Just as we were releasing our “Songs of Resistance” volume (to benefit NW Immigrant Rights Project), California singer-songwriter Eric Anders was putting the finishing touches on Eleven Nine, his collection of artfully crafted anti-Trump songs (to benefit Lambda Legal). “Big World Abide” is one of those songs, though it actually has its origins in our previous presidential nightmare – it was originally written in the dark days of G.W. Bush’s second term. Eric and producer Matthew Brown (him again?) reworked the tune with the help of some crackerjack Seattle musicians for this dark, swampy rendition, which beautifully evokes the bleak unease that has permeated these past several months for most of us. Lyrically it’s a bit less on the nose than the approach many of us took on Volume 47, but that can be an effective strategy: Your Fox-watching uncle might run to turn off the stereo as soon as he heard the first few words of, say, “Racist Thief,” but keep nodding his head obliviously as Eric’s clear baritone croons, “These believers they terrorize / You might hope our lies evolve / It seems, hardly at all.” We’re happy to have Eric among our ranks, fighting the good fight.
[With this post, we’re welcoming a new writer to the Ball of Wax fold. I’m pleased to introduce Aurora Fonseca-Llloyd, who has already upped the literary ante around here with this first review. -ed.]
Seattle-based indie folk duo The Winterlings make a lot from simple elements in “The Dead.” There is a jangly electric guitar playing straightforward chords, a bassline built of long, slow notes, and simple drumming with plenty of snare and a few well-placed crashes of the cymbal. The trembling vibrato of singer Wolff Bowden’s voice is backed by a chorus of ahhs. The various parts are woven deftly above the twang of the guitar, the tension in the song rising and falling and rising again before coming to a gentle end.
The song shares a title with one of James Joyce’s best short stories, and the lyrics play on similar themes, its sharp metaphors and simple chorus – “the dead are still giving birth to all the life we have left” – exploring the space between a horror of death and the hope that a life might resonate beyond its end. The shifting layers of instruments, the words, the angelic backing voices, the ache of Bowden’s singing combine to move the listener to a joyous sort of acceptance of the inevitabilities of existence. In the chaos we live in, it’s lovely to feel that kind of complicated pleasure.
Ball of Wax newcomer Anika Reichert joins Seattle-to-Hamburg transplant Matthew Brown on “Burn Down,” a smoldering* piece of synth-and-drum-machine-based pop. The sedate, yet propulsive backing tracks are somewhere between John Carpenter and Depeche Mode (a pretty damn good place to be, if you ask me), and Reichert delivers the vocal with a Teutonic remove that eschews overt emotion without seeming bored or disaffected. Her clear, cool voice floats above the churning musical bed beautifully, making for an eminently listenable song. Reichert and Brown have crafted something new and delightful from heavily-mined nostalgic musical territory, always a neat trick.
*Sorry, I typed that without consciously thinking about the song title, but I’m leaving it.
Robert Deeble has been with Ball of Wax since the very beginning – Volume 3, to be precise – and over the past few years he’s been gradually sharing sneak peeks with us from his long-awaited and soon-to-be-released album, Beloved, which is about his daughter and what they all went through to become an adoptive family. As an adoptive father and a longtime friend and fan of Robert’s, I’m obviously predisposed to love this album, and guess what? I totally do. But I think I can be objective about this song as an intimate, heartfelt, and moving piece of music. “Uncertain” is a perfect word to describe both the process of adopting a child and just being a parent in general. Wait, you realize, I’m supposed to be the one who knows what’s going on? It truly is terrifying, but still, like Robert, you find yourself thinking “This life, it kicked us in the ass / come on let’s kick it back. / First step, I’m holding out my hand / faithful as a man.” I will also pick out one sonic detail that I love: the perfectly rhythmic string-scrapes as Robert moves from chord to chord on the verse, sounding almost like sampled seagulls and adding a beautiful upswing to the song. So glad they chose to include and highlight this rather than treating it as a recording faux pas.
Beloved should be out next month. Robert will be playing songs from the album along with some string players this Saturday at the Ball of Wax 49 release show. I’m really excited for this set (and the show in general). Don’t miss it!
