Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Million Parachutes

I've alluded in the past to a couple of songs I see as Sixpence's Big Guitar Tracks -- most notably "Too Far Gone" and the Sixpence ur-jam, "Within a Room Somewhere." These are the best studio recordings Sixpence has made of Matt Slocum's guitar prowess -- I never get tired of these tracks, and hear new things in the guitar sections every time I listen to them -- but the best example(s) of what Slocum is capable of on the guitar have been the various live recordings of "Meaningless" over the years.

Until now.

I will save you the suspense: the video below is a ten-minute version of "A Million Parachutes" from December 2013. Be patient, and watch it.



This song is the closer of Divine Discontent, all bittersweet melancholy as the narrator watches the snow fall and remembers happier times. It's a very sad song, made sadder perhaps by Leigh Nash's oft-repeated assertion that it was her late father's favorite Sixpence song. On the record, it meanders, and like many of the longer songs on the record, it doesn't seem to really go anywhere, simply circling back on itself again and again.

This live version seems to take a similar approach at first -- though Slocum changes the riff to be something more suitable for a single guitarist, it's still a slow, pensive 3 and a half minutes before the song's instrumental bridge.

 But then? Ho. Ly. Crap.

I heard this for the first time yesterday. I don't remember why I was looking for it, but I could not stop smiling as soon as the instrumental section started. This is the guitar solo I've kind of been fantasizing about since "Within a Room" ended abruptly on This Beautiful Mess. Slocum uses the spacey, reverby tone he was also using at the time on Sixpence's spooky and beautiful cover of Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" (which you can see here -- guitar solo stars around 3:50), but instead of leaving and letting notes ring, he just lets freaking loose.

I almost don't know what to say about this. You watched it, right? I know, I'm always trying to find a way to show people that Sixpence is a Serious Artsy Rock Band and not a one-hit pop wonder, but seriously, you guys..This is epic post-rock territory -- Slocum's melodic instincts, but in the style of the soaring, impassioned guitar work of Explosions in the Sky or Sigur Ros. It's like the part of "Paranoid Android" where Jonny Greenwood goes nuts, but for five minutes.

I don't know who's playing drums here, but the eight notes he's doing on the bass drum at the crescendo of this thing really work to propel it forward, too. And the end! That classic twinkly Sixpence guitar, fading out into nothing. He keeps playing even when the volume is turned all the way down.

I thought I was kind over Sixpence as a Rock Band. I think I'm not anymore.




Friday, November 1, 2013

We Have Forgotten

It comes from nowhere, and from everywhere. It is gentle, but it is insistent. It is quiet and persistent. It grows and grows and grows like a garden, opening into something that envelops you in this new world. This is not going to be a rock and roll record; it’s not even an “alternative” or “folk” record. The guitars do not even really announce themselves as guitars -- they are watercolors, or, later, conduits of melody.

And oh, that voice: for the first time not hidden under reverb  that AM-radio sheen of Smiths/Cure-style production. It is pristine, clear, beautiful and sad. We have forgotten, she sings. You don’t know yet what she is singing about, but you believe her.

And just so we’re clear, a string quartet shows up about halfway through.

“We Have Forgotten” is, obviously, the first track on Sixpence None the Richer, the band’s third and best-selling, best-known, and best album --well, I say “best-known,” but I am not sure their albums are all that well-known compared to their singles. But this is well-covered territory for us.

So many things seemed to be in the right place for this record, even though its recording began more or less in secret as the band attempted to extricate itself from a raw deal of a contract from a bankrupt record label for what would of course by no means be the last time.

Steve Taylor is probably to be thanked for this album’s immaculate sound. I’m not really familar with his other production work, outside of (I’m embarrassed to admit) the Newsboys’ Take Me To Your Leader, but even there he appears to have had a knack for stripping away distracting sounds and focusing on melodies. 

(Thankfully, unlike the Newsboys record, he was not co-writing lyrics for Sixpence.  Not that he is an awful lyricist, but when Matt Slocum is writing your lyrics you are pretty much good to go.) There is very little in the way of extraneous instrumentation, or even “production,” on this album. It is drums, guitars, bass, vocals, string quartet, and the occasional tasteful keyboard or horn.

Matt Slocum was once again solely in charge of guitars for this record -- and to be honest I’m not sure how many, if any, of the guitars Tess Wiley recorded on This Beautiful Mess -- and he uses a variety of textures: jangly chords, e-bowed melodies, spacey delayed riffs, most of which are on offer in this first track.

