This is the sixth post in a blog series called ‘Sandtimer Selects‘, to which we’ll be adding a new song every week or so. You can find all the posts so far here.
In 2016, we embarked on our first tour of Canada. The whole idea materialised slowly; hours spent in front of a computer searching for venues and opportunities with a lot of emails sent out into the void. We leapt at the gig offers we got despite the itinerary not making much logical sense. But an eight hour drive didn’t seem like a big deal when it was over sprawling prairies and through epic mountain ranges.
Just before we left for the trip, I saw an article in The Guardian about a concept called ‘cosmic Americana’, which included artists such as William Tyler, John Fahey and The Weather Station. Given the landscapes we would be driving across, the timing of this article seemed somewhat serendipitous so I bought a couple of albums off Bandcamp with this general vibe to take with us.
The landscapes of North America and that kind of music sit well together. There’s a sense of musical space and rawness in the tracks which mirror the geography and wildness of so much of the land. It makes me imagine long drives to dusty basement studios in the middle of nowhere, or a café stop a few days into a tour. Living in the UK, which has every yard accounted for and is pretty compact, I find that this music transports me to an America that may not really exist outside of the imagination but is, nevertheless, a powerful and appealing romance.
The intangible essence of ‘cosmic Americana’ manifests in a beautiful song I stumbled upon recently. ‘The Panther‘ by Portland-based artist Laura Veirs is a musical setting of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a delicate and wistful song backed by fingerpicked, chiming electric guitar. The upward moving chords and gently lulling rhythm convey a yearning for some kind of escape but, continually, the music circles back on itself to the same phrase, echoing the panther ‘pacing in cramped circles’. The music is perpetually hopeful but tinged with sadness and resignation.
I really admired the artist’s unconventional approach to the multi-layered vocal performance. The same line or phrase often lands apart from its double, giving the words an extra resonance. Harmonies glide in and out, shifting the texture of the music from the confines of the room in which the song was recorded to a more expansive landscape.
Listening to this song has been a beautiful, escapist experience at a time of unprecedented confinement. There is also a beautiful ukulele-based setting of the same lyrics which is worth listening to on its own merits. We’ve added it to the ‘Sandtimer Selects’ playlist which is embedded below.
P.S. The beautiful artwork for the release is by Portland-based artist Anisa Makhoul.
This is the fifth post in a blog series called ‘Sandtimer Selects‘, to which we’ll be adding a new song every week or so. You can find all the posts so far here.
I first heard ‘Western‘ by Black Midi in the midst of late summer in 2020, a time where the COVID-19 pandemic was at a lull, but uncertainty was rife. No vaccine, experts warning of a second wave, and life was certainly not ‘normal’.
I had come across Black Midi briefly before but hadn’t dug much beyond the surface. Although initially daunted by it, their erratic sound is exactly what I came to like so much about the band. It wasn’t until I heard ‘Western’ however, that I really understood why this band have gained somewhat of a cult following. This song has felt very evocative of that summer, as often happens with music.
‘Western’ has mostly quite indecipherable lyrics, vaguely depicting the story of a band striving to perfect their music and take to the road with it. It starts with a repeated guitar melody that is peaceful, meditative, transporting the listener to a place that feels far away both in time and space. A warm, nostalgic picture, but with an element of unrest. The sharp transition to the middle section drives this, creating an atmosphere that is at once glorious and desperate. For the next four or so minutes, the song goes hard, building and building tension in a way that never feels repetitive, aided by Black Midi’s ability to develop a soundscape. As much as anything, this song is catchy, filled with satisfying guitar licks and wonderful melodic bass playing. Then, as abruptly as the stress arrives, it leaves, returning to the hypnotic first section. Although this song is a healthy 8 minutes long, it feels as though this end section could go on for much longer. A banjo can be heard gliding wistful over the backing, transporting the listener once more to a place of serenity. It is this overall arc that feels so timely in my own discovery of the song, reflecting the way in which we have depended upon our past experiences for hope in this time, and often experiencing rapid shifts between optimism and existentialism. ’Western’ is unlike most other Black Midi songs, but it stands out as a demonstration of the band’s ability for creating an emotional tapestry, as well as of how rewarding experimental rock can be.
This is the fourth post in a blog series called ‘Sandtimer Selects‘, to which we’ll be adding a new song every week or so. You can find all the posts so far here.
It’s spring where, with sudden alacrity, the days lengthen, the trees blossom and the sun steps up a gear. Things can inexplicably feel a bit easier, lighter and more hopeful. Simultaneously, there’s the knowledge that it’s not so long until the days start getting shorter again- that, maybe, spring has happened unnoticed and its beauty has already flown.
With every year of life there’s a growing sense that, yes, there areonly so many springs left and that there’s nothing you can do to change that (except the obvious stuff, like try not to smoke, or drink too much, or drive too close to the car ahead). It’s a melancholy, bittersweet feeling, infused by the joy of seeing the world returning to life.
What A Day is from Ben Howard’s soon to be released album, Collections From The Whiteout. For me, it is a really transcendent song and captures that beauty and sadness of time passing and seasons changing.
The song kicks off with a mesh of interlocking, softly chiming acoustic guitars and a resonant, warm bass, drifting between D and C in a mixolydian, somehow timeworn sounding tonality. Gradually, more electric, discordant textures develop, marrying the earthier natural sounds with a more haunting backdrop. It’s the sound of a sunlit field with the occasional big cloud passing over. A striking key change that only becomes clear a few chords in heralds the melancholy, crystallising refrain: ‘where does all the time go?’- a question it feels like the music has already asked.
