Jason Webley – Northern Lights (2002)

Today’s single is a hare’s breath removed from a lullaby. Jason Webley is a very prolific and theatrical musician, a traveler, a carnie without a carnival. He has worked with Amanda Palmer (of Dresden Dolls fame) in the Evelyn Evelyn project – a musical circus side-show, mesmerizing, unsettling and wonderful. He has provided the weather song for Episode 9 of the infamous Welcome to Night Vale podcast.

He has also recorded a good number of albums of his own; this song comes from his 2002 album, “Counterpoint” – an amazing, complex work, that I recommend in its entirety to anyone whose interest was ever aroused by Leonard Cohen – to whom Webley pays candid tribute on one of the songs – or Tom Waits, or The Doors, or…

But, before you go, don’t forget to enjoy the arctic reverie of Northern Lights, one of the most beautiful, gentle songs on the record. The lyrics are cloaked in poetry and longing, and the music innocently and cruelly pulls at heartstrings in a childish way. Look up…


ZaRecords Mixtape 8: Books

Time for another mixtape! A true one this time, not a simple top. I’m joined in this new musical discussion by my friend Ștefana, author of the ZaBooks blog, which some of you might know is the reason I started writing ZaRecords in the first place. I’m very glad to finally be able to catch her on a free day – we’ve been planning this podcast for years (literally). So, the 8th Mixtape is all about music inspired by or based on literary works – as you’ll see, we cover everything from novels to poetry, stopping by the playwright wilds and sending a wink to Edgar Allan Poe along the way. As you might expect, this one is a bit more wordy than the others – blame it on the theme! Enjoy, and be sure to leave us a comment with your impressions!

ZaRecords Mixtape 7: Colors

Time for another mixtape! I am joined again by my dear friend Mihaela, for a selection of songs inspired by or inspiring of various colors! We didn’t over-analyze and over-think this, we just went with what we liked and compromised as much as we felt comfortable with, so here’s our final selection of colors! Enjoy!

Rob Dougan – Furious Angels (2002)

It would come as no surprise to me to find out that people have completely forgotten about Rob Dougan – The Matrix came out in 1999, fourteen years ago! It’s old enough to be featured on weekday nights on TCM. His initial and arguably most solid claim to fame came from the songs he wrote for the notorious movie’s score, and the only album he released came three years later, fundamentally different from the vibe he had been known for from The Matrix score. It was such an unusual record for him, and for the yearly “naughties”, that I get the feeling the critics were jarred (although mostly pleasantly surprised) and the public was baffled. Ever since, Rob Dougan has completely disappeared (save for a few songs he wrote for The Sugarbabes, oddly enough), leaving people like me gasping for more.

Rob Dougan

Half way between Tom Waits and Portishead, Rob Dougan’s sound is utterly distinctive and, as far as I’m concerned, unforgettable. I can’t think of one single track on this record that’s sub-par, there’s not one single moment which fails to keep up with the overall intensity – and what intensity, what teeth-gritting ferociousness infuses these songs. The album is one of the most eloquent distillations of despair I’ve ever heard, mostly mere millimeters away from melodrama, an unprecedented combination of adolescent angst and mature meditation, made complete by the dolorous contrast between the jagged, lumbering, ominous beats and the sweeping strings, the overwhelming orchestration and layering of the thing. It sounds like a masterpiece of patience and design, a sprawling scape of emotional architecture made sound, injected with urgency and anguish and breathtaking beauty. I simply can’t believe a songwriting talent like this would just completely shut off all output in such a cruel way – after announcing work on two separate albums at once, in 2006. Ever since, silence. It’d be furious if the situation weren’t so theatrically ironic somehow.

The music is formidably cinematic, it conveys a deep sense of narrative, hence my mentioning Portishead, while being wonderfully complemented by Rob Dougan’s voice, harrowed and shaking as it is. I might have been a bit shallow to mention Tom Waits in this context, based mostly on his ravaged timbre, because there’s little to no humor in these songs, unlike in most of Waits’ work, and much less metaphor, a much less poetic approach. The communication is direct, marred by a raw honesty, an un-crafted flow of emotion which makes me feel there’s something adolescent to this, some refreshing lack of constraint and social witticism, that “modern cool” which acts as a sort of defense mechanism, placing distance between the storyteller and the story. Rob Dougan doesn’t afford himself this luxury – this is music for the wounded, and it may leave one speechless if stumbled upon at the right time.