J. J. Plasencio, who famously played a six-string bass, at least at times, recorded nearly all the bass tracks for this record before leaving the band, but he and Dale Baker on drums are an infinitely more restrained rhythm section here than on their previous recording with Sixpence. Baker’s beats on “We Have Forgotten” are a clue to what is to come: he almost never even plays quarter notes on the hi-hat in this song, and the first chorus is a study holding back.

It’s difficult to say more about Leigh Nash’s voice -- I tried at the beginning there -- and her voice is clearly the guiding light for these songs, but to my mind it is actually the string quartet (I’ll be honest: I’m not sure it’s always a quartet, but it sounds classier to put it that way) that makes this record. Earlier records had Slocum on cello, and Divine Discontent has its big-budget, Van Dyke parks-arranged orchestra (or what feels like an orchestra), but in the bridge of this song, we get a beautifully arranged, never-ostentatious string section that feels like a natural part of the band rather than a tacked-on extra, as it often did in 90’s rock. The cello, viola, and violin are essential parts of the sound of this record, doubling or playing off the bass and guitar.

“We Have Forgotten” is an immaculate-sounding, gentle pop song about life in an irreparably fallen -- yet somehow, indelibly lovely -- world. Its form is its function; its sound is its message. It is the opening chapter of Sixpence None the Richer’s clearest, purest artistic, spiritual, and musical statement. With each listen, the garden blooms again.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Safety Line

I believe, deeply, in marriage as a concept. But it is easy to believe in a concept, or rather it is impossible to believe in a concept: intellectual assent signifies very little, if belief is taken to be analogous to trust -- to "believe in" something/someone is to trust in something/someone. How can you trust in a thing, a concept, a disembodied idea?

This song suggests that spouses act as anchors for one another. Maybe marriage does not always feel like this, but when it's at its best (or rather when things seem to be at their worst) this is how it works: two people shepherd each other's pain and craziness, tether each other to a better reality when one threatens to spiral out of control with grief or stress or anxiety or trauma.  I know this works. I have seen it work in my own life.

This song capitalizes on a strength of late-period Sixpence, which is a kind of relentless, mid-tempo groove. (See also: "Give it Back," "A Million Parachutes") Played live, these songs open up a lot of space for interesting guitar work and solos, but on record they give a sense of -- and I mean this in a good way despite the way I'll state it -- a kind of plodding, neverending stalwartness. I do mean it in a good way -- I think of these as songs that are always playing somehow, eternally -- it's just as if we turn the fader up for a few minutes at a time, then turn it back down, but those four piano and guitar chords keep playing, even if we're not listening. (With occasional breaks for truly tasty pedal steel.)

And that, I hope and pray, is what marriage is: relentless, monotonous, worn and comfortable; an anchor, a tether, a line connecting me not only to Big Things that I believe in, like love and charity and hospitality and kindness, but to one person to whom I have committed my life, to whom I have sworn I will never leave, will never let go.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Bleeding


Pollstar: Regarding the business side of Sixpence, are you and Matt the sole members, essentially owning the band 50/50?



Is Sixpence None the Richer a band?

That's an odd question; by all accounts, they are -- they've got guitars, drums, etc., and "Sixpence None the Richer" is not a pseudonym for a solo artist (unlike, say, Nine Inch Nails or even the lesser known Christian band/artist Plumb, which most people assumed was a band when Sixpence bassist J J Plasencio joined it, but was later said to merely be the nom de rock of one Tiffany Arbuckle).

But Sixpence has been through numerous lineup changes in their twenty years, and since around 2004, they've been marketed more as a duo than a band. Publicity photos no longer include any other band members but Slocum and Nash, which makes more sense, really -- especially if you remember the two versions of the photo in their self-titled record: the 1997 version with Slocum, Nash, and Dale Baker (a guitarist, a drummer, and a singer do not a band make), the 1999 one with Slocum, Nash, Baker, and Justin Cary and Sean Kelly, the latter two of whom played not a single note on the original recording.

Many hardcore Sixpence fans, or at least those nerdy enough to be on a long-running Yahoo email list about the band, which has been heating up in anticipation of their new record which is out tuesday , see the 1995-ish lineup for This Beautiful Mess and the subsequent tour as the definitive period of Sixpence as a band. It's hard to argue with this: in terms of a cohesive unit, it's the most deep and versatile the band qua band has been -- Baker, Plasencio, and Slocum worked well as an instrumental core, all of them having played together for long enough to read each other well -- the several versions of the "Meaningless" jam available on bootlegs attest to this. I've never actually seen or heard the version of the band with Wiley on guitar and vocals, but having another woman on BGVs would certainly have been another strength -- Sixpence appears to be touring with another female vocalist (Kate York, perhaps?) at the moment; and the video clips of Jerry Dale McFadden trying his best falsetto to match Leigh are...a bit much.

