Off the Beaten Track with Mary Leary: Music Reviews & Musings

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Aurelio Martinez

David Lowery: The Palace Guards (429 Records)
Emily Arin: Patch of Land (CDBY)
Aurelio: Laru Beya (Next Ambiance)
Daniel Martin Moore: In The Cool of the Day (Sub Pop)
Birdsong at Morning: Annals of my Glass House (Blue Gentian Records)

I haven’t done much listening to David Lowery since Camper Van Beethoven’s breakout, Telephone Free Landslide Victory (and its follow-up, Key Lime Pie), although I’ve almost made up for all that not-listening by huddling up to the speakers with “Take The Skinheads Bowling,” “Wasted,” “The Day That Lassie Went to the Moon,” “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac,” and “Where The Hell Is Bill?” I reviewed New Roman Times but associate a fair amount of tedium with the experience. Amiable as the band seems, I’ve never gotten that excited by Cracker (although I haven’t seen ‘em live).

I’m by no means a post-seminal-CVB Lowery expert. Still, to me The Palace Guards is a gift; teeming with  spontaneity and vigor.

That’s one slap-happy hoedown! ‘Course, Lowery isn’t just exalting the pleasures of honey, hemp and twine. Between bright banjo burps, he addresses the need to “Home-school the children/give ‘em weapons trainin’/Just in case the DEA comes snoopin’ ‘round agin…” Boy, can I relate to loving the country, the simple life, and the (sometimes) misguided souls also drawn to such. I can relate to being too worldly to avoid poking cautionary fun.

It’s great to see how Lowery’s evolved: “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac” was a pretty childlike drawing of the places where Socialism and Capitalism aren’t that, well… different (or, more to the point, how any political system can end up hierarchical, with the best spoils, or cars, in the hands of those at or near the top). “Raise ‘Em Up” does such a great job of promoting log-cabin life, we’re not sure how serious Lowery is.

The Palace Guards

The Palace Guards is consistently charming and engaging. After not being in love with the second and third tracks (the title song, which is okay, and “Deep Oblivion”), I fall back in love when Lowery catalogs the misery of being dumped with a lovely cover of Mint’s “Ah, You Left Me.” A clue to the ex-partner’s motivations comes with a dynamic howler, “Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me.”

Lowery’s back in the comfort zone of oddly poetic, socio-political musings with another pretty one, “I Sold the Arabs the Moon.” “Marigold” could be Tom Petty’s new single if he wrote lyrics this out-of-the-box and expansive. “Big Life” reaches some acceptance with break-ups and other pains: It’s nearly stunning in its poignance. Closer “Submarine” combines another melody fresh from the farmer’s market with that get-up-and-kick one anticipates from Lowery. The Palace Guards is one of those cases when grabbing the whole kaboodle’s recommended: it’s well-ordered, and there are too many winners for it to make sense to favorite some for download.

It would be unfair not to mention the contributions of frequent collaborator David Immergluck on guitar and bass: his strings add insightful embellishment and color. Ferd Moyse weaves perfect stand up bass and fiddle lines into the fabric. The late Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) added keyboards to “Big Life.”

Maybe newly-single Lowery should ask Emily Arin for a spot on her dance card. As Ed Sullivan might have intoned, “This young woman seems very sincere – let’s give her a hand (pause)… EMILY ARIN!” (Okay, maybe that’s a fantasy version of Sullivan.) But, sure as shootin’, Arin could pass for a slightly less stylized vocal twin of Zooey Deschanel. Arin’s voice combines clarity with just-had-half-a-peanut-butter-sandwich-texture: it’s pretty irresistible. While I think her songs would be better realized by the retro pop embellishments favored by She & Him, Arin seems committed to bare-bones folk arrangements.

A number of thoughtful compositions, including one called “Waltz for Spalding Gray,”  make up Arin’s first studio recording, Patch of Land, which features covetable artwork by Mikey Schultz.

