17 October 2007

devon sproule will save your soul

haven't been seeing a lot of shows lately (there have been a bunch that i might haps have gone to, but didn't care quite enough to go by myself), but no way was i gonna miss a frustratingly rare philly performance by this Virginny (not virginy) gal, whom i first heard/saw the epiphany before last - i think she's been back in the interim, but i was out of town. anyway, never miss her. if you get the chance to miss her, just don't do it!

even though this show was "in the round" with three others - which turned out to mean four folkers on stage with their 'coustics, going down the line and each singing a song in turn, surprisingly little roundness to it, really, devon was pretty much the only one who tried to add some harmonies to the others' choruses. (there was also a whistling meme.) she was also the only one who broke out of the demurely self-effacing/adulatory mode of 'tween-song banter ("wow, you're so talented, how can i ever follow that up!" "i don't think i know that many chords!") which quickly got a bit tired, albeit cute. not that she was impolite - and she was suitably complimentary of her peers - she just wasn't so earnest about it all (like, insisting that she spells "devon" the correct way) in a way that got her cast and played up as the kooky [and/or] drunk one. (which she certainly was, too - best moment was when she raced to the bathroom and back in between someone else's songs, and half-admitted/half-boasted: "i didn't wash my hands!") point being, she was by far the awesome one of the four, and you could tell she kind of knew it too.

not that the others were bad - though i was mildly pained by one john francis, who veered from overweeningly solemn to clumsily saccharine, often in worrisomely strangulated voice (hurt too that he went after d.s. each time. possibly this wasn't a good venue for him tho.) the other devin was more intriguing, did political reasonably well (also, at all); nice "end of the world as we know it" pastiche. anyway he had a nerdy-goofy personable presence which made his songs easy enough to take.

but in particular i enjoyed carsie blanton's mastery of a certain straightforward, but witty, style of writing (about relationships, almost inevitably) that is a lot of what i like in folk music - you get it the first time through, there's a set-up that's either subverted (in a way you forgot to remember to expect) or else not (which may be harder to make work, but can be more satisfying) - anyway; crafted, crafty and formalist (which is only almost to say formulaic, but in a good way, like a "well-written blues.") it's something that happens in other forms too of course - i'm struggling to think of practitioners but stephin merrit comes to mind, and some john darnielle (though that's usually less straightforward)...actually i'm really surprised i'm having so much trouble with this. oh, john hiatt maybe? anyway, not to get sidetracked into a whole discussion about lyrics (though i'd like to have it later when i marshal some more examples - but do you get what i'm saying?)

it's an economy of language - not necessarily few words, but each word being overt in its purpose. songs that are simple enough in their construction that you can remember them easily (for campfire/cartrip singing, especially), possibly even after just one hearing; narrative/linear enough that you can remember the sequence - indeed that the sequence effectively creates the content of the song; and witty and distinctive enough that you want to remember them (rhyming/wordplay is crucial here - it's often where the craftiness comes in, and is also a memory aid), even if remembering is almost beside the point, is just a way of saving/savoring the moment of initial encounter.

because that's the fundamental act of folk music, more, i think, than other musics - the songwriter sharing the song, presenting it, like a piece of handicraft, like telling a story with a practiced, finely-tuned delivery. "it's all folk music," they say, right, cuz it's all made by folks, but to me that's where the folkiness of it comes in - folks playing songs for other folks (and the "songs" part is important, it's not just "music"), in a context of the everyday, a relationship that has to do with shared humanity - and there's that folk[="craft"]/art distinction, too. not that folk can't be arty, for sure - definitely this interpretation is not very coterminous with stylistic/cultural/marketing-based understandings of the genre.

to head off this thorniness (thorn off this headiness?), let me say that what i think i'm actually doing here is trying to justify to myself why i am not an especial devotee of the folk. (at least in its contemporary state.) i.e., that its essence stems from live performance, and i, ultimately, am a recorded-music guy. [whoa - 'nother new can of worms?] don't know if that's a good 'splanation, but it'll do, because we are getting way off from the point of this post, which is that devon sproule rules (that does not rhyme btw) and is awesome.

