Music Monday: Civil War

Baez is releasing a “visual version” of Whistle Down the Wind…short films (or, as we sometimes call then, music videos) for each song on the album. The one for “The President Sang Amazing Grace” was first and was brilliant. It was also well received and got a lot of attention (approaching 200k views!). They are releasing them via prominent websites. “President” appeared at The Atlantic. The latest, for “Civil War”, first appeared at the Smithsonian.

“Civil War” is a weird song. Supposedly, it’s not about the US Civil War, and I believe it:

I don’t know you to wear a hat
But I came home late, and there it sat
You rose to show what hats are for
When living through a civil war

Three dogs at a party on a boat at night
Play checkers in a lantern light
They sing a song out to the shore
Of women, gold, and civil war
Every truth carries blame

And every light reveals some shame
Progress rides with thieves and whores
The stowaways of civil war
The stowaways of civil war

The first two lines seem fine if a bit hat obsessed. It could work if this is, indeed, about a broken relationship. The telltale hat as a breaking point is intelligible. But then…what? What hats are for? During a civil war? Ooookay.

I believe Joan was quoted as saying that she didn’t understand what it was about but it was pretty. I endorse that view! Though I don’t find it super pretty. It’s fine.

The video seems to be a missed opportunity. There’s something off about the choreography (the shadows and light seem clashing). I can’t really see the dancers, which is a shame since what I can see looks good.

It reminds me of my fantasy of having dynamic video mapping onto dancers. It also reminds me that the technical challenges are one thing and the artistic ones another.


Music Monday: Why ARE the Other Unicorns Dead?!?

Not the title, but a key line:

I just love it. But I would. There aren’t enough non-embarrassing unicorn songs.

One thing that’s sorta annoying (but sometimes isn’t) is that they indulge in the punk/indie affectation of antimusicality, esp in vocals. Not throughout the song, but definitely a bit when the second singer comes in.

I get it. It’s an effect. But…it’d be a pretty and fun and surprising song without that. So…why?

Music Monday: Don’t Let the Devil Ride

I’m going to take a break from the Whistle Down the Wind track by track analysis as I’m just too tired to really dig in to “Civil War”. Instead, I’ll point to the awesoem bluesy/gospel tune, “Don’t Let the Devil Ride”. I first hear it in a blues club open mic where Zoe performed it with a kick ass pick up band. I hope she records it some day!

There are a million versions. Brother Joe May’s is iconic:

His voice is tremendous, but this arrangement is a bit swingier than I like and I find the organ a bit of a distraction. Compare with Aaron Neville’s piano arrangement:

Again, it’s great, but I find the vocal a bit too smooth. The urgency of the piano is lost.

Lurrie Bell has the best match of voice and instrument, I think:

I prefer a bit more up tempo but this is still stark and profound.

And if you want a freaky version, there’s Julie Miller’s:

It’s closest to Bell’s, but Miller does some creepy, breathy vocalisation.

Music Monday: Another World

Week 3 of the Whistle Down the Wind review. This week, “Another World”:

So, this is great! The arrangement is awesome in every respect. The percussive guitar gives it a subdued but effective and strong texture (yes! paradoxical). It works very well in concert:

I really like the song. The lyrics are good though not always fully coherent. Consider the last verse (which is one of the most organised):

I need another place
Will there be peace?
I need another world
This one’s nearly gone
I’m gonna miss the birds
Singing all their songs
I’m gonna miss the wind
It’s been kissing me so long
Another World

The first two lines don’t really parallel the others.

In any case, I find the Baez version to be in every way superior to the original:

This version is overwrought and unfortunately sentimental. Baez’s is starker, tauter, and more matter of fact which gives it a brutality that fits the lyrics better.

