IT IS HAPPENING: I will now be dropping knowledge on the Twittersphere, <140 characters at a time. On it, I’ll basically do what I do here–write about the music I love. That’s the goal, anyway. Hopefully, I’ll do it in an entertaining and illuminating way. Except updates will be shorter. And more frequent. IT’S TWITTER.
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Slightly Sorry, released by Drag City (a big deal!), is, by P.G. Six standards, a massive let-down. It’s the classic sound of someone “maturing.” Alternately, it also fits the “selling out” charge really well. Hey, look at that! Music criticism cliches, in quotes, in back-to-back sentences! Go me! But really, despite evidence that Pat Gubler is still capable of penning gorgeous music, there’s really just far too much weak material on here for this to be anything but a depressing thing to behold.
This is hard for me to write: where it now reads “weak material” in the previous sentence, I had originally written “faceless dross.” My original term was partly overwrought critical ego inflation and partly true. Even so, I just cannot be that mean: P.G. Six, at his best, is a criminally underrated, revelatory figure in folk. You just wouldn’t know it by listening to Slightly Sorry.
All over it is dilution and disappointment. Sometimes, as on “Untitled Micro Mini,” the offense lies in the song’s completely inoffensive nature. Sure, it’s pleasant enough, but this, this is in no way an example of what makes P.G. Six great. Other times, however, the transgression is due entirely to the song’s general atrociousness, as on the abysmal “The Dance,” which I mean c’mon I don’t even want to get into. Let’s just say it employs the lyric “But I wonder if you dance” and proceeds to rhyme “dance” with “romance” and I’ll let your mind do its worst.
The best moments on Slightly Sorry are undeniably great, but they’re robbed of much of their glory due to context. “The End of Winter,” for example, is an unsettlingly beautiful rumination of fingerpicked guitar and Helen Rush’s intimate, husky whisper. It establishes an absolutely haunting, arresting mood, one which is completely bitch-slapped by the vapid Byrds retread of “I’ve Been Travelling,” which jarringly kicks in right after.
To put it another way: On, say, Parlor Tricks and Porch Favorites, these moments wouldn’t be such standouts. That’s not to say that “The End of Winter” and “Lily of the West,” the other indisputably excellent song on Slightly Sorry, would pale in comparison to anything on Pat Gubler’s previous albums. Rather, they wouldn’t seem particularly special, but would be yet another captivating thread in a uniformly brilliant tapestry. However, it’s the fact that these song-length masterpieces are surrounded by such uninspired material that makes them kind of sad, kind of like watching a washed-up sports legend turn out one last dominating game. Or something.
I don’t just want to shit all over P.G. Six here. It would be comforting, or at least instructive, if I could figure out why Gubler chose to go down this route. Unfortunately, I can’t. The Drag City move means he stands to get a fair bump in exposure, but it’s not like the stuff he’s turning out has an appeal to some gigantic audience. He’s shunned a miniscule group of followers for a merely tiny one, and these songs aren’t getting picked up by any car companies anytime soon. Artistically, there’s absolutely no way someone with Gubler’s evident musical interests, let alone his avant-rich background, could make such a dramatic shift toward NPR-friendly folk and feel entirely at ease. The creator of The Well of Memory can’t just turn around three years later and drop Slightly Sorry without having at least a hint of internal conflict. Try as I might, I just can’t justify why this happened. I wish I could.
All right, I did it: I laid into someone whose music I truly love. I feel kind of dirty about it, but I also kind of told myself I’d do it. I’m not sure how often I’ll be going negative here, but the earnest hope is that it doesn’t happen too much, and I don’t think it will. Though it can be kind of fun to rip into someone awful like Vampire Weekend or the Black-Eyed Peas or something, that’s really not the point of this blog, which is to spread my love for psychedelic music. Another, more ambitious goal: to, through example, come up with a broad working definition of what, exactly, psychedelic music is. Don’t know if that’ll ever happen. But I sure as shit didn’t start writing this psychedelic music blog with the intention of regularly trampling on anyone here. So, my earnest apologies to Pat Gubler, but I felt like, in this particular case, I had to go there.
