The Luna Moth‘s Mark Schlipper returns to Ball of Wax as a solo artist with his take on “The Meaning of Life.” The song is an exercise in somber minimalism, with a repeating minor key figure played on an acoustic guitar for the first two and half minutes accompanied only by ghostly, buried vocals. In the final minute of the song, guitar fuzz seeps in like a swarm of mesmerized bees, enveloping, but not derailing, the main guitar part. As the lyrics are indiscernible, I’m not sure exactly what meaning the song posits, but the sounds suggests the horizons of stillness and hypnotic dread also found in the music of Earth and La Monte Young.
Darryl Blood‘s “The Meaning of Life” is the first of only a couple instrumental submissions to this volume, and it’s a gorgeous bit of composition via audio manipulation. Darryl has departed from his usual singer-songwriter/power-popper fare to deliver an electroacoustic piece for overdubbed cello and sampled baby sounds (stay tuned for more baby sounds and yet more dad songs). Since I have the secret information contained in the yet-to-be-published BoW 42 liner notes, I can tell you that rather than being composed by writing down a score and giving it to a cello player (in this case Gordon Withers, a man of many fine interpretations and collaborations), this piece was recorded before it was composed. Darryl took backing parts Gordon had recorded for some of his songs and then deconstructed and reassembled them into this new composition. When combined with the unmistakable sounds of a small child, the resulting piece – mournful and hopeful, poignant and bittersweet – gives as good an interpretation of the meaning of life as an album’s worth of lyrics. Kudos to Darryl for branching out in this way, and to Gordon for providing such beautiful building blocks.
You might not know it from the full sound of this delightfully orchestrated recording, but this is actually a solo track from Rob Anderson, most known around these parts for his work leading the kitchen-sink indie-folk-rock outfit Day Laborers and Petty Intellectuals. I guess the lack of theremin and violas should have clued me in, now that I think about it. But Rob certainly did his best to make up for his missing band members, layering guitars, keys, trombones, and more to bolster this short, sweet, and satisfying musical argument that perhaps knowing the meaning of life isn’t as important as just going ahead and living it.
Rob has enlisted the rest of the DLPI crew to play at the Ball of Wax 42 release show next Thursday, December 3rd! Fingers crossed we get a theremin- and viola-infused performance of this tune, but I know it will be a fantastic set regardless.
One benefit of convening our giant group of 40 BoW alumni for Ball of Wax 40 was bringing a number of people back into the fold who’d been quiet for a while. People like Seth Howard, who’s been part of this thing since the very beginning, but who hasn’t shown up under his own name in quite some time. (Is it possible Volume 23 is the last time we heard from him? Scandalous!) I’m very glad he has remedied the situation with his “The Meaning of Life” song for Ball of Wax 42. It’s a delicate, haunting tune, mostly finger-picked acoustic and Seth’s hushed vocals, capturing a moment of beauty and contemplation. It’s wonderful to have Seth’s voice back on Ball of Wax!
As if the return of recorded Seth Howard weren’t good enough news, the Ball of Wax 42 release show will see Seth’s first live, full-band performance in quite some time. As wonderful as his quiet acoustic stuff is, it’s a huge treat to hear Seth’s songs fleshed out with a band, and you should grab the opportunity while you can. I certainly hope your next chance to see him live will be a matter of months rather than years, but I wouldn’t risk it.
Jon Rooney’s favorite frontier surrealist Travis Champ is back, and his take on “The Meaning of Life” doubles down on the surrealism – which makes sense, since it was inspired by a dream he had about listening to the lost folk recordings of Adolf Hitler. (“I don’t think the first verse will offend too many people,” he assured me.) The lyrics aren’t entirely clear – perhaps due to the song being recorded on a phone inside a shipping container (no, really) – but suffice it to say it’s another satisfying dose of subversive strangeness delivered in Champ’s inimitable cowboy baritone.
For “The Meaning of Life,” the Foghorns have assumed their most unassuming permutation – just Bart Cameron, his voice and an acoustic guitar. The result is, not surprisingly, stark, moving, and foreboding in a Midwestern Old Testament kind of way. Bart chronicles a litany of man-made horrors, commonplace atrocities of what Bob Dylan christened the “New Dark Ages” a quarter century ago. The lyrics mention “a boy on the bus again, a bomb” and “washed on the shore, a toddler in his shoes / face in the sand, next to a soldier’s boots,” imagery more terrible in the mind of a father of a young boy, which Bart happens to be. The song finds grace in the inexorable love of fatherhood, sloughing off both the threat of a man left to the devices of free will and the need for ontological wholeness with the very human “there is no meaning / I need to hear you breathing” and “I don’t need a lover’s kiss / like I need to hear you breathing.”
