I wake up early to make lunches for myself and my fiancée to take to our jobs. I put on headphones and listen to something as I shuffle back and forth between fridge and countertop. Some days I listen to a podcast. It’s conversation, it’s pleasant and funny and it’s like I have company. But on days when I start with podcasts, that usually turns out to be all I listen to–I get sucked into other human’s voices and let myself zone out and pass the time without thinking about my own voice or my work. Most days, I try to at least start my days with music. It’s stimulating, it’s active, less like pleasant company and more like an intense date. It structures the day. If I’m dancing by 5:30 am, what do I have to fear?
Last Friday I listened to The Coroner’s Gambit by the Mountain Goats–an album from 2000 produced and played and written solely by John Darnielle. Person, guitar, voice. I heard the line “the wind began to wail / and you gathered your hair behind your head / like god was gonna catch you by the pony tail.” If I’ve heard a moment of such powerful, pummeling beauty by 5:45 am, coming from one single person, what else is left to accomplish today?
Later that night, my fiancée and I went to see the Florida Orchestra play a few things I’d never heard of: Barber’s “The School for Scandal Overture,” Mozart’s “Bassoon Concerto, K.191,” and Holst’s “The Planets.” In relief of my Darnielling that morning, the orchestra interested me for its lack of vocals–which seems obvious. Here were dozens of musicians speaking to each other, playing with such impressive dynamics, communicating the character of the cosmos with just wire and wood and brass; here was a conductor making me realize the heft of that job for the first time, conducting the music from the players to the audience, from the dead composers to the players, from the vast history of far-off everything through those once-living men–like lightning that could pass through much more than atmosphere. I understood so much by watching him; and none of it could match the significance of Darnielle’s single line, which dealt with the same cosmic emotions by tossing off the god reference and investing everything in the girl in the scene. Darnielle is a great conductor.
Frances Quinlan and her band Hop Along are great conductors. Like Darnielle, she can deliver you a line obviously brilliant and make it seem like she just stumbled upon it. She comes upon a line and her voice coils around it. She squeezes it until the last breath, but not like murder, like murder-suicide, like something mutual and powerful enough to shove back at life. “The world’s gotten so small and embarrassing,” she screams. To me, it’s an answer to her call from the last album, “Why’s everything so expensive?” The band is masterful at intensifying conversation. Like an orchestra, the band and her voice can surf awesome dynamics–swells of terror and confessional whispers and harsh silences. No band right now captures as much cosmos in pop song as Hop Along. Painted Shut, their Essential Listening second LP, is out on Saddle Creek.
A last grasp at meaning: A week after the orchestra, Dave Dondero played in Ybor and he played a cover of Don McLean‘s “Vincent.” “Starry, starry night, portraits hung in empty halls / Frameless heads on nameless walls.” In between earlier songs, he yelled at the Scientology center across the street. A week before I had pitted an orchestra against John Darnielle as conductors. Now it was Dondero and Scientology: once again, a guitar and a man, whose van had broken down earlier in the week, and who had then, in thanks, brought along his mechanic (himself a songwriter) to play the rest of the tour with him…strumming to handful of people in relief of a religion purporting to literally channel the cosmos. A cosmos they, or one of them, invented for profit. Is that a different kind of conducting than Darnielle or Quinlan or Dondero or Van Gogh or McLean’s version of Van Gogh or Mozart? Is it a question of who would be there for me at 5 am with a short, sweet song?
From the Mountain Goats’ new Beat the Champ. Get it all the ways from Merge.