Music, that marvel
trying to exist
out of this forest to come forth
-- George Oppen, from Twenty-six Fragments
ON WINTERPILLS LIVE
A wise friend Philip and I have in common, Madi Horstman, once defined music as “time well spent”. We all seek out the music that spends our time well. We don’t generally think about it, but that’s what we use music for.
The first time I heard Winterpills was at Pete’s Candy Store in Billyburg, in a space so intimate my knees were packed in between those of the people across the “room”, and it felt was as if the band was in the front seat of the car, which magically accommodated all five of them, along with each piece of equipment they needed to fill us, all who managed to be in the audience, with their songs, so fully dimensional and well executed that they sounded better than a lot of recordings do. The songs I remember them playing, (A Benediction, Broken Arm, Beesting, Cranky) had a way generally of building tiny statements (which turn out to be much more complex then they look) into reverberant, intoxicating architectures of sound. They were immediately seductive by their intimacy and limpid clarity, and had all the buoyancy of Beethoven’s Leonore #3. Since then I’ve heard them live twice more, and heard all of the recordings, and spent a fair amount of time reading the lyrics. For the listener (reader) who is interested, I can say, there is a lot of territory here beyond the immediately gripping satisfactions of these songs. This house has many mansions, and each one seems designed to give something more to the wandering pilgrim who is inclined to get lost off the trail.
The songs and the recordings are breathtakingly well made. Every sound is painstakingly/gracefully decided, and the architectural spaces in the pacing and placement of the sounds is always crystal clear. The songs remind me of Joseph Cornell boxes. That’s because, beside the framing of the structure, they are (or contain), in one sense, reliquaries. There is often an amber hue, or red-shifting that goes with the fact that the songs are saying: here is something precious, something being kept, which we see through this (variously) translucent material, time. Memory has two sides – its all that keeps our past experiences; but the experiences themselves are also utterly inaccessible, gone. The opportunity to feel the impact of that absence is a dimension of the emotional generosity of these songs.
I realized at one point that despite (or because of) the obvious skills these musicians have, despite how meticulously chosen and placed each sound is, and how necessary, and how carefully realized the structure of the songs is, that near the center of this particular world of songs is not just the memory of childhood and adolescence, but the perpetuation in a sense of both, and that this includes both the savor of the richness of these experiences of awakening, awakening to the whole range of increasingly complex emotion, and the absence of what we savor through memory, this multivalent nostalgia, and how this music recreates in us the buoyancy, the lift, the sense of levitation that was and is the effect that pop music can have, that oddly dissonant simultaneous joy with crying.
The music is both in itself simply, straightforwardly, wonderful pop music; and at the same time taken as a whole series of albums and songs an artwork that consists of a lovingly realized museum of pop music and the tender feelings with which and to which we awaken through adolescence, and which continue, if we are fortunate, to keep us receptive and vulnerable.
The structure of these songs is something that often reminds me of a Calder sculpture, a series of moving parts, parts that turn in relation to one another, angled and curving gestures- a choreography- a structure that I can visualize as extended in space rather than in time.
A painter can make a point of the physicality of his paint as opposed to emphasizing the illusion of a painting’s ability to charm by holding images and representing space (to refer outside its literal nature). In Winterpills you also have a kind of literalness of material. This is in how the song mimics memory, being a kind of patchwork, a (not necessarily reliable) concatenation of different stuffs. This materiality is also in how we find embedded relics of songs we all know and remember. Its in the sculptural nature of the structure, and the arrangement style consisting of having a series of simultaneous voicings and sequences from riff to riff; and its in the evocative textures of the sounds themselves, including the intimate and limpid texture of the singer’s voices.
I found myself reflecting on how a riff, a melody, a song, can become something as actual to us as a piece of furniture that we live our lives with. Like a piece of furniture in our soul. That is the least explicable, or anticipatable aspect of music, and we never get to the bottom of how and why it works. I keep listening, and I keep experiencing surprise, and along with that gratitude. These songs are full of riffs, melodies, and other structures that have that realized presence.
This is music that I recognized immediately as necessary to me, and that sense of need has grown as my familiarity with the music has. I find solace in these songs that I would not have without them, which I think is what anyone can say about the music they love.