One of the things it’s easy to forget as a musician when you’re actually trying to create the work (particularly during this 15 month live music drought) is the genuine joy and comfort music can bring. It can so often feel like a favour granted when someone listens to a song, rather than the reciprocal exchange it really is. But hearing a song like What A Day reminds me of the pure healing power music can have, creating a space to ponder and reflect within.
This is the second in a blog series called ‘Sandtimer Selects‘, to which we’ll be adding a song every week or so.
By the time things return to a state of relative normality, there will have been a gap of at least fifteen months between the last gig I attended and the next. It remains to be seen how much we will segment our pre-Covid memories from whatever the future is but, out of all the pre-pandemic gigs I attended, one of my highlights was seeing Liz Phair perform in London in 2019. I almost didn’t go. I was suffering minor whiplash after a dangerous driver wrote off my car the day before. I was in a pretty nervous state but I didn’t want to waste the ticket and I am glad I went.
I first heard Liz Phair’s ‘Divorce Song’ via a DIY cover version on SoundCloud and very quickly moved on to the real thing. The understated storytelling and beautiful open guitar tone reeled me in and I was soon listening to the whole of her debut album, Exile in Guyville, marvelling at the casual chromaticism of the chord progressions, her effortless and characterful singing style and the juxtaposition of the confessional lyrics with a sense of cool, ironic detachment. Just as one does when discovering any music that instantly resonates, I wondered where it had been all my life.
For some reason it took a few years till I was inclined to do another deep-dive into Phair’s music. A vague music media consensus that Exile In Guyville was the peak perhaps explained this reticence but now, having listened many times to Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg, I don’t know why these other two albums have not been as celebrated as the first- I think they are just as impressive and unique. I am also really excited about the next record which may be appearing quite soon.
‘Shane‘ is one track from her second album Whip-Smart which would be unlikely to make a gig setlist or ‘best of’ album. It is not trying to be that kind of song. It’s subdued, quiet and sparse in its instrumentation, contrasting with the joyful, brash rock sound of many of Phair’s songs, but it is one of my favourite songs of hers.
Starting with a resigned sigh and an eerily slowed down drum loop, the song narrates a night drive around a city with a journalist (Shane) who is interviewing people the night that war has been declared, presumably the first Gulf War. Fear permeates the song- of the world suddenly changing, of conscription, of the cogs of war crunching irreversibly into motion. The final repeated refrain of the song- ‘you’ve gotta have fear in your heart’- resembles a mantra, although the meaning is ambiguous: is it an imploration- ‘you must have fear’, or a supposition- ‘surely you have fear’?
Whether it’s a declaration of war, an election that goes south, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster or whatever else, the night can be the worst time to take in bad news. You see it appearing in fragments and feel like the only one awake to see it. There’s a jarring mix of pity for, and envy of, the people who have yet to find out- ‘tonight, in bed, sleeping’ and a fear of how that wider discovery the next morning will somehow make the whole thing more real.
‘Shane’, with its almost whispered vocals, the ambiguous ringing guitar chords and ominous bass underpinning it, vividly evokes this night time isolation with a haiku-level economy of lyrics and music.
The refrain at the end continues for nearly 2 minutes- a strangely jazzy melody over a chord progression that never resolves. Although it is accompanied by a crescendo-ing collage of news stations from around the world, the music and lyrics are repeated note for note, without any variation, 25 times. It is an admirably bold decision.
A German musician and philosopher called Christian Friedrich Michaelis wrote a few essays in which he tried to translate Immanuel Kant’s ideas about the ‘sublime’ to music. His general theory is that the sublime in music occurs when it breaks out of the boundaries of the art form to escape what the mind can usually comprehend. On the one hand, the sublime can be achieved by creating music that changes so rapidly and so unpredictably that it baffles the listener into abandoning any grasp of the shape of the music:
“Supposing, let us say, the established tonality suddenly veers in an unexpected direction, supposing a chord is resolved in a quite unconventional manner, supposing the longed-for calm is delayed by a series of stormy passages, then astonishment and awe result and in this mood the spirit is profoundly moved and sublime ideas are stimulated or sustained.”
Alternately (and a lot more prophetically), Michaelis suggests that a composer can repeat a musical idea excessively and achieve a similar transcendence:
“Music’s extension is thus movement in time alone […]. But unmodified identical continuation of musical sounds or chords, or the uniform repetition of these will, if unduly extended, prove unbearable. The ear seeks variety and change. […] Thus the maintenance of one fixed unchanging idea, and the holding and piling up of dissonances are techniques that are employed in music solely for two purposes: either to express the sublime or to intensify the music’s impact and to give it bite; such procedures always cause a certain degree of unrest or pain, which in turn arouses our vital forces and enhances our joy when the unrest is assuaged.
Given that Michaelis wrote this a few years into the 1800s, it would be interesting to know how his theories would apply to pop music, minimalism, dance music, baby shark etc. Repetition caught on a lot more since his lifetime. But even allowing for the increased use of repetition in music of the last century or so, I think the exactness of the repetition in the ‘Shane’ outro, the painstaking detail of it, lifts that moment into the ‘sublime’.
I recommend you listen to this song and, if you haven’t already, Liz Phair’s wider repertoire.
I’ve added ‘Shane’ into the ‘Sandtimer Selects’ playlist embedded below, to which we’ll add a new track every week or so.
P.S. You can hear the original demo of the song here.