“Right Foot Blue” is newish BoW regular James Kelly Pitts’s third appearance in these parts. I’ve admired his approach to songwriting and production since receiving his first submission, “Night Shift,” but two adjectives that I haven’t previously connected to his work are smooth and pretty. That said, “Right Foot Blue” is undoubtedly a smooth, pretty piece of music. The steadily chugging acoustic guitar, tinkling Omnichord, and syncopated group hand-claps provide the perfect bed for James’s hushed vocals. The chorus “My my, such a beautiful sky tonight,” is straightforward, yet open to interpretation. Is it a simple appreciation of a moment of beauty, or a statement of environmental dread? (The skies sure were pretty during our recent smoke-choked weeks here in Seattle.) And then, that sax solo! I feel like people are putting sax solos in their music again these days as a lazy way of saying “hey, this is a fun ’80s inspired song, so here’s the sax solo,” but this is not that. This is actually a nicely crafted musical statement that fits beautifully in this charming little tune. As always, I look forward to hearing more from James soon.
From College Station, Texas, The Ex-Optimists know how to plow into a power pop tune. Somehow I’d forgotten that the father of power pop, Buddy Holly, honed his craft in Texas. For this revved up rock tune, there’s a hint of Devo in the vocal delivery, and a dash of Ramones in the beat, and there’s a remarkable joy in language for language’s sake. Finally, a tip of the hat to production value. It’s worth noting that a song dedicated to the mechanical failure of Chrysler’s most ignominious auto line (which is saying something) packs a sonic power that Bob Ezrin would respect.
For a more sprawling exploration of the possibilities of noise, The Ex-Optimists have a formidable album on bandcamp. Every note this band plays seems fully earned and invested.
“Relentless” feels a little like a working title for a song. And as this song by Chris Moore begins, with strummed guitar and a spare kick drum, there is the feeling of a demo. The opening images, that of being stuck in a current or a river, are a little loose. There is a lack of bite. That bite eventually comes. And the title is later effective. The song sticks in your brain.
For me, it’s not until the third verse, when we get the line “There’s been talk among neighbors. Neighbors and strangers. Saying they’re just going to ride it out. Ride it out.” That a mood is fully established. At that point effective, emotive electric guitar and piano have been added. The song is moving and conveys the psychological experience.
And what is the talk among neighbors today? It’s August 14, 2017, and for all the buffoonery that we used to discuss about the current president, the actual core of this hate-monger is starting to ignite. This is our president.
Knowing this, knowing our friends and family are in danger and by not reacting forcefully enough we may be complicit, the abstract but painfully accurate “Relentless” is a good song for today.
The words of one of the refrains of this song are “These days you gotta stay low. Can’t tell when it’s gonna blow. You just gotta stay low.” Again, as a psychological description, painful and accurate. We’re all afraid, and there’s good reason to be afraid. Of course, if we all stay low this will only get worse.
It starts quietly enough, crisp acoustic guitars strumming stereo left and right, then the vocals come in, plaintively wondering where the time went (tell me about it?). Two and a half minutes later, The Heligoats‘ “Little Gain” has gained quite a lot: cut time drums and bass relentlessly pushing; arpeggiated counterpoint in guitar stereo left and what sounds like a toy piano stereo right, building up, building up; then a child’s voice finally harmonizing as the singer, who sounds a fair amount like Eef Barzelay, agrees, “I know what you mean, I know how you’re feeling, I know what you feel, I know what you’re meaning.” But not before a cutting line, “so you made your point: below freezing.” Amazing. I love how this song has no chorus, just a series of exclamations and affirmations ’til it’s said enough. Perfection.
Mike Antone and Camelia Jade are mainstays of a Snoqualmie Valley folk scene loosely centered around the Black Dog Cafe. They’ve been writing and playing together for a long time, the last several years among other longtime collaborators in a 5-piece called Strong Sun Moon.
The recording of “Lovebird” feels like it was made live; it’s intimate, anchored by Antone’s acoustic guitar and tenor vocal and percussionist Samantha Hiatt’s haunting harmonies. Hand percussion and harmonica drive dynamics and respond between verses. The lyrics seem to find a connection between bird flight and human love, though the references to owls, eagles, ravens are presented with a mysticism – sacred, dreams, magic – that brings to mind a certain other Snoqualmie Valley-affiliated work of art that’s recently reentered the popular consciousness. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.
Smooth as molasses on a hot summer day (if you will), Darryl Blood‘s “Dead Memories” is laid back and perfect. It’s the sound of afternoon light through a dirty window falling on a shag carpet. It’s the soundtrack to your river tubing trip to Leavenworth. It’s both of those, and it’s also a slower kind of country shuffle, stereo left guitar arpeggiating to Blood’s Tweedy-esque vocal while a pedal steel sings counterpoint on the right. Crisp rim clicks and solid bass, backing a certain resignedness: “circumstance has come and gone, memories seem so useless.” The chorus asking, “if you love me let me know, if you don’t need me then let me go.” Passive. Resigned and passive, like that float on the river, and similarly pleasant.