- “Just Like a Drummer” - The Wave Pictures (AEM083)
- “Adderech Arada” - Debo Band (AEM016)
- “You Lit Up For Me” - Spirit Kid (AEM026)
- “Malea” — Darlingside (AEM121)
- “Feathers & Fur” - Hank & Pigeon (AEM110)
- “Policia” - Pistolera (AEM039)
- “Sway” - Chrome & Ice Queen (AEM124)
- “Hymnal” - Jerome Ellis (AEM059)
- “27 Strangers” - Villagers (AEM112)
I grew up in Boston, where I was brainwashed from birth to love the Red Sox. Despite its liberal reputation, Boston’s commitment to open-mindedness falters when it comes to baseball. If two men fall in love and decide to marry, they will generally find acceptance-unless one of them roots for the Yankees, in which case there will be hell to pay.
Naturally, raised in such an environment, I was a devout follower of the Red Sox by the time I had learned to use a toilet. My loyalty was completely without motive, conditioned almost completely by the geographical coincidence of my birth. Nevertheless, I viewed it as a personal choice in which I could take due pride. I declared my colors-the same red, white, and blue of the star spangled banner, but far more meaningful to me) and pledged allegiance. In the years to come, I mastered long division by calculating the batting averages of my favorite sluggers, and baseball was the closest thing I had to a religion.
Of course, my unfounded fervor eventually burnt itself out. It’s been six years since I moved away from Boston, but even before that I had ceased to take even a passive interest in sports. Gradually my childhood heroes drifted from memory, displaced by new concerns and interests. However, there is still one ballplayer who stands out from the others, and it isn’t for his accomplishments on the field. I recall Nomar Garciaparra because, every time he stepped up to the plate, he would systematically adjust the velcro straps on his batting gloves-left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right. It was a ritual that fascinated me as a child, but which seems significant even now.
Most rituals-no matter how profound or banal-can be broken into simple steps which appear inconsequential in isolation. Only together do they evoke a tradition far grander. A man passes his hand from spectacles, testicles, wallet, to watch. He is crossing himself. Miss a step or reverse the order and he becomes just a pervert groping himself. Many rituals are so deeply embedded into the course of life that we don’t notice them. If somebody sneezes, you say “God bless you.” If somebody hands you a joint, you puff, puff, and pass it to the left hand side. We rarely stop and wonder why. And yet, it’s the repetition of these baby steps-always in the same exact sequence-that transforms the mundane into the sacred and gives definition to the infinite possibility of existence.
Several tracks on this mix speak to the theme of ritual in this way; they chronicle everyday events with precision and insight to reveal the hidden inner ritual. So it is when Conor J O’Brien of Villagers transforms his daily commute into an epic journey in the track “27 Strangers”
The bus was late It forced us all to congregate 27 strangers made to stand and wait
With the title lyric, O’Brien cuts the undefined crowd into twenty-seven individuals, whose daily rituals intersect in the melting-pot of public transportation. The lyrics spin a beautiful tale-subject matter universal enough that anyone could relate, yet treated with such precision that most listeners will feel drawn to look at their daily grinds with heightened awareness. As the story unfolds, O’Brien subtly introduces the idea of inevitability, an unnamed force that guides our everyday actions.
That’s why I’m late. My dearest one, what can I say? And tomorrow it could be the same, When I do it all again.
The narrator suggests that his path is not a choice, and does not make excuses for an action, the repetition of which seems destined. Indeed, what can he say?
“In The Ridge” by Hank & Pigeon approaches the theme from the same general tack but from somewhat stranger perspective-that of a pigeon. The pigeon character is a regular character throughout the duo’s work but, in this track, he is introduced. Generally, we don’t read too much into the actions of pigeons. They eat, they shit, and they sleep. After all, we’re talking about an animal with a brain the size of an acorn. But here, the pigeons actions take on a new weight, and become a presence far more dear than construction, noisy neighbors, or other more plausible explanations for the strange sound guitarist/vocalist Alex Wernquest hears emanating from his apartment walls every day. Actually, it’s unclear whether the lead pigeon is real or imagined. But as a tangible and physical embodiment of the phantom noise, the bird becomes a sort of breathing and feathered ritual.
