Dear readers, this year has been such a year of excitement and drama, enticement and trauma that is has been so easy to overlook the quiet moments, the wheels not greedily squeaking for oil, but these are really the wheels worth watching. They and their wheelwrights diligently paddle the water and turn whatever mechanism that's connected. Their rhythm is intoxication when one tunes into them, but otherwise, their whirr vanishes in the rustle of the ether. Imagine if VW had never decided Nick Drake was the perfect foil to sell a mid-priced hatchback? All but the most subterranean music nerds would be ignorant of his cosmic quiet songs. I'd hate to think that a car company with ties to Hitler is better at this game than I am, so here are two essentials that you likely have missed as they fecklessly whispered their peculiar beauty against the din.
Richard Youngs is just the best. He is, on one hand, the classic experimentalist, looking for some new avenue to explore, working a vein to exhaustion. On the other, he is a master of taste and restraint. The folkier side of his work (Richard Youngs wears many hats) has a currently unmatched tranquility to them, as exemplified on his latest Autumn Response. Here he employs the simplest of techniques: a delicate nylon guitar and his voice strained to its higher register, run through what sounds like a tape delay with someone playing with the length setting, where the echoes go from reverberation to becoming a round. It is the kind of thing you do when you first get a delay pedal, but somehow in Youngs' deft hands, it becomes genius. "One Hundred Horses" is a plainsong canticle about horses running through the water, but with ebb and flow of echoes, it becomes a stampede on second and dissipates the next.
The whole album issues out according to this strange algebra, with a wide range of results. "Paths in the Sky" takes on a fractured, sinister air, whereas "Low Bay of Sky" is all sunbeams piercing the clouds over a windswept field. At the center though, is Youngs' achingly beautiful finger-picking and voice. Jeff Tweedy said he liked Nick Drake so much because he creates a universe with just a guitar and voice. I feel he same way about Richard Youngs, except that he creates a universe as a starting point, and lets his simple effects and patterns push them into the heavens. Take a song like "No Edge" - on melody alone it is a lovely ditty of "There ain't no"'s but with the long delay, it becomes a brilliant duet with himself on both parts, lasting a perfect minute and a half. "I am the Weather" he uses the technique to become a one man choir, more polyphonic than any spree you could concoct. On the final track "Something Like Air", he humanizes the process by simply singing in different octaves on separate tracks issuing over a scintillating guitar, transforming as slow and majestically as an eclipse.
Sandro Perri takes a different approach to his tranquility. He takes the song as it sits and slowly plucks down from it, reveals some bare flesh on spots, and covers others with brocade and lace, essentially pulling a song apart in all possible directions at the limit of its reconcilability. It's a beautiful thing. "Family Tree" has a base as smooth as Midnight at the Oasis" and remains that smoothness even as it is stretched into a near amorphous bossa nova. It is dream music of the highest order. "City of Museums" does the same kind of refactoring job on a folk melody, letting the chords fall apart into disparate notes and then pulls them back together as he croons lightly and whistles overhead.
His process is most apparent on the sole cover, Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'." The melody is slowly invaded by stray ukuleles and guitars and some bongo so silent it sounds implied. In fact, the music on this record sounds implied rather than directly produced, as if Perri has contoured the air and negative space to coax these songs out of the ether. It is Mandelbrot music, revealing more and more forms the deeper you go, but all the while maintaining the most relaxing ambience possible. Were I the type to get spa massages, I would bring this CD in and tell the masseuse to keep the meter running until I dissolved like the melodies.
Perri, like Youngs above, has an odd arresting voice, sometimes hanging onto the tune by a thread without once losing its grip. Ironically, this is best exemplified on "The Mime" where he darts and soars like a sparrow pretending it's an eagle. All is not hopelessly spare in Sandro Perri's world, though. "Love is Real" is thick and syrupy a s the R&B ballad it is, all undulating bass and percolating horns and jazz flute even! It's the music a ghost plays when he's trying get busy with a sexy lady ghost. Perri's music is so slight it's hardly there, but it fills every corner of the room with its warmth.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com