Magnetic Fields, Patty Griffin, Retribution Gospel Choir, Pat Metheny and I See Hawks in L.A.

Patty Griffin's voice lies somewhere between Emmylou Harris's crystalline Country beauty and Bonnie Raitt's Blues-fried rasp, giving her a perfect instrument to interpret the largely Black and Southern Gospel tracks on her new album, 'Downtown Church.' I

Pretty much every minute of my life is defined by music. When I’m not listening to it, I’m thinking about it in some capacity. I’ve said it on many occasions — and I see no reason to refrain from repeating myself — but when I shuffle off this mortal coil and my life passes before me (if that indeed does happen, and I’m really counting on it), my movie is going to have one hell of a soundtrack.

My mindset this week has been encapsulated by an old Todd Rundgren song from the brilliant A Wizard, A True Star set; “Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel.” Every evening there are more images of the absolute misery that's shrouded Haiti, and the suffering is compounded every day. At the same time, there is a loud and viable dialogue taking place in the media over Conan O’Brien’s shafting by NBC, which is costing the network upwards of $45 million to settle. Not a bad severance package when you come down to it.

In other news, my friend Rob just had his gall bladder removed, certainly not a life-threatening operation, but there were complications. While he ultimately was just fine, there was a point when he wasn’t. When the medics put the mask over your face and take a knife to your vitals, every card is on the table.

Then there was the sad news of the passing of local Blues icon Phil Blank, at an age when most bluesmen are just gearing up for their third act. It’s way too soon to be having his memorial service. Way too soon.

I suppose all of this was brought to a head when I got an e-mail from Tebbe Farrell the other morning, just a quick note commemorating what would have been Michael Riley’s 61st birthday. Another one gone well before his time.

Which inexorably leads me to my point, I suppose. I’m getting to that odd tipping point in life where there are more calendars behind me than ahead. And with all of the confusing and disheartening and painful and soul-sucking events playing out within and beyond my experience, I can suddenly understand why some men go completely batshit, leave their families, blow their retirement money on fast cars, drink as though alcohol poisoning was a competitive sport, screw women half their ages and, in most cases, wind up more unhappy than when they began their middle-aged debauchery (insert the female version of all of the above here).

Whether it’s unhappiness at home or the unhappiness of the world or a combination of the two, people get lost in it and without some beacon, some focus to bring them back to port they drift on the psychotic vagaries of their inability to deal with what life throws at them. And while I hope beyond hope (the word “pray” rises up from my Methodist background) that I never experience that unbearable weight (and in some small respects, I already have), I know I’m blessed with the love of a crazy woman, humbled by the love of two beautiful children who have taken great delight in challenging my every notion of what it means to be a regular father, a dwindling but fantastically unbalanced family unit and a battalion of true and brilliant friends who are equally adept at acknowledging my wisdom and calling me on my bullshit.

And music. Jesus on a tortilla, do I have music. There are times when I wonder if physical infirmities will prevent me from enjoying music at some point in my life, and it’s a daunting thought. But I will never forget my father-in-law, who developed macular degeneration in the year before he passed away and eventually lost the ability to read his beloved books. And yet, when we’d visit every Sunday, invariably he’d have a book on his lap.

“I’ve read it so many times, I know what’s in it,” he‘d say with a smile. “I just have to look at it and hold it, and it all comes back.”

I hope I can find that level of serenity when my time is at hand.

For any number of reasons and through all kinds of experience, I have come to accept that sadness is an enormous part of real life and the only people who are happy all the time are hebephrenics who are simply too ill to know that they should be unhappy at least some of the time. Happiness and sadness is a package deal. Life is like a Canadian nickel: You don’t get the Queen without the beaver.

Well, that was a bit of heavy lifting, wasn’t it? Let’s lighten the mood with a little tuneage.

Good stuff this week and the prospect of more in the weeks to come. I’m mapping out the next few posts and there’s some exciting stuff on the horizon; the discs just south of here are merely a start. Dig in, find something you like and investigate further. And don’t worry … be less sad.

Stephin Merritt rarely steps into the studio with his rotating collective, the Magnetic Fields, without a concept in mind. Clearly his greatest thematic work was 1999’s 69 Love Songs, a three-disc magnum opus exploring his chosen subject in all its melancholy splendor and dysfunctional perfection. Merritt’s last go-round with Mag Fields was 2008’s atypical Distortion, a wildly noisy homage to the frenetic sonic blur of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s shrieking psychedelic atmospherics.

