AEM089 Will Stratton

This is the second of two Will Stratton digital singles to grace Ampeater’s pages in the last few months. For some more background info, I’d recommend checking out the first one.

Both the songs on Will Stratton’s second Ampeater single deal with the confusions of love lost and found. It’s pretty traditional ground for pop songs, but unlike most pop music, which revels in the heat of the moment, in emotions flattened and compressed into universal banalities, these songs are deeply personal and contemplative. Rather than wallow in the first overheated flush of love or self-pitying pall of loss, they look backward with a subtler, more mature brand of anger or desire.

Anchored by Stratton’s breathy vocals and intelligent lyrics (whether they’re hovering in a sea of dreamy electric guitars as on A-side “Lying in the Dark” or riding a wave of fierce fingerpicking, as on B-side “Do You Remember the Morning” ), they don’t pretend to resolve into easy, clear emotions but instead draw out the contradictory feelings that are always a part of love affairs, whether or not we like to admit it to ourselves at the time.

In “Lying in the Dark” , a song that revolves wholly around the untrustworthiness of truth, Stratton’s narrator seems torn between flinging hurtful words at an ex-lover who has clearly hurt him and revealing the honest but now tainted. At different points in the song, he tells her why didn’t I just tell you/ you’re pretty but I never felt a thing / ‘cause that would be a lie and then follows this confession with and every night I’d pray/for something interesting to say/but you never even caused a single spark. Which of those statements is true? Both, perhaps. It’s complicated and full of uncertainty and unresolved emotions, just like actual relationships. This willingness to explore what is ambiguous and shifting is one of the things I admire most about Stratton’s songs, as the way we experience the world doesn’t digest so easily as the radio would have you believe.

Nearly the entire song is underscored with hazy electric guitar picking and light, simple drumwork, which forms a soothingly repetitive backdrop for the lyrics, but instead of just allowing this delicate frame to carry the song gently into and out of your ears, Stratton uses it to set up a moment of supreme yet subtle drama in which, after the second verse, literally everything drops out except for one electric guitar. This guitar plays a fiery solo that pushes and pulls the time and meter, adding and dropping beats and notes in a way that conveys the depth of the emotion at hand, the shaky ground described. It sounds almost as if it is brimming over with anger, a violence that Stratton’s voice never touches, and when the rest of the instruments return, exactly the same way they left, it leaves you with the feeling of having just watched someone who is usually extremely composed burst out shouting in the middle of an argument and then just as quickly return to normalcy. The light drums and airy guitars sound the same but they are not the same.

This single also carries on the motif I mentioned in the previous review of stretching Stratton’s previous records’ pretty, fingerpicked folk songs, expanding the forms and techniques enough to make them slightly more elusive and thus even more rewarding upon repeated listens. This experimentation with form stems from Stratton’s interest in capital-c Composition (you will recall from the last review his familiarity with all sorts of modern classical composers I hadn’t heard of, and I will add here that he studied the subject at Bennington College), something that started all the way back in his high school days:

Ever since I fancifully started considering myself a composer of serious music when I was in high school, I have led a dual musical existence, where on a good week I would write (meaning make up and remember through repetition) a little ABAB-form song about love or loneliness or fate or whatever, and the next day I would write (meaning actually write down) a spiky, meandering, Gnossienne-ish miniature for piano. Things approached a more absurd disconnect when I was working on my second record, because I was recording songs that were more polished and preening than anything I had ever attempted before, and at the same time I was composing some pretty strange music heavily inspired by people like George Crumb and Earle Brown, music full of heavy silences and seagull glissandos and indeterminate notation.

The songs here haven’t ventured into Crumb territory yet, but they take the ABAB pop song format and remove the rigidity of tempo and exaggerated differences between verses and chorus. Instead of marking each section as clearly as possible, they flow naturally and organically from section to section, and only by stopping and thinking about it can one see the seams. “Do You Remember the Morning” begins with the title phrase, built up in fragments of increasing length from do you to do you remember the morning, all of it hanging over some low, rubato guitar chords. Stratton really likes to play with rhythmic accents as well as meter, and you can hear that here in the way he emphasizes the upbeat of the first note of each bar, around 1:25. These strange emphases take a song built on just acoustic guitar and vocals, like so many others, and turn it into something that maintains a sense of mystery and intactness, aided by immense skill of Stratton’s guitar playing. The whirling solo brings out some of the same intensity of emotion here, again serving as the emotional apex of the song, yet here the energy is more positive, desire rather than recrimination (okay, maybe a little bit of both. After all, love is complicated).

Talking about Forest Fire last week, I mentioned how exciting it is (not to mention how much it speaks of the viability and importance of the musician in an age of endlessly reproducible digital recordings) to hear a band who take advantage of the opportunity, as human beings with instruments and imaginations, to play their songs differently each time. Stratton is a perfect example of someone who falls into that category, as evidenced by his recent WNYC Spinning On Air performance, which includes alternate versions of each of the songs on this single (“Lying in the Dark” winds up in a whole different time signature and “Do You Remember the Morning” is slightly accelerated and a bit more frenetic). As I said in the first piece, maturity and musicianship aren’t exactly the things that set the blogs a buzzing, at least not as much as they ought to, but when it comes to making music that has staying power and significance beyond what the latest hyphenated genre trend happens to be, Will Stratton is a pretty great person to be right now.

Lying in the Dark Lying in the Dark.mp3

Do You Remember the Morning Do You Remember the Morning.mp3