Patch of Land cover

Good thing he’s not singing about love – Daniel Martin Moore of Cold Spring, Kentucky could make any woman or girl feel tingly – his is one of the silkiest-with-just-a-grain-or-two-of-sand tenors I’ve heard in many a moon. But Moore’s not on about corporeal romance: In the Cool of the Day is a set of spiritual odes, and an ode to old-fashioned gospel. His approach brings to mind Elvis’s most scaled-down, face-to-heaven moments: it’s wood-pew simple, with nary an extraneous note or instrument. The album opens modestly. Acapella delivery of Moore’s original, “All Ye Tenderhearted” is met midway through its 61 seconds with sparse banjo notes falling delectably as blackberries in August.

It’s nice to see a traditional form treated with tact, respect, and profundity – a lovely contrast to the “anything retro, we can do better” vibe coloring everything from garage rock to, well, rock encompassing gospel, that was so often the rule from the mid-90s until quite recently. Standards like “Softly and Tenderly” gain freshness and immediacy from pared-down arrangements (distant acoustic guitar; a female harmonist at a respectful few paces away, and, later, perfectly placed strings). Moore’s take on “It Is Well with My Soul” is breathtaking. And there’s some serious get-up-and-go: “Dark Road” could inspire a jig, and “Up Above My Head” stirs a warm, late ‘50s/early ‘60s folk-gospel ambience made even sweeter by some Hot Club (Reinhardt/Grappelli-styled) violin and guitar. “Closer Walk with Thee” shares its shuffle beat with Elvis’s “Blue Heaven,” giving Moore’s voice plenty of room for emoting.

In The Cool of the Day is likely to appeal to anyone craving an arcane and timeless sense of peace, regardless of belief system (or lack thereof). The ultimate gift, and surprise, is the nuances Moore harvests from music that would seem to have been used beyond fertility. Even a non-denominational person like me finds herself stopping and listening; then singing along.

Speaking of stopping and listening, that was my reaction when the first track on Aurelio’s Laru Beya, “Lubara Wanwa” jumped out of my speakers. Honestly, without any intention to promote (honestly, the label doesn’t need it), Sub Pop is on a roll with this second release from its newish imprint, Next Ambiance. Whoever discovered Aurelio Martinez must have been whistling a tune the rest of the live-long day, and if that tune was “Lubara Wanwa,” I’m right with them. The naked, joyful/painful soul in the voices of Aurelio and collaborator Youssou N’dour is the sort that stops one in one’s tracks: rather like my initial experience of Talking Timbuktu (Ali Farke Toure with Ry Cooder), popular Ethiopian music, and Toots Hibbert of the Maytals. It’s the reaction I had to Jose Reyes with Manitas de Plata.

Laru Beya feels like the beach, and Africa, and a trip. Per Martinez’ bio, it feels like Garifuna ( “Born in the tiny coastal hamlet of Plaplaya on Honduras” Caribbean coast, Aurelio Martinez, 39, may be one of the last generations to grow up steeped in Garifuna tradition. These traditions encompass the African and Caribbean Indian roots of his ancestors, a group of shipwrecked slaves who intermarried with local natives on the island of St. Vincent, only to be deported to the Central American coast in the late eighteenth century… However, beyond the beauties of Garifuna tradition and Aurelio’s interpretations lie the guiding force behind the album: the loss of his friend and mentor, Garifuna musical icon, Andy Palacio. Palacio won regional popularity as the powerhouse behind punta rock, a Garifuna-rock synthesis that broke onto the Central American scene in the 1990s. International acclaim followed with an award-winning album in 2007 that truly put Garifuna music on the map.”

“A mere month after Andy’s death, Aurelio and producer Ivan Duran headed for a small fishing village, where they set up a studio in a beachfront house. Recording and living by the sea for several weeks, they were still in grief and shock, yet they knew they had to do something amazing to honor Palacio’s life and work. Aurelio was able to explore the Garifuna connection to Africa when Senegalese Afropop legend Youssou N’Dour selected him as his protege in 2008.”