For the new Mag Fields offering, Realism, Merritt goes to the other end of the spectrum by placing his baker’s dozen tracks in a baroque Pop/Psych Folk framework. Inspired by the British Folk revolution of the late ’60s, when producers and artists were mesmerized by the increasingly trippy sounds emerging from contemporary Rock, Merritt presents his new songs in the many-faceted context of the era, from the sparsely orchestrated toy piano naivete of “From a Sinking Boat” and “The Dolls’ Tea Party” to the more baroque modernity of “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” and the Frank Zappa Freak Out-Pop touch of “The Dada Polka.”

Although Merritt invests Realism with the familiar sound of ’60s Folk and ’70s Psych Pop, like a mind meld of Richard Thompson, Judy Collins and Harper’s Bizarre, his charmingly acidic lyrical approach remains intact (“You can’t go round just saying stuff/Because it’s pretty/And I no longer drink enough/To think you’re witty” from “You Must Be Out of Your Mind”). Merritt follows the ’60s Folk concept a little too closely; Realism’s 33-minute length is indicative of the era‘s 16-minute per side vinyl structure, and the Far East-flecked “I Don’t Know What to Say” fades just as the track hits its stride (but that’s by design, fading before the song’s protagonist can say the dreaded three words he knows he should say, contradicting the song’s title).

Nevertheless, Realism is another wonderfully reflective and beautifully rendered concept piece from the mind of Stephin Merritt and the hands of the Magnetic Fields.

There might not be a more appropriately monikered band in all of rockdom than Low. The Minneapolis-based trio (guitarist Alan Sparhawk, his drummer/wife Mimi Parker and a rotating bassist, famously Zak Sally, currently Steve Garrington) established its early reputation with ephemeral studio excursions and equally hushed live presentations, even counterintuitively turning their amps down when confronted with blithely inattentive audiences. In recent years, Low has become slightly more aggressive in sonic approach, but the band’s needle only occasionally reaches the red.

Perhaps as a reaction to capping down his Rock impulses so deep for so long, Sparhawk assembled a new trio in 2005 when Zak Sally couldn’t clear his schedule for Low to play an annual Duluth festival. Christened as Retribution Gospel Choir, Sparhawk, original bassist Matt Livingston and drummer Eric Pollard set a course for sonic territory that was virtually unknown to Low, both in the live setting and with their eponymous 2008 debut. Produced and released by former Red House Painter Mark Kozelek, RGC’s first album was a revelation of volume and control, combining the rootsy Psychedelia of Crazy Horse, the dark Pop melodicism of Catherine Wheel and the beautifully sludgy riff sculpting of Dead Meadow.

RGC’s sophomore album and Sub Pop debut, the cleverly titled 2, follows a similar course as its predecessor, but with some notable differences. New Low bassist Garrington has replaced Livingston and the band is considerably tighter and more cohesive due to a couple of tours in the intervening years. As a result, 2 expands the parameters set on the debut, pushing up the bombast to almost Prog-like levels without a corresponding rise in pretension; there are no interminable suites on 2, as the whole album clocks in at around 33 minutes.

“Hide It Away” and “Your Bird” bluster with Red-era King Crimson histrionics and a gorgeous Pop melodicism while “Workin’ Hard” bristles with an Indie Pop perspective on Classic Rock and “Poor Man’s Daughter” wails with an adrenalized Crazy Horse rush. It probably shouldn’t come as any surprise that Low and Retribution Gospel Choir are both based in relative conceptual simplicity, the main difference being the concussive volume and unapologetic abandon that RGC liberally applies to the proceedings.

Patty Griffin’s place in any number of Halls of Fame is assured. Her recorded work — six albums over the past 15 years — defines the very best elements of Americana. The inherent value of her songwriting has been recognized by a stellar array of artists that have had the good sense and great taste to put her songs on their albums, including Emmylou Harris, the Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire, Miranda Lambert and Bette Midler, among others. And if one is known by the company they keep, Griffin is well and wonderfully known as a frequent participant in a dream tour bannered as Three Girls and Their Buddy, featuring herself, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin and guitarist/sanctified-songwriter-in-his-own-right Buddy Miller.

After Griffin recorded the spiritual “Waiting for My Child” with renowned Gospel vocalist Mavis Staples for the Oh Happy Day compilation, EMI head Peter York suggested that Griffin consider recording an album of like-minded material, which she agreed to do so long as Miller was behind the console. Given Miller’s musical expertise and spiritual leanings, the recording of Griffin’s seventh album, Downtown Church, was a musical marriage made in — if you’ll excuse the turn of phrase — heaven.

