top was complete, and insisting, “Come on, Ragnar! There’s more to me than just that one song!”

Ragnar: Well yes, sort of… When playing Mountain Top live I added a heavy outro bit to it (which is now Underworld) and we recorded it that way once when we were rehearsing for a gig. I really wanted to use that outro on an album but didn’t want to release yet another version of Mountain Top so I just wrote a new song on top of the drums we had from the recorded rehearsal and kept the outro as it was.

SAS: Appearing after Mountain Roots/Underworld, The Well feels like a channel connecting the world beneath the ground with the world above it. The next song, Svartskog, is very much about the above-ground world. “Something is emerging from the other side...” 

Ragnar: Svartskog is about a journey that gets pretty dark and overwhelming, but there is always a way through!

SAS: There is no shortage of vulnerability in your songs, but Svartskog must be among the most vulnerable you’ve written. 

“So many songs we sang and then forgot.” I love this line. I’ve been writing songs for over a decade, have amassed more than a hundred at this point, and many of them I haven’t played since they were recorded. You, for your part, have released a lot of songs, and if I’m not mistaken, there are at least as many that remain unreleased. I wonder, then: alongside, potentially, a metaphorical meaning where the songs might stand in for the days and/or the details of days shared by lovers, are you also making a literal reference to the countless songs you’ve written, and sung, and forgotten?

Ragnar: There’s a little bit of both I think, I kinda like when things can have more than one meaning, or even when lyrics are so out there that you sort of have to apply your own meaning to them, which is great because then they can mean whatever you want them to and possibly help you deal with different things in different times in your life. Just like on my favorite album of all time “Pornography” by The Cure, the lyrics on there have never made any actual sense to me but they have different meanings in my head, depending on where my head is at at the given time.

SAS: Comparing the guitar tones at the end of Foraging and—to pick just two examples—The Well or Ekkert Allsstaðar, I wonder how many different guitars were used on the record. How much of the variety in guitar sound is thanks to the instruments themselves, and how much is a matter of tone?

Ragnar: I probably used around 4 guitars on the album, an 8-string, a 7-string and two 6-string guitars and they all sound very different but my set-up also sounds different from day to day. My studio is very small and DIY and to safe up space I keep my guitar amp underneath my desk. Of course I keep hitting the microphone with my foot all the time so its position keeps changing, which makes a huge difference in the recorded sound. But to be honest I kinda like the challenge of it and not always know what I’m gonna get when I start working on a song.

SAS: Is the piano at the end the same beautiful, soulful creature that’s all over ROG II?

Ragnar: The piano is the same yes, and it’s the same thing there, I have to mic it up everytime I record it so it never sounds the same, and during winter it’s way more out of tune than it is in the summer :)

SAS: My interpretation of Foraging has it telling of a songwriter’s search for songs to write that will be beautiful, healing, and true. As I hear it, the song’s narrator finds “the fruit”—the songs—and seeks to trace the line from the pure and nourishing fruit to the still deeper “roots.” And those deeper things, the roots, speak the chorus line to him: “Now that you’re here / We’ll expose all your darkest feelings”—via the songs he is yet to write. “Anxiety is a waste of your joyous being,” they continue. It reminds me of what you wrote about how creating and recording the songs on ROG II effectively purged you of the anxiety from which they had stemmed.

My (current) three favorite musical segments on the album are the last two minutes of A Forest Lovesong; the drumbeat that comes in at 0:45 and 1:42 in Mountain Roots/Underworld, so deeply muffled that it sounds like it’s been buried under mountains of packed snow; and the final two minutes of Foraging, which also close out the album as a whole. Can you tell me about how this last, extraordinary section came to be?

Ragnar: That is pretty cool! Foraging was actually “done” for a long time and it did not have the outro until the day before I submited the album to distribution. I was quite happy with it without the outro for the longest time but once I had put the songs in the final order and listened back to it for a couple of times I kept hearing a piano driven outro in my head as if the song was saying that it wasn’t complete. This was after I had mixed and mastered the album but I knew that it had to be done so I went out to the studio one night and put the outro together, I didn’t really have to do the work as it was sort of floating in the air just waiting to come out. I only had to press rec and touch the piano and the part just sort of wrote itself. It felt great, like getting rid of an annoying itch :)

SAS: The lyrics in Foraging remind me of something that another of my favorite songwriters, Al Joshua, has written about the craft we share: “ is, de profundis, from the depths, that we sing. For me this means to create. And to keep on creating until my time runs out. If I stop to dally or rest, I am wasting time and wasting the best part of myself.” Do his words resonate, to some extent, with your own dedication and practice?