So: let's take "Bleeding" as Sixpence's quintessential "band" album track: the persistent, hypnotic drumming intro, the plodding bassline, all kinds of guitar agony: a desolate landscape is evoked. It's not that other Sixpence recordings are not textured and evocative, but this is one of the few tracks where we really get a sense that there could be a rock and roll band making this noise together in a room. (Never mind whether that really happened -- the point is it feels like a band, unlike some of Sixpence's other masterful recordings, also full and deep, but more orchestral and arranged. We're talking about the difference between, say, The rock-band Radiohead of The Bends and the careful studio technician Radiohead of In Rainbows.)

I'm over the fact that Sixpence is no longer a guitar band, but this song probably does the most creative work with distorted guitars that we hear on TBM -- single chords ring forever and feedback is allowed to roam freely across the track, and the solo is less melody than roar. In a long-lost feature on the band form this era, writer from the Chrindie zine True Tunes quoted Slocum: "How did you like those My Bloody Valentine notebends I was doing?"

I'll go ahead and answer that: we liked them.

"Bleeding" goes a little over the top in the melancholy department; there's maybe not infinite sadness in the lyrics and the pleading drone they're sung in, but "I'm beating my soul to make it bleed a drop of hope" is about as brilliantly mopey as any Smashing Pumpkins track from the era. Yes, the Pumpkins: I will stop mentioning them when I talk about this record from now on, but they were mentioned by Slocum in an interview right before TBM was released, and the guitar tones here do owe something to that band, who in the 90's really were, in my book, the masters at eliciting pathos from distortion and feedback. "Bleeding" would not be the song it is if it were made by the Sixpence of the Fatherless and the Widow, where it would have been all reverb and acoustic strumming, nor the Sixpence of Divine Discontent, where the ringing feedback might've been replaced by a tasteful, swelling orchestra. This is Sixpence None the Richer as a 90's rock band, and they were great at it.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Too Far Gone

I am tempted often to speak of the desperation I hear in the songs of this band. Yet as much as they express frustrated human longing, what else is remarkable about the songs of Sixpence -- and perhaps of any compentent pop band -- is their formal elegance. Theodor Adorno once denegrated popular music as lacking "concrete totality" when compared to classical music, which was allegedly more cohesive due to the relationship of its constituent parts of the whole. Pop songs, I suppose, were seen more like a clumsily pasted-together collage than, say, the thoughtfully balanced composition of a painting.

There is a sense in which Adorno was right: while a classical piece may follow its compositional threads multifariously, a pop song is math and psychology. Intro + Verse + Chorus + Verse  + Bridge +  Chorus + Outro, mostly in 8- or 16-bar subdivisions. Chords and melodies are easily manipulated in order to evoke in us certain predictable reactions.

But is the skillful manipulation of these things not, to most of our ears, utterly satisfying? And can a pop song not, whether at three minutes or stretched nearly to seven, as in the case of "Too Far Gone," surprise and delight? And cannot guitar solos do totally bad-ass stuff which, using the magic pixie dust of improvisation, move a pop song from the realm of the regiment and structure to that of imagination and possibility?

Before we consider the structure of "Too Far Gone," let me mention another seemingly unrelated pop song I love:  Weezer's "Undone (the Sweater Song)." It was said by Jim deRogatis to "have at least three distinct movements." I assume he refers to the spoken-word sections, the chorus, and the frantic crescendo of the conclusion (probably?), but whatever he meant, it's clear that the song includes several very simple sections, smushed together, which, when following one after the other, lead to something spectacular. The end of the song, in fact, I'd argue, is impossible without the parts that come before it, and its impact is also imposible without the wailing guitar solo, which breaks the song out of its incredibly simple three-chord beginnings to a a twisting bridge and a frenzied, joyous end.

So: "Too Far Gone." A simple Casio beat and a four-chord piano sequence that rewinds itself every four bars unfolds into a pre-chorus carried by a mellotron to the chorus and its three-part harmony payoff: "Am I just too far gone to be saved?" After only one minute, the song's structure has been wholly revealed, and it will essentially repeat itself for the next six. Organ and guitar are added, and at nearly three minutes in, when the pre-chorus starts to come back, one starts to feel cheated. Two short verses? A plodding vamp that simply repeats itself? No bridge?

