A meditation on war. And not for creed or common foe, but purely for the lark of death. And what of the soldier who fights for no righteous cause? And the gruesome fates that disfigure the faces of the living and dead alike. How prudently the destructive urges of nature work within men.
Kurt Vile - Wakin On A Pretty Daze The singing, song writing guitar player – the ‘good ones’ have been the great artistic sparks of contemporary popular music, the rest - mostly talented or not so talented imitators. In terms of this generations offering to that hallowed tradition, well to put it bluntly, Kurt Vile is just that dude right now.
I’ve been listening to Kurt’s new album ‘Wakin On A Pretty Daze’ pretty much non-stop since purchasing it a couple weeks ago and it just gets better with every spin. The album follows the critical success of ‘Smoke Rings for my Halo’ (2011), builds on that success, adds a few more layers, and in the process stamps its maker’s staying power as a real creative force in today’s music scene.
So what of the music? It’s hard to pin down as Kurt tends to integrate so many different influences and has a keen eye/ear on the past. You can hear the musical fingerprints of Dylan, Springsteen and Neil Young, often in a single track. I’d shoot for something like ambient guitar driven folk/country rock with an Indi vibe. Acoustic and electric guitar melodies echo and trace the other hypnotically, effects distort and pull notes into whisps of sound that meld and build wonderfully, the singing is punctuated by weary, stubbornly resigned vocal inflections, and blanketing the entire thing is this ultra laid-back aura.
'Wakin On A Pretty Daze' contains 11 songs, the same number as ‘Smoke Rings’ and yet feels as though it has much more space and much more material. Perhaps that’s because musically there’s’ a lot more happening this time around. By doing away with standard radio friendly song structures, the entire band gets the space to explore rhythm and melody on a level not seen on previous albums. The pace rarely gets above mid-tempo (think drifting, hypnotic guitar grooves), and with a far more significant instrumental vibe to it in comparison to previous releases (several tracks either hit or come close to the 10 minute mark) it hits you as a very self-assured album, a more solid full-length effort.
Speaking about his decision to open the album with a near 10 minute track, and the new musical directions of the album, Kurt said this to MTVHivecast: “I figured it would be long, but it’s all about getting into the vibes, this really pretty zone. It’s all about pacing and being in no rush, but keeping you sucked in and pop-sensible, somehow. I just wanted to jam it out at the end to see what worked, thinking I’d fade it out. I couldn’t do it. It felt too right.”
The art, as they say, is in concealing the art, and the hazy, weary drawl in which Vile delivers his lyrics and the dreamlike landscapes he builds around them give the impression of far less work going on than there actually is. There is an effortless feel to everything. The added layers of complexity in sound and vocal placements ensure that with a bit of attention and patience there’s plenty to mine here.
Kurt’s energy sapped vocals also reflect in tone the recurring themes and images of his songs - the battle against day-to-drudgery and unanswered questions averted finally with a shrug of the shoulder and a soaring guitar melody. The appeal of Kurt’s vocal style is that he uses his voice and singing patterns firmly with their roles as complimentary instruments in the mix in mind (I’ve heard the guy sing a verse of nothing but continuous ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ and make it work).
The voice and lyrics paint the image of an isolated musical loner who simply wants to get away from everything and play his guitar - like on ‘Too Hard’ when he sings that: life is one big ball of beauty that just makes you wanna cry/then you die. If Kurt is hitting some creative peaks on this album, I get the sense he’s fully aware of it, singing on ‘Was All Talk’: There was a time in my life when they thought I was all talk/Now I’m getting stalked by a God/Walkin/ I got the upper hand.
Importantly, the clear focus on expanding musically doesn’t come at the expense of song writing, even though there is a shift in clarity from the tighter verse/chorus structure of ‘Smoke Rings’. The gems are still there, but sit a little more subtly in the overall picture - which happens to be a laid-back sonic buffet of escapism. The result is a gentle, ethereal type of sound that places the singing both in and somewhere outside of the music - like someone whispering to you in a day dream.
Best of all of for listeners and fans, this album shows off Kurt’s ability for growth and points to more great albums ahead, he’s still only 33 years of age. Today’s best guitar based song-writer by a country mile.
Jesse ‘The Lone Cat’ Fuller Born in Atlanta in 1896, Jesse Fuller was the real deal travelling blues-man. He never knew his father and was given away by his mother at the age of seven. His childhood was one of abuse and starvation where he was: “treated worse than a dog”. By the age of 10 he had built himself a crude guitar and was learning to play songs from various musicians at Saturday night dances that he managed to sneak into.