Ragnar: They do and they don’t. I do not necessarily believe that the composer in me is the best part of myself and if I would only do that then I would surely be wasting a whole lot of other things and missing all kinds of joy and opportunities. Plus I need inspiration every now and then, smelling the flowers and getting challenged by my surroundings. However, I wouldn’t mind spending a bit more time making music, but I am grateful for what I have accomplished so far and I still have a lot of music in me biding its time.

November 04, 2022

Anomalous Events (5)

It’s been a few months since I listened to Anomalous Events. La Luna, by Daniel Romano’s Outfit, came out in September, sending me on a massive Daniel & Family kick (Carson McHone’s Still Life, Julianna Riolino’s All Blue, Steven Lambke). Some deeper digging into Richard Thompson’s 1980s made it in there too, because the modal guitar solos on Carson McHone’s Folk Song are just too good. (Who plays those anyway, Daniel or Carson?) Then Ragnar Zolberg put out what may be his best record yet, about a month ago, and took priority.

Ah but then, on October 7th, Al Joshua released the first single from his own upcoming full-length. I went into my first listen of the new song (the first of twenty or thirty listens that day) expecting something sublime, and that’s what I got, but Al surprised me yet again by just how many different roads to glory he knows.

So alongside I Hate to See the Evening Sun Go Down and the just-released soundtrack offering A Clean Getaway, which is a beautifully sung and arranged fragment of a song from the Out of the Blue era, I’ve been spending time again with what Im glad to call Al’s "back catalogue," as it may be dubbed now that a new album is forthcoming. There is nothing inside that back catalogue but wonder and majesty. I knew that, of course. Al is one of my two favorite living songwriters, and if you include those who’ve gone, he’s still in the top three. But the great thing about listening in cycles, as I do, is that each time you come back to a beloved artist, you find more there. The albums are richer for what you’ve experienced since you last had them on heavy rotation. Plus, you notice things you never noticed before. Take, for instance, these three thoughts, spurred by this week’s listen to Anomalous Events:

1.  It figures, to some extent, considering how dense these song-stories are, but all the same, I’m half-ready to swear that Al Joshua had pulled a Kanye and gone back and edited these songs, and incorporated the edits into all existing streams, mp3 rips, downloads, etc. In several songs there were lines I felt I had never heard before. But I have heard this albumId estimateupwards of forty times. So where in the world were these seemingly new details coming from? I am so enamored of Anomalous Events, so fascinated by its mysteries and secrets, that I feel Ive studied it, not just listened to it. How is it that I never realized that, for instance, the narrator of The Boy with the Pigeon Chest finds the Boy by following the strains of a song? Why had it always puzzled me when, much later in the song, the narrator hisses, Where did you learn that song?”—why would it puzzle me if the reference had been there all along?! It’s so strange. And, if nothing else, a testament to the album’s unparalleled richness. "Unparalleled" is not meant as hyperbole. It’s just that nothing like this has happened to me before.

2.  The recorded music I make as Grain Sparrow is rudimentary. Sometimes I do wistfully entertain thoughts of how it might be nice to record under conditions better suited to audio fidelity, or with proper harmony singers, or with a band. Granted, most of the time I feel amazed that there is enough of health, peace, and mental and imaginative acuity for me to be able to write and record music at all. Besides, as far as studio-like audio sheen and the benefit of having multiple musicians on your songs are concerned... what about Daniel Johnston?! And what about my beloved Devendra Banharts first album, Oh Me Oh My, recorded onto cheap equipment when not by phone, onto friends answering machines? Oh Me Oh My in particular is an album I am blown away by every time I go back to it. Truly, truly, what more does a songwriter need than what can be found just at hand? An acoustic guitar, an approximately operational singing voice, and some gadget with a "record" button. If the songs are good enough, everything else falls away.

For years, Oh Me Oh My was my go-to "comforting reminder / inspirational Exhibit A." But Anomalous Events gives me an argument even more compelling than Devendras debut, for here there is not even a guitar (or, yes okay, there is, but only briefly). Here there is nothing but a voice, and a gadget with a "record" button (a smartphone, in Als case). The songs are transcendent, so the voice and the phone are plenty. Nothing else is needed. You can make an all-time great record with just these: Al Joshua has. Therefore I, and any other artist of limited means, have no excuse, none!not to plunge as deep as possible into the depths of self and soul, turning over the stones there, searching for songs.