Pushing our tolerance for absurdity one step further, The Wave Pictures draws attention to ritual though highly imaginative and bizarre imagery. The sparse aesthetic and simple pop progression of “Just Like A Drummer” leave the listener free to focus on the lyrics-thankfully, since they are both vivid and unusual enough to require our full attention. The first time I tuned in, they washed over me as a nonsensical wave of the whimsical. It was only gradually, that I began to sense that the words relate a more tangible storyline.
The sun came in like a pack of orange spaniels Through the window, under the ledge Under the curtain, on their bellies Creeping and bending
What is the story behind the words? Well, I’m pretty sure it’s about sunlight-probably daybreak-creeping through the window. Yet clearly, the point of interest is not the action, but rather the extended metaphor. There’s nothing inherently exceptional about sunlight, but here we view it as a pack of orange spaniels (whom I envision to be invertebrate jelly-dogs) snaking over the windowsill. “Just Like A Drummer” is everyday life as seen through the eyes of a genius, a lunatic, or both, under which even an image so cliché as daybreak may thrill and delight. Lead singer David Tattersal’s desperate whine accentuates the frantic intensity of this unusual mind-frame. Yet , perhaps the true accomplishment of the lyrics is the way in which all the extended metaphors weave together into a semi-coherent tapestry. The story hinges on the refrain, “Just like a drummer, I wake up to the thunder, of your typewriter.” These three phrases suddenly make sense together, just like the motion of a hand from spectacles to testicles, so on, and so forth. But the order is completely bastardized in the extended outro, which implements brilliantly a tactic usually left up to third graders in school districts too poor to afford plastic recorders-the round. In this case, the round consists of a three phrases segment, the peak of one cycle overlapping the trough of another, such that they connect in new and bizarre ways:
I wake up with the thunder (just like a drummer) Of your typewriter (wake up with the thunder) Just like a drummer (Of your typewriter)
The mismatched round pairs phrases with echoes that don’t make sense. To compound the chaos, this three phrase repetition is pitted against a four chord progression. What seems like a beginning becomes the middle in the next repetition, the entire refrain cascading into a figurative Ouroboros-the mythical serpent perpetually swallowing his own tail. It’s no wonder that Tattersal can’t help but crack a laugh after a couple of cycles.
Life is full of rituals, but rarely are these practices so pronounced-and so taken for granted-as in music. Of course, every genre has its own specific set of rituals. A pop ballad builds from verse to pre-chorus to chorus, with a bridge inserted after the second or third chorus and, perhaps, a double chorus at the end for dramatic emphasis. A concerto includes three movements, each centered on specific themes and variations. A jazz quartet knows instinctively to play the head, pass around solos, repeat the head, and tag the final four bars to end a tune. Yet such devotion to rituals seems at odds with the creative spirit so crucial to music. Thus, most music seems to strike an appropriate balance between adherence and defiance, a process which we may view as its own ritual.
Darlingside’s “Malea” was written to accompany a dance, and adapted to the rituals which this purpose demanded. The rhythmic focus-from the crisp drum beat to the percussive claps and note skips on the chorus-is a throwback to this intent. These are traditions that go without saying in dance but, in this context, become a spicy and somewhat novel addition to the mix. “Malea” is a bold departure for a band whose sound is generally marked by folksy arrangements and radio perfect vocal harmonies, yet it’s a risk which pays off considerably.
In “Adderech” , Debo Band draws on numerous traditions but breaks from them all at whim, in the quest for a formidable groove; and it definitely finds what it’s looking for. The band is an amorphous collective of musicians whose eclectic sound spans oceans and centuries. Most Western ears will pick up on the Afrobeat (specifically, Ethiopian) influence which, admittedly, is prominent. Yet those familiar with Ethiopian music will not be surprised to learn that the group formed in Boston rather than Addis Ababa, in 2006 rather than 1976. Gabe Birnbaum puts it well in his November, 2009 review on Ampeater. “They man age to strad dle a lot of seem ingly con tra dic tory posi tions. On the one hand, their music is deeply tra di tional, includ ing a lot of cov ers of Ethiopian Folk and Pop songs from decades ago, yet on the other it is staunchly con tem po rary, incor po rat ing orig i nal com po si tions and traces of the indi vid ual mem bers other projects, which range from the dra matic Post-Rock silent-film sound tracks to dance hall derived exper i men tal Eelec tron ica.” The product honors the traditions and values of its diverse influences, without buying into the specific rituals wholesale. It’s a brew which accommodates the “tautly stretched and rolling time feel that locks in per fectly with the won der fully twitchy and propul sive Ethiopian eskista shoul der dance com monly per formed along side the music,” and yet, creates new rituals and grooves of its own.