Griffin’s voice lies somewhere between Emmylou Harris’s crystalline Country beauty and Bonnie Raitt’s Blues-fried rasp, giving her a perfect instrument to interpret these largely Black and Southern Gospel tracks. The album was recorded in a Presbyterian church in Nashville that once claimed Andrew Jackson as a congregate, and Griffin sang the songs — a fraction of the playlist that Miller introduced to Griffin — from the church’s pulpit. Downtown Church is a positively stirring collection — the Country hymn of “House of Gold,” the Folk prayer of “Little Fire,” the worksong Blues spiritual of “Death’s Got a Warrant,” the gorgeous Americana balladry of “Coming Home to Me,” the simple elegance of the old English hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” — and the album is strengthened by its amazing musical and spiritual diversity.

There was never any doubt of Patty Griffin’s musical sincerity and boundless talent. With Downtown Train, she’s managed to slip more than a little divinity into her résumé.

Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny is one of those artists that the industry is compelled to leave to their own devices simply because of the critical and commercial success that they’ve achieved. While his sales haven’t approached the number of units generated by Kenny G (who Metheny famously and rightly savaged for the saxophonist’s desecration of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” a decade ago), they have certainly been substantial. There isn’t a label brain trust anywhere on the planet that could have advised Metheny to a better track record than the 17 Grammys he has received in 12 different categories over his 33-year career, an astounding seven of which came on consecutive Pat Metheny Group releases, a record that is likely to stand for a very long time.

Over the years, Metheny has split his time between innovation beyond the established constructs of the Jazz he has perfected and paddling around in its safe harbors (and given Metheny’s chops, there’s no criticism intended in that statement). Metheny’s latest solo excursion, Orchestrion, hews toward the former as the guitarist worked for several months with a gauntlet of scientists and engineers to create a modern orchestrion, a large mechanical device from the late 19th/early 20th centuries that combined orchestral instruments into a single playable unit. Metheny and his technologists devised an orchestrion that could be guided by the guitarist by virtue of solenoid switches and pneumatic controls like his envisioned modern version of the player piano. He then composed music, set the orchestrion in motion and improvised his guitar over the proceedings.

While none of Orchestrion’s five lengthy tracks stray impossibly far from Metheny’s recognizable soundscape, there are moments of almost Zappa-like whimsy and invention, particularly in the album’s 15-minute opening title track. Still in all, Orchestrion is a stunning accomplishment as a true solo album; Metheny’s only sidemen were the technicians that helped him assemble his Rube Goldberg Jazz machine (a hint of its enormity and complexity is on Orchestrion’s cover, where you can play “Where’s Waldo Metheny?”).

The jaded listener might simply hear a good Pat Metheny album, but one can't experience Orchestrion without considering the amazing details of its intricate creation and execution, which in fact never overwhelm Metheny’s excellent compositions, pacing and structure.

Orchestrion might be novel, but it's no mere novelty. It’s beautiful, heartfelt, spontaneous and reflective. All of the things that comprise great Jazz.

When is a greatest hits album not a greatest hit album? A good indication is when a third of its set list is spiced with songs that are either new or have never been released. But the best sign that the collection you’re spinning isn’t a greatest hits package is when there aren’t any hits. And in the case of I See Hawks in L.A., it’s almost unfathomable that the SoCal quartet (with a boatload of talented friends guesting) is in that very position with their new career overview, Shoulda Been Gold.

Formed just over a decade ago by relocated Minnesotan Rob Waller and former Polka shuffler Paul Lacques, the Hawks were an immediate local sensation, combining the Country/Rock style points of The Byrds, the peyote-hazed Honky Tonk of the Flying Burrito Brothers and the trailblazing Country/Pop hybridization of Michael Nesmith along with a twisted sense of humor and laser guided lyrics of social and political import.

I See Hawks in L.A. have released four albums to date — their eponymous 2001 debut, 2004’s Grapevine, 2006’s California Country and 2008’s Hallowed Ground — and each successive disc has found the Hawks inching ever closer to a perfect blending of Country, Pop and Rock, a mutation that features elements of all three genres but is rarely any one of them completely.

If you’ve never heard the Hawks, Shoulda Been Gold is a great sampler. There are excellent selections from their last three albums (including the scorching “Texarkanada,” the brilliantly bouncy “Raised by Hippies” and the gently scathing “Midnight in Orlando”), a trio of terrific tunes recorded specifically for this album (including the title track, “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulet” and a cover of David Allen Coe’s “Bossier City,” the latter two with guest vocalist Carla Olson), a couple of archive cuts from the Grapevine sessions, the unreleased 2000 demo of the song from their debut album that gave the band their name and a live version of “The Mystery of Life.”

If this is where you’re beginning your Hawks education, Shoulda Been Gold will inspire you to fill in the gaps by seeking out the albums that comprise the collection. And if you‘re already enlightened to the Hawks’ Cali cowboy gumbo, congratulations on your great taste — but you’ll still want Shoulda Been Gold for its unheard treasures.

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