3.  But I do wonder what some of these would sound like arranged for a band. Imagine the group that backs Al on I Hate to See the Evening Sun Go Down performing The Kings and Queens of England or A Bird Flew In!

July 14, 2022

Assorted Gems: Greendale



[ed. note: This piece was written before I got started on the Prog Stories project, but not long before.]

Neil wrote most of the story in one tidily sustained wave of inspiration, a new song/chapter arriving each day, as he drove his car to the studio for recording sessions with a Crazy Horse stripped to a skeleton of its rhythm section, second guitarist Poncho Sampedro having been asked, for aesthetic purposes, to sit the album out. After Grandpa died, the whole band, who loved him, was bummed out, and the vein of inspiration ran out. The way I remember Neil telling it, he thought that might be the end of the album (already too long to fit on a single LP). But then it occurred to him: what about Grandma? And so he wrote Bringin' Down Dinner, and in its wake came the final pieces, Sun Green and Be the Rain.

I love Bringin' Down Dinner. Acoustic live, the way I first experienced Greendale, it didn't add up to much, musically, but when Crazy Horse backs Neil's ragged, soulful pump organ on the album version, it sounds fantastic. But otherwise I'm no friend of the ghost that helped Neil finish Greendale. Sun Green, while developing the story in the unique main-character-shifting manner that drives the narrative, is less clever, less cutting, and less cool than all the songs before it. And finally, when Bernard Shakey's camera zooms out to show the "bigger picture" in closer Be the Rain, I disconnect completely. Don't get me wrong, both songs have great band grooves, but what makes me love Greendale as much as I do is the combination of phenomenal performances with a captivating story. When the tale dries up, though the performances remain, half the greatness is gone. Which amounts to a disorienting anticlimax. I just can't square with Be the Rain at all. It provides a sense of closure, yes, but I'd have preferred a cut-off (touching, if abrupt) after Bringin' Down Dinner, or even an awkward hobble to a close after Sun Green. Anything instead of the big-screen credits-roll here's-the-moral Be the Rain.

But most of Greendale is absolutely killer stuff. I love when Neil gets out-there. Actually, he's almost always out-there; it's just a matter of which kind of out-there you're gettingsmeary heart-on-sleeve love songs? numbskull rock and roll? jokes and non-sequiturs? the shouting of big dumb slogans? idiosyncratic, or even perverse storytelling? I love them all but my favorite is the last, and that's what Greendale is, a single story told across ten (or nine, because does Be the Rain even count as part of the story?) songs. It has a setting, characters with names, plenty of dialogue, free indirect discourse, and a few fantastic blows of a battering ram against the third wall. It has a story you can summarize.

Albums like this are bizarrely rare. I'm not sure why rock and folk music have generally avoided the "story album" or "novel album," to coin two clunky phrases. An aversion to opera? Or to musical theater? I have no ear for opera and detest musical theater, but I'm fascinated by the possibilities that rock/folk/what-have-you structures present in this regard. It's a territory that's barely been explored, barely visited, even. Neil is, as so often in the mountainous, quaking land of rock and roll, part of the front vanguard. But even Neil only stopped by once and departed, classically restless. Now this part of the land lies empty. "I'm falling in love with Calliope," Dylan sang recently in Mother of Muses. "She don't belong to anyone. Why not give her to me?" I've been wondering about that ever since.

Anyway, Greendale! So good! All the songs rhyme, and the rhymes are occasionally forced, but the discomfort I felt to hear them was long ago buried under all the joy I take in how badass, audacious, weird, funny, insightful, tender, and tremendously touching the songs are. Grandpa's Interview probably wouldn't hit hard if heard out of context, but as Track 7 of Greendale (a true double-vinyl album, by the way, just structurally speaking; Neil's team made it a triple LP to keep sound quality up, I guess, but lengthwise, it's exactly four 18-21 minute sides long, and the four can be divided very cleanly), it is in my top three Neil Young songs. There's an amazing moment that makes me laugh and cry in the exact same instant. Such brilliance.

But Grandpa's Interview is only the best of them, and not by a wide margin. Each of the first eight songs is amazing, even Falling from Above, which served as midwife to the Greendale concept, but was conceived as a stand-alone track. Little did Neil know, writing his latest warmhearted country-rocker, how intense, penetrating, and sad a story was hidden in these character/role and place names: Grandpa, Cousin Jed, Edith and Earl, their "young girl" (as yet unnamed), Grandma, the Double E...