But here is where the song, using no more than the building blocks already provided, takes a turn: the two pre-choruses are stacked one after the other, the metaphors of self-sabotage piling up till hope seems lost ("I'm shut out, I'm shut in ... I'm tied up, I'm tied down"), and then, the final twist: "You'll never be too far gone to be saved." This seems too pat, though -- too obvious, right? What's that, Christian rock band? You did a song about how things seem bad, but in the end, they're all going to be OK?

In the hands of another band, this would ring hollow. But remember this: Matt Slocum can say things with his guitar. Did you not know this? I remind you of a sentence from the liner notes to the song "Big Reconstruction" on Soul Rash, the first record by Slocum's pre-Sixpence band Love Coma:

If you listen closely, Matt's guitar speaks:

Yes -- that is what I've been trying to say each time I mention a Slocum guitar solo, and on "Too Far Gone," after the lyrical shift to hope, we get almost three more minutes of guitar work -- way more than on "Within a Room Somewhere," the band's previous guitar masterpiece. What Slocum's guitar is saying at any moment is difficult to translate, but it is always couched within the sentiment already created by the music and lyrics of the present song (how's that for totality, Adorno?). What seems to be happening here is a meandering, a twisting back, and a questioning that rises and rises as the notes of the solo climb higher.

Within the song's final minute things reach a much more fevered pitch than the lyrics could have suggested. There is a hard-won victory in that final high, repeated riff that ends around 5:58, a suggestion of existential triumph -- yet as the solo continues and the song fades out, I'm left with a distinct "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" vibe. Guitar solos are hard work, and they shape a void into something real, if only momentarily. This one gives glimpses of awful clarity, but it never ends -- it makes beautiful shapes before diving back into the fray (I accidentally typed gray there, which seems appropriate). Nash's vocal gives "Too Far Gone" an answer, but Slocum's guitar lives the questions.

PS: here is a copy of the song on YouTube, just so you can listen if you like.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Circle of Error

I'm very happy to present the first ever guest entry on Songs That Explain, written by my good friend Kevin Davis. I've known Kevin for over a decade and have had the pleasure of watching his career as a musician grow and change in remarkable ways. He has been a member of the bands Glowworm, Pacific UV, and Strange Holliday, and is currently making music under his own name. His music has been featured, among other places, on the HBO series Californication and the public radio program This American Life.  Please visit his new blog at www.kevinscottdavis.net or listen to his new album at www.kevindavismusic.com. -- Joel


Dm7, F, C, G. Who starts a song with what has been, historically speaking, the least resolved chord in the world? Matt Slocum. And for good reason. His 1995 song “Circle of Error” is about trials and mistakes, and being stuck in a self-inflicted pattern of dubious repetition. Here in the key of C, a D minor chord has no strong pull to resolve upward or downward, giving the progression the feel of having no definite beginning or end. The usually dominant G chord, which wants so badly to resolve to the key's center of C, is never given a chance to, but is always followed again by the D minor, forcing the progression to start over again. The pattern could repeat endlessly. Even on the recording, Slocum’s band opts for a fade out instead of an ending, suggesting that the song continues on well past the audible mark. 

“Can I ask? Can I find? Can I scream for you to forgive the time I spend on this awful carousel again? In my circle of error, I go round and round again…”

My first experience hearing this song was when I was 16. I attended a concert by a local folk -rock band, in the sanctuary of a church near my small hometown in Northern California. I hadn’t expected a lot, but was soon struck by two things. First, the otherwise all-male group was fronted by a female singer – a young, shy blonde, standing very still on stage, and holding the microphone as if it was a foreign object, her blue eyes scanning the room nervously but sweetly. There were not a lot of musicians in my small town, and a sight like this was even stranger. It was obvious that the guitarist was the musical force behind the band- but he did something smart: just like Matt Slocum, he stepped into the background and let someone a little more iconic, and with an untrained, naturally beautiful voice – like Leigh Nash –  take a very unassuming lead. 

The second thing, which I’ll never forget, was when the group announced a cover by a band called Sixpence None the Richer. They strummed that first D minor in “Circle of Error”, and I was enthralled. The singer’s fragile voice had a crisp purity, giving the song’s lyrics a transparency that felt mature beyond the band’s collective age. I knew I had to track down the song and figure out who the band was.

After the concert was over, a friend introduced me to the musicians, whom I was eager to commend. We got invited to a party, and hung out together in someone’s living room late into the evening. Being the church-hatched youth we were, acoustic guitars came out and whittling away ensued. I had been playing guitar for about a year and half then, and eventually one landed in my lap. By the end of the night, I was invited to join the band. That was it. I was in my first band. No auditions, just mutual youthful exuberance, and a sort of innocent magic exploding around the room. 