ON THE SELF-TITLED FIRST ALBUM
I was listening to the figure that underlies A Benediction, the guitar riff that opens the piece, the simple interplay of two kin melodies headed in opposite directions that underlies everything that happens in the song, and found myself thinking again about how there isn’t any attitude-copping in this music. As energetic as it gets, and it gets plenty energetic, especially in the manner of levitation (as in, for example, again, Beethoven’s Leonore Overture #3), its always as folk as Woody Guthrie, or The Minutemen, always as intimate. It avoids grandness, and any kind of cold or calculated formal staging, pedestal, or other form of distance. And, to my relief, there is no divinity here, no next world, no exalted other position from which to dismiss or diminish the experience we are having.
From Winterpill’s first album to the EP, Tuxedo of Ashes, we find lexicons of winter, of cold; frozenness. In the song Portrait from Winterpills, we hear that:
“the streets are filling up with snow,
the ice floe has no place to go;
the kitchen pipes are frozen
and your world is at arm’s length”.
In the eponymous song from Tuxedo of Ashes the narrator says:
“i went out on the highway
underneath the mackerel sky
with an ice chip on my shoulder
and a snowflake in my eye”.
In what is probably, (maybe), my favorite song on Winterpills, Want the Want, we find they have added to the list of looped phrases in the song from The Who (judge the judge, etc), this phrase “want the want”, which is so much more vulnerable, delicate, sorrowful, and poetic, than the wonderful Mr. Townsend’s phrases in his nonetheless great song. As always, the structure of Want the Want smacks of perfection, nothing transgressive in where the sound is steadily augmented by the paced addition of instruments, or in how the song builds toward its first chorus from its initial ostenato figure started, as usual, by Philip by means of a few seemingly simple notes, a melody modulated through a progression that resolves back into the dominant chord repeatedly, and like many passages in Winterpills’ discography, not without reference to Neil Young.
I should mention also the value of restraint here. Restraint is arguably the hallmark of pop music. Efficiency, the discipline of simplicity, the elimination of anything unnecessary. I don’t know what gets eliminated during the production of a given Winterpills track – they give the impression that they may be, as Mozart indicated when he said “The rest is just scribbling”, so well conceived that little need be eliminated. The technology available today seems so biased toward unrestraint. It used to be next to impossible to get a usable track recorded, let alone build a well made mixed recording. These days you can whip up a hundred-track Orchestra piece in Garageband in an hour, create your own sampled instruments with ease, produce an album on your iPhone. But the way the piano comes in, for example, on Want the Want, couldn’t be simpler, in a sense its quite obvious. But its necessary, it’s a subtle touch, adding to the steadily opening field of sound, preparing the way for the blooming of the chorus. And the melody and vocal harmony of the chorus does trace the contour of an orchid, as sensitively as Ellsworth Kelly might, as so many of the sung melodies in Winterpill’s songs trace contours with an unmistakable and elegant obedience.
ON THE LIGHT DIVIDES
The album opens with Lay Your Heartbreak; with a call and response figure played on the guitar. There is no amplification. It relies on the strength of its idea. Its as bare bones as it could be, there is no dressing. But again it has the clarity of a dentist’s drill, and the physical actuality of layers of sedimentary rock maybe set at angles by time. Call out: the chords scraped, semi resolving in its movement from one position to the other; response – two hammer-ons taking us further down a slope. This figure is like a mast to which a clipper’s sails are tethered, opening in their measured places until we see the whole thing. I’m fumbling for metaphors to convey how these elements are so inimitably actual. This is at least just as striking in the live performances.
In a song like Handkerchiefs, where we have the wonderful intimate rhythmn to the phrase “(we’ll talk) into both our handkerchiefs” with, as always, the stresses falling so gracefully, you also have the descending riff played on the electric guitar where it breaks into triplets. How this music effaces the cold surface of a lot of pop music, and (re)installs its devices with a steady warmth of attentiveness and intentionality, how it always stays intimate, how you are always with a person (!), how it has no posturing whatsoever in it. It makes a very special proposal, one that I’d say ee cummings, for example, made in a similar spirit, that can be experienced in the intimacy of every line he wrote as it can in every moment of Winterpills’ recorded work, and was summed up in his statement that Gentleness is the truest power.
In a song that contains echoes of Blue Oyster Cult, Broken Arm, on The Light Divides, you have a series of melodies that repeat a simple rhythm, alternatively climbing and falling in pitch, efficiently building that pressure that is released in the chorus, and the whole thing, as in all of the songs, is language driven – what is said is realized in everything the song does. The song is all about the confrontational words “come out, come out, come out and say it/ why can’t you come out and say it?” There is much material about the abysses between two people in these songs.