As usual for Neil in these latter years (and, fair warning, I'm a strange bird who believes that, for all its various and phenomenal peaks, Neil's 1963-1991 output pales beside what he's accomplished starting with the release of Harvest Moon in 1992, on through to now), he cloaks the song concepts in incredible music. Greendale sounds like nothing else in Neil's discography, not even other records with the Horse. Of all his "back-to-absolute-basics" albums, it seems to me the richest and most beautiful.

Pink Floyd studio albums ranked (outdated, but!)

Whoa. Stumbled on this today. Looks like it dates back to 2013 or thereabouts. The young Sigismund wrote it good!

If I were ranking the discography today, Album #13 would at least be above Album #11; Album #10 would be in the top five; Album #9 would probably be a little higher too, because the 2019 remix/update, with Nick Mason's re-recorded drum parts, SLAYS; Album #4 would be awarded the top slot; and Album #1 would be a lot lower, because I suddenly realized this year that I don't actually care much for Tracks 1 and 5. Also, very significantly, Fire on Fire's Haystack is now tied with the song on Album #2 that I call "the best song I have ever heard."

Otherwise, though, what can I say? This dude knows his Floyd.

I've been listening to Pink Floyd since I was six or seven years old; some sixteen years down the line, here's how I rank their studio discography. Lest anyone take unduly great offense, the fact is that I enjoy all of these; and even if I didn't, they're so much a part of my life by now that it'd be weird not to listen to them regularly!

14. Ummagumma

What's ranked here is just the studio album, to be fair to the rest of this studio-only list. It's an interesting product, Stage Two Floyd at their most happily bizarre, and it half-works: David's Narrow Way is very good, Grantchester Meadows an attractive precursor to the second side of Atom Heart Mother, and Several Species of Animals... simply delightful. Nick's piece is kinda just there, but Rick's borders on unlistenable. The thing as a whole is a hodgepodge, not even trying to hold together... but of course that was the whole point going in, and therein too lies the charm.

13. The Wall

Ambitious, dramatic and relentlessly intense, The Wall is an album you can love or hate but can't ignore. I grew up adoring the whole double album and in many ways it still holds me in its talons; I might not enjoy it as much as the rest of the band's discography anymore, but its power over me has barely waned. I think that, as released, it's somewhat overdone and has too much of Roger before his solo vision really flowered (in The Pros & Cons of Hitch-Hiking), but Disc 2 is tremendous. If I weren't such a whole-album diehard, I would knock the album up several places on its strength alone.

12. More

For a long time, More was my least favorite album in the discography. There was never a time when I didn’t like Cymbaline or Green is the Colour, but the rest of the album I found either too sad and sinister (Cirrus Minor, Main Theme) or too boring (Crying Song, Quicksilver). Despite (or because of?) my relatively low opinion of More I would periodically return to it and over the years my regard grew. It certainly works differently than any other Pink Floyd album (except, maybe, its similarly whimsical follow-up Ummagumma) and it takes a particular mood to appreciate it all the way through. But when it hits, it hits.

11. The Dark Side of the Moon

I think that Dark Side is severely flawed, but a real slice of musical grandeur nonetheless. It is a stronger concept album than it is an album, so to speak; that is, the lyrics, structure, and journey it takes you on are all world-class but there are missteps in the delivery. The album also suffers by comparison to its little brother Obscured by Clouds, which sees the band showcasing all the same strengths but with superior songwriting and no unnecessary adornments. Dark Side's best feature is its unsettling atmosphere, the anxiety that does not let up. To this day it makes me uncomfortable.

10. The Final Cut

Where The Wall was allegorical, The Final Cut is political—Pros & Cons will be personal—and Roger’s dark vision here is more purely distilled, more caustic, more shiver-inducing than it was on The Wall... not to mention the merry little fact that the album’s story ends with nuclear apocalypse. And while you won’t hear David Gilmour apotheosize the electric guitar as he did on Comfortably Numb, you do get several short bursts of solos that are among his best and most evocative guitar work on record, solos all the more striking for their brevity and infrequency.

9. A Momentary Lapse of Reason

The first Floyd album without Roger Waters is a partial remergence of the band’s early-to-mid ‘70s soul; signs of life, indeed! Waters had come to dominate the band to such a degree in the preceding decade that it took his exit to make much of what made their earlier work wonderful resurface. Momentary Lapse is, in turn, David’s album: these are all his songs (a few among the best he has penned) and it’s his arrangement decisions and, above all, his guitar that make the record shine. His smooth, melodic voice sounds grand after three straight albums of Roger’s vitriol. The '80s production wears on some tracks (poor One Slip) but it's not as damaging as it might've been.

