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One reason I will never be fully convinced my stuff is good: An encounter with a crazy, self-assured, moderately famous man.

My favorite story to tell lately occurs after a music rehearsal for Drawn-Out Storytelling, on whatever wrong train I ended up choosing to get to the couch in Brooklyn on which I stayed. I sit with my Bouzouki in my lap, feeling generally small the way any North Carolinian might on a New York subway, squinting at the map across from me. A few stops in to the ride sees the ambling onstage of a very tall man with very small hands and a face apparently sculpted from rough pink concrete plus a patchy goatee that could’ve been glued on by a toddler eager to do something else. He has one of those thin, pre-ziploc sandwich baggies twisted around itself to seal in these bright red…squishy strawberries? Eyeballs? Cherry tomatoes? It’s hard to tell. I offer the salutory head-bob/smile and he just holds my gaze as though to make me immediately regretful of doing so, and asks “are you in a band?” and I say whatever I say when folks ask me that and he immediately jumps in with “oh my god I’m recording an album and you’re going to play on it it’s my first effort outside spiritual/yogacentric music but it’s produced by Thaniel Clement you know Thaniel Clement*.” The last part sounds a bit like a question, but even if it isn’t, I don’t feel like shaking my head “no” is entirely inappropriate. “Thaniel Clement?! He’s only the third-best fucking Piano-Guitarist in Manhattan. Here -“ and he starts scratching what I suppose to be this fellow’s number on my hand with a bic pen.
( I’m not altogether apprehensive throughout this – I know what it is to be weird and to want my delusions legitimized. Plus, for all I know, this fellow with the pretentious name might be a musician worth knowing, whatever the hell a “Piano-Guitarist” actually is.)
At this point I start to attempt to agree and inquire where I might hear his stuff. “On my Myspace,” he intones, the of course implied underneath. I ask how to find it, and he regards me with a sudden…sympathy?

“You don’t know who I am.”

I agree – I don’t.

Magnanimously: “I’m Tamerlane Phillips.”

I still don’t know who he is, but I act like I do. “This,” he tells me, “is going to be the biggest thing I’ve done since the album me and Julian Lennon did together. You’ll be playing on the track The Waters of Life.” I don’t get out the “what” in “what does it sound like” before he stands up and starts headbanging and whisper-yelling the lyrics at me. He’s jerked out of his song by the train and looks up with horror – “is this the A?” I shake my head again and he darts off the train. I get off at the next stop, altogether lost.
After combing my long way back to my buddy’s couch I look him up. Tamerlane “Tam” Phillips. Brother to Bijou Phillips, son of musician John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas. It was him, alright, same craggy face, same single-minded desperation. He did, in the loosest sense, “do an album” with Julian Lennon – that is, he’s credited as singing background vocals on a track that didn’t sound like it had background vocals. It looks like, for most of his life until recently, he languished in the debauched and aimlessly rich community of children-of-rockstars, dabbling with too much coke and heroin. There are youtube videos of him talking about how his troubled, famous family “amounts to a bowl of dog urine” compared to this famous historical guru and yogi – a certain Nityananda of Ganeshpuri(“what no one talks about is how fucking sexually magnetic this guy was”). There’s a myspace page with one song of his – what resembles the piano part to John Lennon’s “Imagine” on repeat while he himself repeats “sweet, sweet, Nityananda.”** I phoned Thaniel Clement and left a message – never heard back.

I’m not even sure if I like this story, but I’m maybe attached to it because this poor maniac can be nobody but his miserable, crazy self, and that breaks my heart. There’s a phrase from Camus: “The incalculable tumble before the image of what we are.” I guess that’s more or less what I experienced then. On the same token – until something outside of us says we’re good, I maintain that any of us with a shred of artistic ambition are Tamerlane Phillips before we’re anyone else. I suppose it was just terrifying to see him, or that, personified.

*totally not his name, but not far from it.  A common white boy name with a letter or two altered.  Like Fonathan. Or Dacob. Or Chaxwell.

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Killing the Darlings: Pearl and The Beard trades “Warm” for Hot.

Killing the Darlings: Pearl and The Beard trades “Warm” for Hot.