Music Monday: Be Of Good Heart

I’m working work through the whole of Whistle Down The Wind week by week, in order except saving “The President Sang Amazing Grace” for last. Last week, I discussed the title track. This week I have a go at the second track, penned by Josh Ritter, titled “Be Of Good Heart”:

It’s the third most popular, by views, on YouTube (at 3,481 it sits behind “Whistle” (4,521) and “President” (11,780) but well ahead of the rest which are between 1k-2k). I suspect that that accomplishment is more “organic” as it hasn’t appeared on any of the big promotions (TV or radio). I see a bit of mention of it here and there. My impression is that there are a lot of Josh Ritter fans. (I’m out of touch so these are the first songs of his I’ve heard.) I tend to prefer “Sliver Blade”, his other song on the album, but this is certainly a good song.

Both “Whistle Down the Wind” and “Be of Good Heart” are songs of resignation. The narrator is offering a good wish to someone who might be leaving them forever. Consider the opening verse:

I never had a crystal ball
I never had a crystal stone
I never claimed to know it all
All I know is what I’ve known
And I know that what we’ve had
I have never had before
So if you really wanna go
Be of good heart evermore

And compare with the last verse:

And I know that I just may
Have been a way to pass your time
Just a stop along your way
As you were a stop on mine
But even so it’d still be worth
All the loneliness in store
And, if you really gotta go
Be of good heart evermore

We get very few details about the relationship at all or even, really, the moment of breaking. Each verse consists of 6 lines of regret, sadness, explanation (though no real pleading) then, abruptly we get the conditional blessing.

I’m not sure what the “good heart” being wished is. It’s not clearly happiness or love. A potentially darker reading is that a person with a good heart generally is kind and beneficent, so perhaps there’s a implicature that the target hasn’t been of good heart thus far. That makes the whole thing a lot more bitter which isn’t suggested by the performance.

Musically, there’s a lot of picking. There’s a nice, subtle structure to the build of each verse, e.g., you get a descent after the odd lines, each one a touch more elaborate or intense. There’s also a more global modulaton at line 5 in each verse and a general “thickening” of the arrangement as the song progresses. Pretty standard in shape but well executed.

I’m not strongly connecting with this song. Which is a touch surprising because I generally like this sort of subject.  It seems a bit static without being usefully static. The verses don’t give a clear progression to my eye…they express the same issue with roughly the same intensity. 6 lines of “I’ll miss you” or “This sucks” and 2 lines of “see ya, I guess”. Some of the imagry is ok, but not super strong. When I try to put myself in the recipient mode, I more easily find it drawn out and whiny and kinda insincere. Perhaps the good wishes should come only at the end? As a discovery? When I think of songs like this, my touchstone is Ferron’s “Ain’t Life  a Brook”:

It’s so dynamic even with the repetition of lines. They are different at each stage. The whole song compresses the break up, aftermath, and resolution perfectly. It sketches a huge emotional journey sparely. The movement is continuous but gentle (in part because of the repetition). And the lyricism!

And when first you left
I stayed so sad I wouldn’t sleep
I know that love’s a gift, I thought yours was mine
And something that I could keep
Now I realize that time is not the only compromise
But a bird in the hand could be an all night stand
Between a blazing fire and a pocket of skies

She juxaposes the mundane and the sublime effortlessly.

Zoe also has a song in this space on Small Brown Birds, “Backdoor Key”:

Again, it’s in a slightly different place: Ritter is just pre-loss, Ferron covers from pre-loss to resolution, and Zoe is at resolution. Hmm. Ferron and Zoe might be closer as reflections from resolution.

Anyway, I can certainly see why people like it even if “Be of Good Heart” doesn’t quite work for me.

Music Monday: Whistle Down The Wind

I’m going to work through the whole album, Whistle Down The Wind, week by week, saving “The President Sang Amazing Grace” for last (for obvious reasons :)).

Why? Well why not! I went into the music store and bough a physical CD for the first time in quite a while. I can’t easily play it, but I held it. Why not examine it track by track.

I’m particularly interested in understanding Joe Henry’s production and the arrangements.

So, first up is the title track, by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan and released by Waits on his 1992 album Bone Machine. Here’s his version:





Good god, that’s taking me quite a bit of effort to listen to his voice. “Gravelly” doesn’t really cover it! I can see coming to feel it, but my first reaction was “Turn it off!!! Why are you hurting me!”

