Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Why we need critics

A good music critic pays both the artist and the public a service in two ways: 1) They point to, name, describe and invite others to discover greatness that would otherwise be missed, 2) they act as a watchdog against shoddy, unoriginal work – calling artists to work harder and the audience to look deeper. A worthy critic sees hidden qualities which they reveal in artful, compelling prose.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Words from a Friend

My last post was a very useful "scorching" review -- an attempt to look at the Reuel Ropp EP from a distance and judge it... written by Zac Garver.

Different kinds of voices help the artist grow and are necessary to get us to making better art. The critic's voice is one of those. Another is the voice of a friend who has tracked your development as an artist over time and can speak to your work on those terms. What a gift!

Here is what my friend Andrew Kreider wrote about Future Past Present:

I loved listening to this EP.  Congratulations to you both – you have four strong songs here. 
The playing is strong throughout.  Love the harmonica and big reverb on Carry On.  So atmospheric.  The multiple guitars on Graveyard and its whole vibe reminded me of Elbow in the heights of The Seldom Seen Kid.  Awesome.

Again, I want you both to know how impressed I am – keep going!

The hypnotic rocking of Graveyard with its soaring melody lulls the listener with its deceptive simplicity, while Carry On has a strong inner momentum that underlines the courage of moving forward -  the hope that “someone’s plotting better days.”  Carry On ends with this simple offering, “And every step I take is all I have to give anyway.”   Many of us could hope to say as much.

These days, Jonathan writes like a grown man, no longer a youngster– informed by loss, casting his gaze back over terrain he keeps crossing at slightly different angles, starting to discern the shape of a calling that has always been there.  As he rightly puts it, with our deepest calling, it “takes a life to accept it.”  In the end, there can be deep stillness in embracing what has come to be, and these songs show a glimpse of the promise in that struggle, the gift of being “exhausted but rested.” 

With the underlying sense of hope that runs through the whole project, it’s fitting to end the EP on the image of the skies opening after rains – on the line “blue is the sky.”

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Scorching Review

If there were more reviews like this in my circles, we'd be better artists and listeners would be challenged to use their brains and their hearts when they listen, and to expect something worthwhile...
Album Review: Past, Future, Present
by Zac Garver
Great albums are like wine and spirits. Some are 40% strong and best taken in shots or cocktails, while others are 10-15% and should be sipped all evening. The “strength” doesn’t indicate quality or excellence — that would be facile.
After quite a few listens to Past, Future, Present, I suspect that collaborators Jonathan and Jason aren’t quite sure what they’ve made — unaware of how the chemistry has altered from inception. To make matters worse, wines change in the bottle, and the human palate is more than fickle. So too for music.
This album harkens to a school of brewing that employs open vats, wild yeasts and the serendipity of nature — the results are rarely reproducible and thus never commonly available.
I heard brilliant moments on this album. The first track, “Graveyard” is not one of them. I’m no student of music theory, but I kept thinking “this sounds off.” Perhaps musicians will appreciate it— like Coltrane’s Ascension (not an easy drinking spirit, if you will). “Graveyard” is a song about death and I hear the minor chords and meandering scales as an attempt to express the weirdness of death, the simultaneous beauty and sadness. I just can’t shake the sense that this track is two people who aren’t playing from the same song sheet. Like jazz but without the groove. Let’s call it an experimental cocktail that you only order one of.
“Some Dream” on the other hand is glowing. The rumble of Jonathan’s voice and the hum of the guitar took me back to the first time I hit “play” on Jeff Buckley’s “Live at Sin-é.” Lyrically it’s vague, and that’s where it falters (to be fair, Buckley’s “Mojo Pin” is vague and about a dream as well). I want to drink this song all night, but the lyrics keep getting in the way, like sediment or garnish floating on top. I kept asking “What? Which one? This one? That one? One what?” I hear this song as an invitation to self-identify with “some dreams,” plugging in whatever dreams, hopes, and failures I carry. And even though the vagueness felt hasty, this is the track I put on repeat.
“Carry On” is a trolly car rattling through a sleepy town at twice the normal speed. It’s trying to sound and act like a much bigger train. The rhythm of Jason’s guitar and the lonely distant whistle of Jon’s harmonica are gorgeous together. I want to ride that rickety trolly car into the sunset.
Lyrically it lacked the weight that I wanted. Like a beer with great initial flavor, but little complexity — you don’t drink it all night. Even so, this track shows Jon and Jason collaborating at their best, not to be missed or glossed over.
“Green” puts you on a misty hill, in the rolling Appalachians. Close your eyes and you might hear a bard crooning in a dell, but the piano pulls you back and you’re in the auditorium where Jason is putting the keys and piano wires to righteous work. This is very possibly the best track — well composed and executed, with lyrics that keep you focused. It’s no rock ballad, it’s not rye whiskey, or even a tawny port. “Green” is a pre-prohibition cocktail, it’s fresh, bright, but has the antique complexity and depth that you rarely find in a song. The texture of the track — voice, piano, violin (or cello?) and the rustle of the musicians — all comes together unlike the rest of the EP.
Keeping with the cocktail analogy, it’s as much about proportions as quality of ingredients. Finding the right balance is tricky, that’s where a master bar-tender, distiller, or winemaker comes into play — or in the musicians’ case: a producer. For Jonathan and Jason, I think they have the potential to be an astonishing duo — with the right producer. All the right ingredients are there and they’ve found some impressive combinations on this record. I want to see them do a better job perfecting what’s amazing, instead of letting the wild yeast go too far.
In closing, this EP is worth adding to your library and improves with repeated listening — a quality found in the best spirits, wines and albums.