Brooklyn’s Pearl and the Beard are a brave trio.   They declaim where others mumble, roar where others mew, rhapsodize where others explain, and dash, scramble, mince, or stomp where others feel pressure to merely stroll.  Their music gives full breath to a romantic abandon, a cinematic melodrama that hasn’t been hip in a long time, and thanks to their practiced hands and golden throats, they manage to make you love it.   Their first release, God Bless Your Weary Soul, Amanda Richardson, made a lot of music writers use the word “gamut,”* and not without cause – between their voices, their scope, and their genre, this band is all about range.  Consult “Vessel,”** their stark, high-drama monologue of a doomed sailor amidst siren calls, or the audacious, heroic reverie “O, Death!” for proof.  The word “Warm” shows up a lot, too, and for good reason – the love songs on God Bless are comfy, cuddlesome things, borne on sweet, expectant boy-girl harmony and counterpoint, awash with hope and doubt.  Brings me to some unforeseen novelties in their newest release –

Killing the Darlings finds Pearl and the Beard grittier, grander, and – get this – hornier.

It’s strange – in the chronology of a trio of singer-songwriters one might expect to see the heaving downplayed as time wears on, but not so here – the trio’s sex drive sees a Indian summer on Darlings in three distinct come-ons:

First – the kinetic, crackling “Sweetness,”  wherein Guitarist Jeremy Styles, all confectionary murmur and creamy falsetto, gives wolfish chase in a city that refuses to commit to a single key, leading him from chord to chord asweat with longing.  Cellist Emily Hope Price grits the song’s teeth with a ticking staccato bass line while Percussionist Jocelyn MacKenzie trips up the poor stumbling protagonist with timpanic rolls on her big floor tom, all three oooing like libidinous poltergeists into the muted outro.

Next, the naughty, delightfully queer “Douglas, Douglass” – wherin the apparently well-endowed Douglas is compared to a series of trees amidst disparaging comments about his wife and amusing catcalls (“I’ma dip you in my bowl!” holler the girls, “I just gots to plant your seed,” offers Styles)  Musically, it’s sparse and rousing – stomps, claps, and vocals, with the eventual addition of swinging snare, tom, tambourine, and – exclusive to the album version – a horn section.  Live, they usually manage to carry this song off in front of the stage, in the middle of the audience, which is completely consistent with how fun it is.

Finally, the smoldering and aptly named “Hot Volcano:”  Price takes the lead here, swept up in a panting, burlesque appeal to some bad homunculus who has her “laughing at the reaper” to “tie me up, scoop me out all hollow.”   The song – not by accident, I shouldn’t think – climaxes thrice.   Price once revealed that “Volcano’s” ragtime tendencies and rubato swells were inspired by Greensboro act Holy Ghost Tent Revival, a revelation for which I am offering our town a hearty high five.

It’s not all about sex, of course, on Darlings.   Sometimes, as in the instance of “The Lament of Coronado Brown,”  it’s about having to keep your mouth shut against the thrumming of your soul.  “They won’t know,” declares Price, “that I love you,” while the band sets up a mournful march in 3/4.  The dichotomy of the song is the thing that makes it distinctly Pearl and the Beardian:  On one hand, Price’s brassy, heroic melisma under Styles and MacKenzie’s high blown harmonies puts the protagonist singing on a mountaintop, yet on the other hand, the pizzicato angst of routine and the silence of his objective, all to do with stifling, swallowing, and choking, place his hands firmly and irrevocably in his coat pockets.  It’s a ravishing tragedy, and ends humbly in a forced smile.

Not insignificant is the power of setting in Pearl and The Beard’s arrangement of songs.  One can be sure, for instance, that “Sweetness” occurs at night, downtown.  Listen to it and tell me I’m wrong.  On the same token, to hear the banjo at the end of MacKenzie’s achingly sweet “Prodigal Daughter” is to find oneself on some rural back porch as the sun sets.  Most significantly, and perhaps a little more obviously, though,  The Black Hole of Calcutta, the album’s last song, puts you right alongside the 145 sweaty doomed of the song’s titular tiny dungeon, where, on June 19th, 1756, 123 prisoners are said to have died overnight due variously to crushing, heat stroke, or asphyxiation.   Price plays solo pizzicato cello on this one, accompanied by Styles and MacKenzie only humming.  The song is sparse, almost deathly silent at certain junctures, and intimate enough for the listener to hear Price draw breath as she coaxes the instrumental bridge out of her cello.  It’s bluesy, too, which is a statement I like – when you’re shoved into a dungeon meant for four with 144 of your fellows without water or hope, your angst isn’t going to pick an unconventional chord structure – you’ve just got the blues.  Nonetheless, it soars like any good PaTB song should, with the narrator screaming his beloved’s name (“Emmy!”) at a fast fading pinhole of light, packed, no doubt, between others thinking the exact same blues.  Warm, once more, gives way to hot.