Houdini, Long Fin Killie‘s 1995 debut, is an absolutely relentless display of technical virtuosity grafted onto a typically British post-rock sensibility. That means elements like spaciness, repetition, attention to texture and mood over melody, and a general disregard of verse/chorus/verse are all in effect. Those elements, however, are rendered secondary to Long Fin Killie’s demanding barrage of metronomic instrumental interplay.
Witness, for example, the minor-key, vaguely folky acoustic guitar lockstep that is “Corngold.” It’s got all the hallmarks of a typical British post-rock song from that genre heydey: there’s a circular song structure, semi- or entirely unidentifiable instruments and sounds (I would be shocked if that was a cimbalom panning around in there, but it sure as hell sounds like one), and an extremely strong, well-developed aura of mystery and space, but it’s all detail sprucing up the driving purpose of the thing, which is kept central. “Corngold” remains hypnotic, but it’s in a decidedly focused, honing way, not in a diffusing, dreamy one.
The same could be said everything on this album, even “How I Blew It With Houdini,” a gorgeous, pristine centerpiece burbling with layer upon layer of complexly intertwined instrumentation. Though it’s a profoundly mellow, relaxing song, rich with detail that slowly unfolds and unwinds over its nine minutes, it never feels dense or unfocused. There’s a purpose here, too.
Psychedelia is usually considered “drug music.” The reasons for this are many and obvious, with the otherworldly moods both psych and drugs evoke being the primary one. It’s perhaps unusual, then, that Long Fin Killie’s music, undeniably psychedelic, evokes a nearly aggressive sobriety. Even at its dreamiest moments, of which there are many, songwriter Luke Sutherland’s music maintains an almost inhuman precision. The same occurs when the band swings the other way, unleashing nearly unhinged blasts of aggression (such as on the dizzyingly busy “Flower Carrier”) that are nevertheless, ultimately, tightly controlled. Instead of mind-melting, space-expanding solos, the band’s skill is harnessed inward, making repetitive riffs of astonishing intricacy and detail, with the complex, airtight drumming patterns in particular recalling jungle’s surgical exactitude. (This comparison isn’t a reach on my part; Long Fin Killie’s final album, Amelia, made this connection explicit with live-drumming Amen breaks all over the place. It’s really kind of breathtaking to listen to. Sutherland’s subsequent project, Bows, is also indebted to jungle.)
I’m tempted to be lazy here and just quit without explicitly explaining just why/how Houdini is “psychedelic,” but, given my previous paragraph, I must. Here it is: There’s no druggy feeling, sure, but that reaching-beyond element is absolutely 110% in effect here, not just in the final product itself (the songs), but in the way those songs are constructed, which demonstrates a restless, heady curiosity. Also, the hypnotic introspection characteristic of so much psychedelia is completely present and dazzlingly effective. Long Fin Killie in general, and Houdini in particular, demands close listening. Ultimately, what Houdini is about is a group of musicians taking their considerable instrumental skills, merging them through their synergistic dynamics, and methodically building a platform to stand upon and touch the sky.
Too Pure: A Note About the Record Label
Houdini was released on Too Pure, a UK-based label that had a staggeringly impressive post-rock/electronic run in the mid-90s, releasing classic albums by Moonshake, Pram, Stereolab, Laika, Seefeel, Th’ Faith Healers, and Mouse on Mars. This lineup, with its fearless approach to experimentation with new sounds and new studio techniques, epitomized what made the era (from roughly 1994-1998, with outliers of a couple years in either direction) my favorite in the history of music. Houdini is just one brilliant star among many in the Too Pure firmament. (For the record, Too Pure might have the best, deepest stable of underrated releases, pound for pound, of any record label I’m aware of. Might be fun to write about…)
P.G. Six’s second album, The Well of Memory, works on deepening the gorgeously repetitive sound of his debut, Parlor Tricks and Porch Favorites. The engrossingly nimble harp and fingerpicked guitar playing are still there, but they’re even more hauntingly rendered. At the same time, The Well of Memory also finds the free-folk performer turning toward more song-based arrangements, which makes for higher highs and lower lows.
Those highs largely come in the album’s first half, with “Come In/The Winter it is Past,” “Old Man on the Mountain,” and “Crooked Way,” three songs with linear song structure that hover around the five-minute mark and that are each characterized by an incredibly hypnotic depth. In each, some fundamental elements change–the stark banjo picking of “Come In,” for example, compared to the hushed, enveloping male/female harmonies of “Crooked Way”–but the overall effect is of otherworldly, eerie warmth.