(Which is weird, because I often like that type of vocal performance.)

Reading some of the discussion of Bone Machine it seems that the brutality of the performance serve the theme well (meditations on death). But that comes out a particular way. Harsh. Grasping and gasping.

Baez’s is very different:

One of the repeated themes in interviews with Baez is that her voice is very different from what made her a star. That voice wasn’t my favorite! I quite like her current voice. The little bit of rasp and generally lower register is very congenial, esp for this album. Of course, next to Waits’, her voice is smooth as glass.

On to the lyrics:

I grew up here all of my life
But I dreamed someday I’d go
Where the blue eyed girls and red guitars
And the naked rivers flow

I’m not all I thought I’d be
I’ve always stayed around
And I’ve been as far as Mercy and Grand
Frozen to the ground

I can’t stay here and I’m scared to leave
So kiss me once and then
I’ll go to hell
I might as well
Be whistlin’ down the wind

I find this more optimistic in Baez’s version maybe because it sounds prettier which makes the first version carry a stronger impression. The contrast between the bright, metallic, almost sprightly guitar opening Baez’s vs. the the more subdued piano in Waits’ is almost as great as the difference between their voices. The guitar is also more precise and deliberate, whereas the piano is loser both dynamically and on time and note placement.

In the B part, Henry introduces a bit of rat-at-tat-tat on the snare. This, with the swelling pump organ keeps the whole thing brighter.

And then there’s the glorious band saw! I love it! The touch of eerieness fits in interestingly with the more grounded (but bright!) rest of the arrangement. It’s almost as if the ghost of Baez’s former voice swung by for a visit.

I’m not convinced by the cymbal, but I’m, in general, a such cymbal skeptic. I don’t hate it there, but it feels a bit superfluous. I get that we’re thickening the sound, but I think the pump organ is sufficient.

It’s worth attending to the transition before the first “So I will take the Marley Bone Coach” in the final verse. The first two lines are subdued, but then we get the snare and a very prominent finger picking that pushes us into the end. I think a change to the vocal might have boosted things there. A modulation maybe. That transition promises something but then seems to be the thing promised.

The transition from the last word into the saw is seamless and glorious.

My favorite verse, lyrically is:

The sky is red, and the world is on fire
And the corn is taller than me
And the dog is tied to a wagon of rain
And the road as wet as the sea

That’s just some cool imagery, well delivered.

My overall impression, having listened to Baez’s on a loop and Waits’ enough that I can bear it, is that Baez’s is interpretatively freer (in spite of being musically tighter). It’s reflective rather than anguished so you can hear it as more or less melancholy. The last  verse can be resigned or transcending. Which is pretty cool!

The two versions are very different and don’t step on each other’s toes. I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable with Waits’ version but I can see the value of such a version.

I found another version, from 2015, by Valerie Carter:

This seems closer to what one might have expected from a Baez with her old voice (though Carter is very breathy). Its tempo and feel are closer to Waits (though with a pretty patina due to the vocal difference). Lots of sonorous swelling (e.g., the strings). Doesn’t do a lot for me.

There’s a Weber musical of the same name with a same named song. No idea what to do with that!

One final note: I literally have no idea what “Whistle Down the Wind”, as a phrase, is supposed to mean! I…guess…it means doing something futile? Or magic (summoning)? Or defiant (whistle louder than the wind and it’ll give up?) It’s just sound to me!

UPDATE! My Uncle Frank pointed me to this explanation:

The phrase is in fact much older and derives from the earlier ‘whistle away’, which meant ‘dismiss or cast off’. This usage dates from at least the 16th century…

The ‘down the wind’ part of the phrase comes from the sport of falconry. When hawks are released to hunt they are sent upwind and when turned loose for recreation they are sent downwind. Thus, to ‘whistle someone/thing down the wind’ is to cast it off to its own fate. Shakespeare alluded to this in Othello, 1604:

If I do prove her haggard, Though that her jesses [leather straps] were my dear heartstrings, I’ld whistle her off and let her down the wind, To pray at fortune.

I’m not sure it makes sense in this context, but at least I have a definition!