Whether as the Graze or Sun Tunnels or even the long-lost Indie Rooney, Louis O’Callaghan has been one of my favorite Ball of Waxers over the years, an unheralded and often unmatched creative figure in a town stuffed to the gills with self-appointed creative types. What sets Louis apart, for me anyway, is the fact that his creative output is accomplished and wholly enjoyable – he’s a top-notch, not-just-local-good, gifted pop songwriter. His take on “The Meaning of Life” boasts a host of endearing indie rock and lo-fi pop touches: simply-arranged, down-stroked guitar parts, yearning double-tracked vocals, subtle synth and drum machine, all in service of a sad, dogged earworm of a melody. The lyrics are mumbled but poignant where discernible, like small musings on the inevitability of cosmic annihilation: “the star will break / there will come a day / someone leaves a mark / you won’t think at all.” You might think that I’m overdoing things, but you’re wrong. You’re just not listening to enough Louis O’Callaghan.
Robb Benson is nothing if not prolific. He has started more bands (more good bands) than I can count, and early on in our acquaintance it became clear to me that songwriting for him is just one more essential function of life, like eating, sleeping, and breathing. The guy can’t not write songs. You could even say a big part of the meaning of life, for Robb, is making music; so how could he resist my call for songs about the meaning of life? He could not, and I’m very glad he didn’t. Like Holly Small, Robb went irony-free for this one; his take on the theme is earnest, and perhaps a bit dark, but ultimately (to my ears) sweet and redemptive. It starts with the question “What’s the meaning of life?” and ends with the refrain “I’m just so glad to be here with you all right now.” Community, friends, collaboration, singing and playing and listening together – that sounds like a pretty great dose of meaning to me.
Speaking of which, I hope you will join me and Robb (and many other fine artists) at the Ball of Wax 42 release show on December 3rd! It will truly be a meaningful occasion.
Holly Small was last heard from on Ball of Wax Volume 40, as part of the instant, ephemeral band I Am the Deciders. Small returns to volume 42 to offer her take on the meaning of life as effusive bedroom synth pop. Subtitled “Unconditional,” the retro drum machine pattern and relentless synth arp in the first handful of measures suggests the kind of nervy soundtrack you might have found on The Terminator or a Death Wish movie from the eighties. Once the vocals come in, however, you can tell that something more period R&B is going on, with lyrics like “connection everlasting is heaven sent / we just don’t see clearly, that’s our predicament.” The chorus is carefully double-tracked, the lyrics continue on as guileless relationship advice, the song does not waver in tone or intention – Small isn’t messing around with sarcasm or irony. This song appears to be a loving re-imagining of a Jody Watley song or an early En Vogue demo. I thought that the self-harmonizing toward the end of the song momentarily evoked tUnE-yArDs or something from the Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, but I was reaching because I’m a pretentious music jerk. Small’s “The Meaning of Life (Unconditional)” is apparently all about love and the music I remember most from middle-school dances in the years before e-mail, chill wave and everything being terrible. Now, if you’ll excuse me.
Holly Small will be performing at the Ball of Wax 42 release show on December 3rd at Conor Byrne. Don’t miss it!
Ball of Wax Volume 42 Release Show
Day Laborers & Petty Intellectuals / Seth Howard / KAPtN AtAK (Strong Like Woman) / Holly Small / Robb Benson
Thursday, December 3rd, 8pm
Conor Byrne Pub
21+ / $8 (Ball of Wax 42 CD included with entry)
As you should be aware by now, for Ball of Wax Volume 42 I tasked the songwriters of the world with submitting songs titled “The Meaning of Life,” and boy did they deliver! On December 3rd we will release into the world over an hour of songs by that title by artists spanning from Ballard to Madrid, and that evening we celebrate the release with a diverse and kickass lineup of life-meaning-investigating artists.
The disc includes the above five fine artists and groups, as well as BoW mainstays such as The Foghorns and Virgin of the Birds, among many others (including me, of course) and even a couple brave newbies! As always, we’ll be rolling the tracks out between now and the release date (it has already begun). I don’t know if you will know more about the meaning of life after listening, but you will certainly have heard more songs titled “The Meaning of Life” than you ever thought possible, and that’s gotta count for something, right?
Right. See you on December 3rd at Conor Byrne!