So, in a way, The Well of Memory more of the same, with only some minor tweaks. But those tweaks are important, making for some much more arresting material. In retrospect, however, it also signals a continuing trend away from the anarchy of Tower Recordings, his previous band with Matt Valentine.
Like many projects with multiple songwriters, Tower Recordings was a middle ground between two of its primary members. (For what it’s worth, I’m not discounting the contributions of third mainstay Helen Rush. I’m just choosing not to enter her into the equation since her post-Tower work has been largely collaborative, not solo-oriented, so I can’t easily determine what she brought to the table. Ditto with Tim Barnes and any other regular contributors.) Valentine’s vast output since the band’s dissolution has been characterized by visceral experimentation and an embrace of bloody, lively chaos–all nominally within the strictures of American folk and psych-rock traditions. With his music, whether it’s an abstracted drone piece or a primal, grimy electric jam, it’s always messy and immediate. Gubler’s approach, conversely, has been one of restraint, both with his rate of output and with the calm, assured music he creates. Call it what you want, but it would be impossible to describe the cyclical guitar playing and subdued vocal delivery of “Old Man on the Mountain” with any synonym of “immediate.”
And yet, counterintuitively, it’s Valentine’s music that largely leaves me cold, while I compulsively listen to (and am consistently entranced by) Gubler’s work. Like I mentioned in my initial post about P.G. Six, it’s his restraint, combined with his absolutely arresting delivery (both vocally and instrumentally), that keeps me coming back. Really, writing about these two first albums so much has been so rewarding, if only because I get to listen to two of my all-time favorite albums with a critical ear. It’s been a wonderful time.
And then there’s Slightly Sorry, whose very existence pains me, especially because you can tell, listening to it, that Pat Gubler hasn’t completely lost it.
Parlor Tricks and Porch Favorites is the first album by folk musician Pat Gubler, who records under the name P.G. Six. In 2001, when the album was released, Gubler was in seminal free folk/noise folk/improv folk collective Tower Recordings. They were a formidable outfit that released an indeterminate number of albums in a wide array of traditional and non-traditional formats, as bands of their shamanic ilk (Vibracathedral Orchestra, Charalambides, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Jackie-O Motherfucker, et. al) are wont to do. Parlor Tricks and Porch Favorites is at once an extension of the avant-folk themes Gubler pursued in Tower Recordings and a welcome respite from his primary concern’s cluttered clatter.
It is, above all, an album of hushed moments, of quietly contemplative beauty. And it’s all complemented perfectly by Gubler’s singular voice, which manages to be entirely arresting while remaining incredibly limited. To compare it to any other set of pipes is probably a misstep on my part, but for point of reference, imagine Calexico singer Joey Burns, sans nasality, with a bucolic lilt. (Pretty specific, no? I’m trying here.) That may not sound that special, but Gubler’s abstracted, crystalline arrangements multiply the calming effect of his vocals, rendering them wholly hypnotic.
And this music is, absolutely, crystalline and hypnotic. The hushed, circular guitar picking of “Unteleported Man” creates finely tuned and enveloping figures. Chiming overlays of harp and washes of droning flutes and reeds act as counterpoints, at one point interrupting the guitar playing. Gubler gently hums along. That’s it. But for over six minutes, the effect is completely entrancing. “Go Your Way” might be both more abstracted and more lovely, featuring mellow flutters and trills on a harp and subdued lilting by Gubler for a good four minutes. Stately bodrhan-esque drumming joins in for another four. And when I refer to harp playing here, this isn’t Joanna Newsom-level stuff here. This is absolutely sublime work.
Compared to his subsequent album, 2004’s The Well of Memory, Parlor Tricks and Porch Favorites is more of a piece, sporting a much more unified sound from beginning to end, and lacking the highlights and missteps of his sophomore work. (I really, really don’t want to get into his third solo album, Slightly Sorry, but I feel more and more like I should.) Parlor Tricks and Porch Favorites is pastoral and seemingly effortlessly intricate. It’s underrated. It’s beautiful.