October 2010

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Living Room Songs — track 11 “Memory Of Your Smile” by Mike Seeger, Dave Grisman, & Maria Muldaur from Hills of Home

I’ve been hesitating somewhat about writing about this track because I have a certain ambivalence about it. One one hand it’s a very good song — very good spirited with lively playing, good singing, and a sense that everyone involved is having fun. On the other hand this is one of the songs that barely made the cut for this compilation, and that fact both makes me more conscious of the ways in which it doesn’t quite fit and is an interesting illustration of the selection that goes into a compilation like this.

A bit of background, the song is originally from the album Third Annual Farewell Reunion in which Mike Seeger works with different musicians on every track. AMG says, of this album, “The diversity at work in this collection is an impressive testament to the depth of America’s folk music, and the cohesive, seamless flow of the sequencing is also a testament to Seeger’s ability to see the full field as an acoustic musician. To his credit, nothing here is treated like a museum piece, and each track is allowed a chance at a living, breathing vitality.” In keeping with that description of the album, I think that one of the important virtues of the performance is how friendly and genuinely collaborative the song is.

The first thing to notice about the track is Maria Muldaur’s vocals, and how much fun she has really digging into a line like, “I wandered from one bar to another . . .” The second thing is the way that she steps back (about 1 minute in) to allow Mike and Dave to play together.

As for why I hesitated to include it, my first reason was that I worried that Muldaur’s singing had too much of a blues feel. I wanted to avoid traditional music which was directly related to the blues because I feel like that’s a style with which most people are already familiar, and I wanted to highlight a specific and different genre of traditional music. I don’t know whether anybody other than me would care about that distinction in regards to this compilation. My other reason for concern was that I didn’t think this track exhibited any unique virtues, it isn’t exceptional in the quality of the recording, the intimacy of the performance, or the imagination of the instrumental improvisation (if you compare this track to the Stacey Phillips/Paul Howard track, for example, the playing isn’t even close to as good). It’s solidly good in all of those areas, but it isn’t exceptional.

Ultimately I included it because I did find that it got stuck in my head after I listened to it, and I wanted to emphasize the catchy side of traditional music.

But it makes me reflect on my specific approach to mix-making, which is to try to make, as best I can, a statement about the styles of music that I’m working with. I do have a bias towards selections which exhibit a specific excellence, and I feel like in some ways that’s limiting and that I would improve as a maker of compilations if I worried less about that. In many ways I find the same dynamic at work writing this blog. It’s easy for me to write about music which I consider to be superb (which is a lot of music), but I’m never quite sure how to write about songs that are just fun, and that I want to share — other than saying just that. So there are a large number of songs that I would like to share, at some point, that I don’t post because I’m trying to find an angle from which I can find unique virtues to highlight.

Incidentally, some of you may recognize that this track is off of the same collection as Sweet Lucy.

As a second incidental note, I have to say that, on this particular track, there is a noticeable loss of sound quality in the conversion to .mp3.

I tend to think of Los Lobos as a band that is competent and frequently good, but not notably charismatic. I like their better songs and performances but, on average, there isn’t that much that really draws me to Los Lobos.

But watching on a whim this performance from 1992 I found myself completely fascinated by their stage presence. It is a example of the video adding something to the audio for me.

It makes me reflect that, for many brilliant pop/rock performers, on of the virtues of being on stage is the opportunity for a complete self (re-)invention. You can have David Bowie, on one hand and, say, Bruce Springsteen on the other and in either case their stage persona doesn’t invite you to ask anything about what they’re really like off stage (I realize that part of the Bruce Springsteen persona is that he really is a Jersey Boy, but there is still clearly a “Bruce Springsteen persona” quite separate from Bruce Springsteen the person).

Watch Los Lobos, by contrast, they come across as “just another band from East LA” — representing a specific time and place, which is grounded in real world community. The fact that they’re heavier, non-white, wearing what look like department store clothes, etc . . . creates a very different impression than how most pop acts present themselves.

That may just be an illusion; I’m not making a claim about “authenticity” per se, just that I found the video really effective as a combination of sound and image. I’m sure they each have their performance persona.

Incidentally, here are two more recent videos of theirs which I also like. One from a festival in which they look like rock stars, and one from a more casual setting in which they look every bit like veteran musician who have spent a lot of time holding those instruments.

Living Room Songs — track 10 “Feast Here Tonight” by the Stanley Brothers from An Evening Long Ago: Live 1956

I was recently told by a friend of mine that the album that this was taken from was, by a significant margin, his favorite CD of those that I had given him. It’s a very cool recording, AMG describes how it happened:

Larry Ehrlich was at end of a long day in a studio in Bristol, VA. Carter and Ralph Stanley as well as Ralph Mayo and Curley Lambert entered the studio in front of one microphone, and Ehrlich, after seeing them play hog callings, a couple of radio shows, and a barn dance, asked the band to sing some of the traditional songs they had been recording for the past 16 years. The results, completely unearthed until now, are no less than stunning. This is the Stanleys as listeners have never heard them: laid-back, relaxed, and full of recollection and goodwill, singing and playing songs as familiar to them as their upbringing. . . .

This track is one of the faster songs on the album, so it isn’t typical in that way, but the fact that it isn’t extended at all is. On several of the songs they’ll just play the tune a couple of times though and then stop. It’s very casual.

This was a track that I decided on late in the process. I had already read Bob Coltman’s line, “this is one of those [songs] I love, that just entangle you deep in the brush and mire and dust and deep woods of somebody’s intensely felt locality.” and that made me think that I couldn’t resist the line, “I’m goin down the track with a chicken on my back” in this song.

It’s interesting, listening to it know, how early in the career of the Stanley Brothers (in particular Ralph) it was recorded, since it sounds so experienced. Ralph and Carter Stanley were, respectively 29 and 31 years old at the time of that recording. Ralph Stanley was well known in Bluegrass circles, but received much wider recognition after his recording of “O Death” from “O Brother Where Art Thou” released in 2000, 44 years after this recording. Not that the Stanley Brothers were novices, according to Wikipedia, had released about 30 singles at that point and were clearly experienced performs. But, as it happens, they were also comparatively youthful.

Living Room Songs — track 9 Cherokee Shuffle by Stacy Phillips & Paul Howard from Stacy Phillips / Paul Howard

I don’t have that much to say about this except that, like Bash Bish Falls it’s an instrumental cut to which I hadn’t paid that much attention prior to looking for things to include on this mix which ended up completely winning me over. It’s not surprising that it’s great, I really like the album that it’s taken from. Stacy Phillips is a bona fide dobro hot shot, and I have less of a sense of Paul Howard, but he’s a fantastic guitar player and they enjoy playing together (here’s a video of them playing live).

It starts with the guitar setting a very solid rhythm and there’s a moment when it might be a completely standard straight up tune, and then they start to play around. What I find impressive is that it never gets too strange but, a minute into it, I have no idea what’s going to come next. It’s just such creative playing (in addition to being virtuoso) there are so many music ideas that come and go that it’s obviously the result of two people that are very comfortable improvising together.

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