I must have played “Circle of Error” a thousand times over the next two years. It was the first cover I ever performed. It contained my very first guitar solo. And it was the introduction to my long-lasting love of Sixpence's music. I even went on to major in music in college, learning to arrange strings, initially, because I wanted to be able to do it as beautifully as Matt Slocum did on their self-titled album.

Fast-forward fourteen years. I am now 31, and though I still cannot arrange strings as beautifully as Mr. Slocum, music has provided the pathway into almost every major endeavor in my life. A lot of shows, a lot of bands, a lot of recordings, and a lot of good old-fashioned band breakups have happened in that span of that time, and I owe Sixpence thanks for inspiring me to get started. 

Other things have happened too. It’s tough to keep up youthful innocence in the big, bad, world—especially in the world of music. This is something Sixpence should know well, if their tumultuous history with the record label industry is any indication. If you were to meet me today, I’d have to introduce myself as a struggling artist, a recovering alcoholic, and, above all things, a prodigal son. As it turns out, my own life has been about trials and mistakes, and self-inflicted patterns of dubious repetition. How little I’d understood at 16 what Slocum was writing about, how he might have felt—and how well I understand it now! I think many others must understand it, too; as the apostle Paul wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, and what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)

I’ll end here, without any great punctuation on the positivity or ease of Christian life or making music. But I will say, with a great big smile, that in 2010, I came back to my faith, and learned for the first time how to really get up off the floor and begin again, and again, and again…


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Us

I've got this theory. A lot of people have theories about stuff -- people who normally seem to be within the pale of conventional wisdom in whatever intellectual tradition or community or belief system you'd expect, but then you suddenly hear them casually mention something you'd never have guessed someone like them -- whoever you believe them to be -- to think; like maybe "I believe in past lives," or "Satan makes people do things" or "bad things happen in threes" or "I don't see what the big deal is about illegal immigration" or "evolutionary theory should be applied to every aspect of human culture" or "I think unicorns really used to exist" or "I think everyone should try LSD at least once" or whatever.

So here's mine: I believe that music and love are the same thing.

That sounds really sentimental and cheesy and stupid and I've got almost nothing to back it up with. But I believe it. I feel it in my bones so obviously. I literally, actually believe that to play or sing music in a certain way is to actually, literally express love.

My friend Matt wrote a master's thesis about the way that musicality and lyrics interact to create meaning in pop music (I haven't read it, I'm sorry to say), and that might be kind of what I'm getting at here; if I actually knew more about music I might be able to make a more intellectual, Pythaogorean argument about music and math and how certain ratios of things resonate deeply within us because they're somehow built into the fabric of the universe.

But I don't even really know what the circle of fifths is, so how am I supposed to explain this? How am I supposed to explain that even though the chorus of "Us," one of the more cerebral pop songs of Sixpence's career, is simply one word -- you guessed it, "us" -- that the whole song, from the strings to the castanets to (especially) the bendy, zig-zagging guitar line, is an affirmation of love?

Maybe it's like this. Maybe "us" is a mantra. Maybe we start out believing that this song is just about the love between two people which it obviously is, on the surface. It's relationshippy and romantic in the verses, so there's no reason to believe the choral "us" is anything more than a couple. Yet as the song progresses, as the repeated "us" of the chorus seeps out and bleeds into the music, so the "us" of the song begins its semantic -- maybe even mystical -- shift from the particular to the universal (and, one hopes, back to the particular): Suppose, one thinks, suppose I were to live like "you're the only thing that matters" (repeated three times at the close of the song's bridge). Suppose I were to give warmth to the cold. Suppose I really do "sacrifice myself."

Suppose, as Tim Winton writes in his lovely novel Cloudstreet, " it's not us and them anymore. It's us and us and us. It's always us."

Suppose "Us" is not a silly love song. Suppose "Us" is the central fact of existence, the mystery that it is not good for man to be alone, that the two will become one flesh, that the unmanifested divine, in fact, will become flesh, that the kingdom of God is within/among us.

Suppose that it takes you repeated listens to a four-minute pop-song to figure all this out, and that when you finally figure it out it's not only because the singer kept repeating that one word, but because the guitars were somehow echoing with questions, the chords somehow were tugging your mind toward revelation, the harmonies and strings were somehow pulling you out of yourself, and the drums were backing off to give you space to think.

I say "suppose" because I can't be sure you're feeling that. But human subjectivity being what it is, I'm going to go with it. I don't suppose I've explained how music is love, here, exactly, but in the end I guess I can't. Fides quarens intellectum and all that.

Today's the twelfth anniversary of our first date, by the way, me and my wife --  from whom I have learned a lot about what really matters.