While the intensity of “Lubara Wanwa” is a Laru Beya standout, the entire thing’s a splash of soulful sun and waves.

Birdsong at Morning cover

Daniel Gewertz of The Boston Herald called Birdsong at Morning “Art music both unpretentious and ravishing.” Which tells me you don’t have to be young to lay all kinds of labels and layers over your musical jammies (a quick scan of Myspace brings up an astonishing array of wacky descriptions for sounds, although that’s partly about the site’s available categories). BAM is comprised of three “semi-retired musicians (who) coalesced into the ensemble now known as Birdsong At Morning, whose core is a trio of friendly relations that stretch back decades.” It seems a nice, thoughtfully artistic union. I don’t hear “art music” as much as tones and vibrations that went perfectly with country drives in the ‘70s (lead singer/songwriter Alan Williams sounds like Gordon Lightfoot, who I’ve never enjoyed, but I’ve publicly admitted my liking for Jackson Browne, The Eagels, and The Doobie Brothers – well, at least in the last few years I have). BAM makes mellow, sometimes sublime music with a sense of serenity and pastorality. And where’s the harm in that?

Annals of My Glass House emerges in February. The boxed set includes remasters of the the albums Heavens, Bound, Vigil, and Lumens. Graced by Julia Margaret Cameron’s idealized, gently fantastical black-and-white images, it’s an unusually compelling Indie presentation, including a booklet with lyrics, band photos, and more artwork by Julia M.C.

These four CDs are full of gems, with just the occasional misstep (I could have done without the band covering Blondie’s “Dreaming”). Darleen Wilson’s electric guitar playing is just one of several elevating elements: she’s a master of shimmering sounds. Embellished by strings; “Broken Silences” approaches the sublime. The music leading up to and out of the crescendo on “Clean” evokes the otherworldly yet earthy splendor of Danny Kirwan circa Fleetwood Mac’s Future Games and Bare Trees.

This stuff breathes with easy, well-spaced lyricism; in its folds are the wisdom and experience more likely to attend older musicians.

While it may be hard to wrap your head around laying down $24.99 for Annals, the individual albums comprising the set are available for relatively mere bags o’ shells, and tracks can be downloaded from the BAM site.

It’s not about nature in particular, but here’s the first poem I wrote this year:


It’s a new year
but we can be pretty sure
there will be an easter and a fourth
of july, that smart-ass comments will fly thick
and fast on April 1st and there will be everything
and nothing; a birthday and another birthday and another
billion f***ing birthdays and the Fourth of July
and some three-day weekend when you’re worried about having no plans.

And then there’s Halloween, which is rarely as much fun as when
you ran into the crisp cool mystery
of burnt or burning leaves and a faraway moon
and stars really white against a cobalt night,
flying through crunchy leaves
to the rich people’s house where they gave out Reese’s
and the house that smelled funny
and the who knows what will be behind that door house,
but somehow
I am always back in wonder around Christmas, even if at
first I perceive it as a nuisance: All these bright colored lights
bloom from trees, through windows, over bridges; and suddenly
there are reindeer arcing over someone’s roof, and lovely things
to eat, and the fun of what will I give this one and that one;

and really, with all the natural disasters and nuclear power
and environmental change and rampant hybrid viruses
maybe I can’t take it for granted
that there will be an Easter or a smart-ass day
or a groundhog,
really, when you pound the dirt around the plant
in that way you realize
what a wonder it all is, still. Still:

I’d rather be knee-deep in sky
and trees and water, with a home to go to, and
a fireplace
for whatever the hell holidays still stream by
and through – living
in this city can grow old, although
I know if I poke around the garbage long enough,
just sit still long enough in a valley
of miraculous stillness
I will be filled with joy
or polluted air –
and when I’m happy, well, honestly,
it can be hard to tell
the difference

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