There really isn’t much more I want to say about this album. It’s one of those “desert island” disks for me, some of the best music to come out in the last decade or so. I honestly hope you get to enjoy it without the tempting emotional framework it seems to summon so easily. After endless plays, after a myriad moments bringing closure for various wounds, I feel I’m finally over that once-impassable barrage which didn’t allow me to write about Furious Angels until now. There is no detachment to be found when faced with this music… at this point, I think it would be disrespectful to pretend otherwise. In any case, enjoy!

Gavin Bryars with Tom Waits – Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1993)

There are some recordings which seem to shift, while you listen, from music to… something else entirely. Sound stops conforming to the shapes and structures which one’s ear might be used to in the framework of “music”, and starts behaving as if it’s expression belongs to another art altogether. Not to say that the art of music is in any way insufficient, it’s just that sometimes, some composers create effects which don’t seem to belong to any sort of established label or experience. In my opinion, Gavin Bryars manages just that with his iconic “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”; the story behind this recording is flabbergasting in its own right, and I’m very glad to have finally found the right time on my internal clock to write about it.

Gavin BryarsThe first thing I need to say about this work is that it really isn’t for everyday listening and it isn’t for “on the run” listeners. It’s an exhausting, draining, bizarrely hypnotic work which hit me over the head like a rag soaked in chloroform, a long time ago, when I first started hoarding “minimalist” music. I soon learned the story of the original tape recording which sits at the base and at the very peak of the music, in a sort of moebian twist of a subtlety I had never seen before and I’ve never seen since.

Apparently, while working for some sort of documentary, the composer was interviewing some tramps, and one of them sang him this song. Later, when retuning to the communal creative space he was working in, shared with artists of varied persuasions, he played the tape and forgot to turn it off while going out to lunch. The tape kept repeating and the slight, achingly difficult to define rhythmic asymmetry that this endless loop created a certain mood in the room, so odd, so formidable, that by the time he returned, some of the artists which were still in the space had a beatific expression, some of them even going so far as weeping in awe. Gavin Bryars set out to compose an orchestral score to accompany the old tramp’s singing, which ended up being 25 minutes long – one side of a vinyl disc. The version I’m writing about came over twenty years later, when, after the advent of the CD, which allowed for uninterrupted recordings of up to 74 minutes, he decided, at Philip Glass’ suggestion, to record the piece again, structuring it differently, and adding Tom Waits’ voice as a culmination. The story is longer and more sinuous, and if I’ve managed to peak your interest, I intensely suggest you read Gavin Bryars’ own telling of the tale, available here.

How can a 74 minute loop of an old tramp’s weary and naive voice have such a heartbreaking effect? Does it really? Is there anything intrinsic about this music which makes it so breathtakingly powerful once you let it in? I think there is. I think Gavin Bryars has had the immense luck and blessed astuteness of perception to recognize the musical iteration of the spiritual impact of a prayer. I’m not a religious person, so for me the bliss of devotion and prayer which believers talk about is a closed door. However, in the presence of this music and this music alone I have come close to feeling the dissolution of fear and doubt which is said to come from abandonment of self to the will of the divine. It’s not something I wish to experience every day – as I said, I find the process draining and capable of disconnecting me from reality for far longer than the music lasts. However, when the time is right, having heard “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” once, I cannot help but recognize moments where it is the only thing I can listen to, the only thing that makes sense. These are not moments of desperation or fear, neither are they moments of joy. Rather, the time comes when emotion falls silent for a little while. When there is so little to be said, that one phrase, limping, candid, infused with more hope than I have ever seen manifest in any other work of art, one phrase can somehow refill the drained vessel of one’s experience and availability.

There’s absolutely no point in trying to critique Tom Waits’ performance on this record. It belongs, and that’s the highest praise that I can give and that, I think, can be given faced with the tramp’s voice. I can only hope you’ll set aside the time to give this album a chance. It’s a truly unique experience!