Pistolea treads a similar tightrope, meshing Mexican Folk with the Rock, Pop, and Jazz of New York. It’s a tasteful and energetic foundation, on which songwriter Sandra Velasquez preaches soapbox politics. In fact, the music accentuates the political message, which centers on immigration reform and civil rights. In the final lyric of “La Polica,” Velasquez rattles off a list of adjectives that could be used-by friends and foes alike-to caricature the band: “terrorist, feminist, Mexican, American, condemned, dangerous, PISTOLERA.” But she says all this in a language which the bigoted system she attacks would be unlikely to understand. Meanwhile, the music cements the band’s heritage, which lies on both sides of the border, far more viscerally.
In Jerome Ellis’s meditative “Hymnal,” ritual is again cemented by the music rather than lyrics. In fact, there aren’t so many lyrics to speak of. Like most loop based compositions, “Hymnal” takes hold of a few simple ideas and explores them meticulously-in this case, for nearly thirty minutes. The progression is so gradual that it’s almost indiscernible from one minute to the next, until suddenly it’s shaken beyond recognition. Through such careful rumination and premeditated destruction, the main themes gradually shine.
Of course, a hymnal is itself a sort of ritual, and the choice of titles cements this ideal, although Ellis’s take is woven from a far more expansive history of tradition. In fact, I feel as if he takes on the entire history of music-impossibly vast terrain-as his inspiration, and nearly manages to cover it all. The mysterious drone which slowly swells into a song sounds like the dawn of time. Or, rather, it sounds like the soundtrack to the dawn of time, since obviously primitive musicians didn’t have access to synthesizers. All that’s missing is the voice-over narrated by Leonard Nimoy. Soon, a chant emerges from the sci-fi soundscape, accompanied by tribal percussion. It builds toward a saxophone lead, which evokes the stereotypical but universally recognizable pulse of African music, while harking back to Coltrane’s modal compositions or, perhaps, the work of Rahsaan Rolland Kirk. On and on, the history flows. We pass through the European Classical tradition in a few minutes, from blues to jazz, and beyond. Prominent (and often disconcerting) sound effects mark the most dramatic moments. The applause of the crowd, for instance, becomes a recurring theme. This itself is a strange ritual-why do we slap our palms together to show respect after a performance and, so often, drown out the final note?
The more I contemplate ritual, the less I understand it. In most cases, it seems arbitrary, and yet, so profoundly poetic. Why did Nomar Garciaparra adjust his batting gloves? I imagine he did so because he did it once accidentally and it worked. The repetition was most likely just superstition. Of course, humans seem bound to this sort of behavior. Rituals exist in every society all around the world. It’s natural, since each moment offers infinite possibility and demands infinite choice. We come to a crossroads, and we wonder whether to turn left or right, but the possibilities are far vaster than that. We could back up, halt forever, continue straight into the unmarked woodland between the paths, get out of the car and climb a tree, dig a hole, sit on a stump read a book. Ritual saves us from all that. It tells us exactly what to do and how to do it, beautiful for its complete disregard for reason. And it’s completely dependent on our blind adherence. The moment we notice it, the power is shattered.
Yet if, after a period existential crisis, we return to ritual, aware of alternate possibilities, our adherence is more meaningful still, because it’s intentional. Once we are aware of ritual, it becomes a choice. Some of the tracks exemplify ritual, some defy it. Others merely talk about it. But I think in exemplification, defiance, and discussion alike, they share an important trait-awareness. Through pushing ourselves to notice ritual, we arrive at perhaps the most fundamental freedom of artistic expression. Or, at the very least, we give our eleven-year-old fans something to remember.
Just Like A Drummer
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/ce02/01 Just Like A Drummer.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/ce02/02 Aderech Arada.mp3
You Lit Up For Me
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/ce02/03 You Lit Up For Me.mp3
Feathers and Fur
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/ce02/05 Feathers and Fur.mp3
Twenty Seven Strangers
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/ce02/09 Twenty Seven Strangers.mp3