8. Atom Heart Mother

The title track is Stage Three Floyd firing all cylinders, crafting their first long piece in which there's no section that drags—but even this self-assured display of powers, grand and masterly, was merely a warm-up run for the following year’s Echoes. The group tones things down for the remainder of the album, which contains the most concentrated appearance of the short-lived agrarian/rustic Floyd sound (acoustic guitars, soft vocals, slow tempos and relatively straightforward arrangements). Summer '68 especially, though the least rustic, is fantastic! But If and Fat Old Sun aren't far behind. It's a lovely little stretch, those three middle tracks.

7. A Saucerful of Secrets

Pink Floyd begin to find their footing after Syd Barrett’s inadvertent stepdown from the position of band leader. Syd gets one song in nevertheless and it’s one of his best as well as the album highlight, but what's surprising coming after Piper is that the other members, including newbie David Gilmour on guitar, are so capable of holding their songwriting own. Rick Wright’s ethereal Remember a Day is the only one that manages to nip at the heels of Jugband Blues but the other numbers are solid too, maintaing a somewhat Syd-like whimsy while also branching out to the spacey and the ragged.

6. The Division Bell

There’s something about David Gilmour’s playing here that makes me think of a festival. It's not just that High Hopes opens and closes with the ringing of a bell, which conjures thoughts of Chrono Trigger's Millennial Fair… well, I can't place it exactly, but for me, that kind of feeling on a modern rock album by none other than the giants of the genre is an enormous treat. The album contains several of both David’s best songs and his best solos. A huge advantage of Roger’s departure was just how much freer David clearly felt to adorn songs with prominent lead guitar. No less significantly, Rick Wright returns!

5. Animals

Though musically about as great an album as I've ever heard, Animals is a scary piece of work. Edgy, abrasive, angry (personal relationships in the band were swiftly deteriorating and conditions in the studio were miserable; you can hear the band taking their frustration out on the songs, though to productive effect), misanthropic, insidious, cynical, vicious: all the terms apply. The closest thing I can discern to a flaw is that, at this juncture, Rick Wright was no longer involved in the compositional process. Whether he was simply experiencing a personal block or felt stifled by Waters’ domineering is unclear, but either way, it's a loss.

4. Obscured by Clouds

Composed, recorded and released after the Dark Side material was first aired live but before the final studio product was completed, Obscured by Clouds is the album Dark Side should & (almost) could have been. The vibe and basic sound of Obscured by Clouds are very similar to those of its higher-profile successor and there are even some direct re-workings, with Breathe becoming Burning Bridges and Mudmen while Time morphs into Childhood’s End, but here there are no bells or whistles—no guest musicians, no backing vocalists, no endless overdubs. Just four friends at the height of their powers, making great music from the heart.

3. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

1967’s fledgling Pink Floyd was already a great band, but they were Syd Barrett’s boys through and through—in the presence of the Pied Piper, what can you do but follow? The album’s excellence is primarily Syd’s doing: his fairytale lyrics cloaked in music that’s the very sound of childhood joy, his irrepressible humor (“I’ve got a bike, you can ride it if you like / ...I’d give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it”) and his intrepid comet-path leading past the gates of dawn, out into a land only ever explored adequately by Syd himself, here with the band that was his once and forever.

2. Meddle

As far as I'm aware, Meddle contains the most triumphant recorded instances of both a dog howling the blues (Seamus) and the hunting cries of poison-wasteland death crows (not Seamus), and after all these years, Echoes remains the best song I have ever heard. Its power over me defies approximation by words, but I will confess a long-held suspicion: that on that auspicious, green and submarine day when God first dreamt up rock music, Echoes was exactly what He had in mind. It’s the universe in a drop of clear, clear water, resounding bright & evermore.

1. Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here is Floyd at the peak of their post-Syd powers and one of my five favorite albums by anybody. Meddle boasts the group’s best song, but where it comes to the album craft, which was always Pink Floyd’s game, this bleak 1975 behemoth is their magnum opus. The album’s five songs (four?) are heavyweights like few others in the genre. Together they constitute an album in mourning: lighter tones may litter the darkness, but Wish You Were Here's got a broken heart.