Play One Note

Psychedelic music blog covering psychedelic, folk, drone, metal, and all other forms of out music.

Posts tagged with ‘Folk music’

Bascom Lamar Lunsford – Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina

July 25, 2011

bascom lamar lunsford ballads banjo tunesNow, I like weird, and much Appalachian folk is plenty weird, but give me Bascom Lamar Lunsford and his decidedly welcoming Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina, a collection of recordings repackaged and released by Smithsonian Folkways, any day.

Lunsford’s approach differs from many of his Appalachian brethren.  For one, his strengths more closely mirror those of balladeers like Buell Kazee and lie in opposition to the cascading torrents of notes and shrill vocals favored by the likes of Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, and Hobart Smith.  And though I tend to prefer the approach of the latter group of musicians, Lunsford’s quietly awesome emotional range is damn hard to dislike.

For another, that “high lonesome sound” of which Bob Dylan spoke (and which is the name of Roscoe Holcomb’s peerless collection of Folkways recordings) isn’t as evident on this record.  Lunsford’s selection of songs is entirely peaceful, soothing, and warmly inviting.  That doesn’t mean these songs aren’t moving.  It just means that they trade more in nostalgia and simple prettiness, as on the quietly gorgeous “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” than they do haunting eerieness.  Even when Lunsford puts down his banjo and goes a capella, the results are comforting, not estranging, as on the sweetly affecting “To the Pines, to the Pines,” with its deliberate, lilting melody.

“To the Pines, to the Pines” is as good an example as any to illustrate another crucial difference in Lunsford’s music—his voice.  It’s not his range, which, while certainly adequate, isn’t remarkable.  Rather, it’s the elusive character of his singing, which is at once lived-in and yearning, imbued with a deeply affecting warmth.  While Lunsford may never blaze up the fretboard like many other clawhammer masters from the mountaintops, these tunes don’t demand that he does, and his voice is the perfect complement to his stately, unadorned banjo playing.  An extra treat: the spoken introductions he often gives his songs.  These intros, which serve to provide lineage and personal color to the recordings, are sometimes found on similar folk catalogs, but here, Lunsford’s conversational homeyness makes these positively endearing.

Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs is incredibly evocative, reminiscent of lazy afternoons spent sitting on a porch, sipping cool sweet tea from a tumbler beaded with sweat, the warm sun filtering through the still hickories, a sweet grassy fragrance in the air.  It’s perfect summer music.  While it might not be representative of the otherworldliness characteristic of other Appalachian songs, that absence of unfamiliarity might actually make Lunsford’s collection of songs an ideal entry point for folks interested in the genre but a little spooked by the off-key caterwauls of many of Appalachian folk’s more wild-eyed practitioners (I love his voice now, but the first time I heard Roscoe Holcomb’s shrill, nasal squawk, I was, shall we say, not immediately won over).  Close your eyes and hum along:

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P.G. Six – Slightly Sorry

April 23, 2010

p.g. six slightly sorrySlightly 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.

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P.G. Six – The Well of Memory

April 10, 2010

p.g. six the well of memoryP.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.

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P.G. Six – Parlor Tricks and Porch Favorites

April 7, 2010

p.g. six parlor tricks and porch favoritesParlor 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.

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P.G. Six and Intuitive Virtuosity

March 31, 2010

p.g. six


It’s fair to say that I listen to the music of Pat Gubler, who records solo material under the P.G. Six name, as frequently as the output of any other artist.  Obviously, there are those I hold in higher regard, and there are those who I pay more lip service to.  I’m not about to spend my time taking Gubler’s singularly eerie and comforting recordings and holding them toe-to-toe with, say, Tom Waits’s artistry.  Let’s be honest–that would be unfair.  What I do want to point out is the absolutely arresting and enveloping atmosphere Gubler is consistently able to conjure up.  In my five years of listening to P.G. Six and Tower Recordings (his previous primary concern, a collaboration with another gut-level, if considerably messier, songwriter in Matt Valentine), I have never once gotten tired of dipping into his entirely submersive sound.

The way he achieves his highly distinctive aura is by striking a balance between restraint and filligree, affording every instrument played and every line sung a finely wrought sense of craft.  This isn’t just me trying to squeeze out pretty words, here: P.G. Six’s songs ultimately set themselves apart with a clear sense of deliberate consideration.  It’s this sense that Gubler truly cares and has a clear, lovingly rendered goal in mind that helps make the first 5 1/2 minutes of “Quiet Fan for SK,” a cut off 2001’s Parlor Songs and Porch Favorites which consists of nothing but Gubler’s distracted, sparse guitar playing, an arresting, intimate moment, and not a mess of pointless meandering.  Of course, when that song finally opens up, patience is awarded with a quietly gorgeous–and carefully considered–unfolding.

This sense of craft is no less in effect when Gubler hews closer to traditional song structure.  The detail on the two-minute “The Divine Invasion,” also on Parlor Songs, is very reserved, but again, the muffled drumming and bits of reversed guitar seem like carefully mulled-over choices, and they contribute a rich and comforting depth to the song.

Even when Gubler shared songwriting duties with Valentine in Tower Recordings, his contributions proved uncommonly inviting and introspective, especially for what is allegedly largely improvised music.  His distinctievly nimble yet hypnotic guitar picking and languid voice are in full effect on “Ibiza Within You,” off of 2004’s The Galaxies’ Incredibly Sensual Transmission Field of the Tower Recordings.  These typically Gublerian elements, welded to the busy clatter and clutter associated with the Tower Recordings, make for one of my favorite songs of all time.

I’m writing a lot, but I might not be getting exactly what I want to say across.  Here it is: there is an inherently reassuring element to the way P.G. Six plays his instruments.  After all, plenty of obsessed studio wizards sweat over every detail and make music that leaves me cold.  In a way, it’s the sense that Gubler actually approaches songcraft intuitively, somehow knowing on a basal level what will work and what doesn’t, that draws me to him.  This is the “intuitive virtuosity” I referred to in the title of this piece.  There’s something deeply beautiful and warming to this thought: a man picks up a guitar and, without thinking, pulls finely rendered genius out of it.


I’ll be posting discussions of P.G. Six’s first two song-based albums, Parlor Tricks and Porch Favorites and The Well of Memory, soon.  Maybe I’ll also write a little bit about why his most recent effort, Slightly Sorry, was such a let-down.  (Edit, 4/23/10: I obviously did, and it is a little more than “a little bit.”  Oops!)  But I don’t want this space to be excessively negative, especially to someone whose music means so much to me overall.

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