and btw what she does is not the kind of songwriting i was describing before. (actually i'm not really sure if carsie blanton does that either - i can't really decide if anybody does. oh wait, andrew gregory does; he really does. "shades of john prine?" dunno.) no, devon writes wordy, florid, meandering lyrics, often self-consciously literary, but just as like to be colloquial and off-the-cuff, either way full of precise, lucidly evocative details, typically of the homespun/folksy variety. not at all unlike joanna newsom, really (in style, though usually not in substance.) exactly like the kind of poems that i don't tend towards (i'm more inclined to poems like the songs i described above - pointy, shapely, snappy)...possibly because they ask more of the reader...except that hers are just so lovely i don't mind, and i want to drink them in.

especially when she comes up with a doozy of a musical setting for them, a single simple titular vocal hook ("(baby) does the day feel long?" "(baby) let's go out"), or a whole-cloth stunner of a chorus melody ("plea for a good night's rest" - that one's been haunting me.) more typically her tunes meander to match her words, without choruses to speak of; her unshakable appeal probably comes less from self-evidently undeniable songwriting than the combined potency of the entire package; her fine-spun lyrics, her accomplished pickin', her beguiling, terrifically limber voice (underplayed on the recorded versions, unfortunately though understandably), and probably most of all (if you're lucky/dutiful and go to see her), well, just her ineffable charm - maybe that's the folk part like i was saying, but also the part that transcends folk (qua genre): a great performer is a great performer.

just as devon's music certainly transcends folk - it's country, jazz (well, swing anyway), soul (er, soulful), bluesy-rootsy - poppy too, if you like - and all this with just herself and a guitar, though she's augmented on record. (it's a similar blend to ms. erin mckeown, another modern "folk" artist who's got something special going on.) but then folk by nature is mongrel anyway, or it oughtta be - even the kind of classicist formalism i was trying to get at earlier is something equally germane elsewhere (country, soul, pop); seems dangerous to yoke a genre to a particular songwriting mode (and what's labeled folk these days might just as well be called "acoustic/singer-songwriter," as much of it is, though those are terrible burdensome tags too.) anyway, just as easy as "it's all folk" why not say "none of it's folk." (i mean, my whole point was, maybe i'm not a folk fan, but this folker is too good to pass up.)

well. the devon sproule song that was my obsession for a good two weeks (and this entry has taken so long to write that even that's faded, though the song itself is untarnished) is "keep your silver shined," the title song from her new album, thankfully out and available recently though i heard her do it nearly two years ago when i first saw her, and it stuck with me all that time. you can hear it at herspace. again, no chorus (just the title phrase, soaring upward into wordlessness) - this time i think it's the harmony that really does it for me (how cute is she telling this kid the chords?), along with those little melodic lilts and of course the words - their sound ("a summer swam...a poughkeepsie scam") just as much as their meanings. it's got her cutesiest ("hands in our pockets and our pockets in our pants") and most poignant ("the best of us changed; the rest of us stuck behind") lines, and a wishful wish list it's hard to disagree with. essentially it's a catalog of and appreciation for life's little joys (from apple-picking to dresser drawers, two things i've almost, but not quite, achieved in the last week or so), a good thing for autumn if not quite autumnal. though in effect maybe it is. it's got that october feeling. indrawn communal contentment. glowy.

the "in the round" performance was a nice concept - done right, i think it would have created an especially conducive setting for a folk music interchange, one that allowed these four songwriters a chance to augment their music and performance by playing off one another. i'm not sure how that would work exactly - something like a jam session; a folk-song sing-a-long - inevitably something more fluid, less structured than you're probably gonna get in a contrived concert situation like that. what we got was a measly four songs from each performer - a tease, dev agrees, but also a neat forced encapsulation (should be easy to for each one to be memorable - devon did "silver," "plea," her quirky appalachian swing stomper "ol' virginia block," and a lovely compilation one-off called "julie") - and four roughly parallel but divergent visions of what folk might be. well ain't it all after all? sproule rhymes with soul rhymes with rock'n'roll. it's only acoustic singer/songwriter music, but i like it.

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