By the time he reached adulthood Fuller had already worked a multitude of jobs across the South, factories, quarries, railroads, street cars, shoe shining, junkman, wood chopper, cattle grazing, singing on corners and even peddling hand-carved ornaments.
With $175 earned from playing on the street sewn into his jeans, at 24 Fuller hopped a train and headed west. While shining shoes outside United Artist Studios in LA he met actors who set him up with bit parts in several movies including ‘Thief of Bagdad’ and ‘Heart of Dixie’, also helping him to set up his own hot dog stand. After settling in Oakland he worked as a shipyard welder during World War II.
Possessing a trove of country blues, work songs, ballads and spirituals in his musical arsenal, by the late 1940s, both jazz and folk artists in the San Francisco bay area sought him out and in the early 1950s his thoughts turned to playing music professionally.
He began to play steadily at a small club in the Fillmore district of San Francisco called the Haight Street Barbecue and also opened a small shoeshine stand on College Avenue in Berkeley, which attracted many folk music fans. They enjoyed hearing him play both traditional folk material, mostly blues, and some of his own originals, which, after 1954, included the ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’, which would become his most well known song.
During those years Fuller also devised a new kind of instrument he called a ‘fotdella’, a big six string bass viol that he played with his foot via a system of pedals and levers. To complete the one-man-band rig, Jesse had a right foot pedal for the fotdella, a left foot pedal to run a high-hat cymbal, and a harness to hold a harmonica and kazoo. While setting amidst all this, he also sang and played a twelve-string guitar.
After performing at the Monterrey Jazz Festival in 1959, Fuller was invited to tour Europe. At the time he was working as a walnut picker on farm laborer’s wages. The tour included stops in England, West Germany, Sweden and Denmark. In the 60’s Fuller appeared at an increasing number of festivals and in 1966 played with legendary rock groups The Rolling Stones and the Animals.
Fuller passed away in Oakland in 1976, his songs have become staples for many folk performers. Artists to have covered Fuller songs include The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan.
Released in 1977, ‘The Duellists’ is director Ridley Scott’s first film and pits Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel against each other as rivals in Napoleon’s army of the early 19th century.
When D’Hubert (Carradine) is ordered to place Feraud (Keitel) under arrest for injuring the nephew of a local Government official in a duel, Feraud takes offence to the manner in which D’Hubert conducts himself and demands satisfaction by way of another duel, beginning a series of contests between the pair that spans Europe and two decades.
Underneath the surface of what is a pretty straight-forward plot lays an interesting study of the tradition of duelling, and, by extension, the peculiarly violent and fatalistic psychology of men as expressed through their notions of ‘honour’.
Serial dueller Feraud appears quite deranged in his illogical pursuit of D’Hubert, who is the reluctant dueller of the two and yet refuses to extricate himself from the situation due to his own sense of honour. At one point, D’Hubert’s lover confronts Feraud and tells him that she believes he pursues his hunger for duelling D’Hubert out of no other reason than to feed his own spite.
The sword fighting is great, the costumes are great, Keitel plays the doggedly deranged Feraud brilliantly, but what really stands out are the stunning shots from Scott’s camera, certain scenes seem to leap straight off the canvas of an impressionist painting. The scenes of the army’s retreat from Russia are particularly good.
Remarkably, the tale is derived from a story written by Joseph Conrad, which, according to the author, was itself based on a true story whose origins sprang from a ten-line paragraph in a small Southern France local newspaper. That brief paragraph reported the fatal ending of a duel between two officers in Napoleon’s Grand Army. The two officers had fought a series of duels in the midst of great wars on some futile pretext.
I recently saw American singer/song-writer Justin Townes Earle during his Australian tour, his eighth trip to these shores in all. Justin is the son of country/folk legend Steve Earle and was named after his father’s musical idol and criminally under appreciated American songwriter – Townes Van Zandt. Justin’s 2004 EP ‘Yuma’ is my pick among his four releases to date and features the song I’ve posted from YouTube. Man, I love train songs.
In conjunction with the anti-lynching campaign, in 1920 the NAACP began flying a flag from the windows of its headquarters at 69 Fifth Avenue when a lynching occurred. The threat of losing its lease forced the NAACP to discontinue the practice in 1938.
Ansel Adams (1902-1984) devoted his life to documenting the American West in all its wild, rolling beauty. His striking black and white pictures have an extraordinary clarity, depth and sense of scale: The Washington Post wrote in 1931, “like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods.”