There’s more to say about this album, because there isn’t a weak track on it.   Jocelyn Mackenzie’s uncanny ear for melodic and lyrical counterpoint supported by her positively avian voice and playful glockenspiel will sneak up on you throughout the album and impart the most delicious chills – see, for instance, the second verse of “Jasper Christmas.”   There are pages, I’m sure, to be written regarding the heartbreaking “Swimming” or the rollicking opener “Reverend,” or how they’ve turned down the reverb and turned up the fuzz, but instinct tells me to truncate this before I start gushing.   Suffice it to say that this is a fine album indeed, and that you can get it here.

*Gamut apparently originally meant the range of a scale in medieval music.  Did you know that?  I didn’t know that.

**”Vessel” is actually two songs, in a way.  There’s the track on “God Bless” wherein Styles takes the role of the sailor and Price and MacKenzie that of the siren, and the title track on their subsequent EP “Black Vessel,” wherein they all sing together in a steady, Samuel Barberesque build.  The difference is profound, and the horror is effectively depicted in each, but the former’s is a horror of the unknown, while the latter’s is a horror of the inevitable.  Listen to either or both and be transfixed by beauty.

 
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Posted by on May 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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A Good Name

There’s a favorable focus sharpening itself on our chunk of the southeast, friends.   Food critics are talking with more frequency about North Carolina Barbecue.   Musicologists have traced the “invention” of the Power Chord to a North Carolinian.  The “local” movement, still steadily gaining steam, has naturally drawn attention to our lush farmland and favorable growing conditions, with charming little establishments (like this one, this one, and this one, among many) cropping up across the state with an aggressively local bent.  NC musicians (playing more or less NC music, mind you) are getting more national attention – one struggles not to mention the Avett Brothers (Concord) with Bob Dylan on the Grammys or The Steep Canyon Rangers (Brevard) with Steve Martin, or whatever else.  Hipsters in New York are flocking to libraries in search of Old Time Music, which happens to have a really old set of roots around here, in a dizzy hurry to “be influenced” by it.  Whatever the cause, people are looking at us.

My bringing this up, dear Greensboro, is not because I think you look bad.  I think you’re beautiful.  I think we stand to ride this favorable wave, if we aren’t already riding it.  But we lack something:

A Demonym.

As in, what does one call someone from greensboro?

Should we have a stake in this eventual history, how might we express our civic pride in terms of identity?  In the heyday of Motown, for instance, were people not proud to be Detroiters, if not Michiganders?  Don’t New Yorkers, in addition to being “New Yorkers,” define themselves in certain measure by whether they’re “Manhattanites,” “Brooklynites,” etc.?  In the event of any given sports victory, are people from, say, Indiana not thrilled to be “Hoosiers,” or from Connecticut to be “Nutmeggers,” or from Manchester to be “Mancucians”?

We, Greensboro, don’t have one.  Not really, anyway.   According to my initial few strokes at researching this, there was a tiny debate in the fifties as to whether we should be “Greensburgers.”   Well, there are Greensburgs in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kansas, so I don’t think we have any claim to that one.   I’ve seen “Greensboroan,”  “Greensboroite,” and “Greensborian” in use, but never without hesitation, and look at all those syllables!  They’re all clunky and they respectively sound like “Greens-groan,” “Greensboro: white,” or “Greensboring.”  Identifying as any of those is like having to wear (A) an embarrassing work uniform that (B) doesn’t fit because none were left in your size.

So, in the interest of literally giving us a good name, I’ve been trying to come up with a few, and bugging friends to do the same.  We have these:

Greenes. I like this one.  Succinct, minimalist, and familial.  Derived from Nathaneal Greene*, the man for whom the town was named. The drawback, I guess, is that, these days, folks may have a harder time naming themselves after revolutionary war heroes than when the town was named.

Gatekeepers. An extreme one, to be sure – if this one ever gained hegemony, our town could boast having the one of the most “Metal” demonyms outside of Scandinavia.   Nonetheless, it’s not irrelevant – Greensboro’s other name is “The Gate City,” which comes from our historically busy train station (60 trains running daily in the mid 1800’s!).  I get a good reaction from folks when I mention it as a contender.

Greenbeaus/Greenbiddies: Credit goes to Holy Ghost Tent Revival’s Drummer Ross Montsinger for this bold, controversial offering – the first instance of a gendered Demonym I’ve ever seen.   A step forward or a step back?  You decide.

So, roll ’em around in your mouth and your head, see if any strike your civic fancy, and, if you like, vote or write something in.

I can’t honestly say that I know what having a name will do for residents of Greensboro, or, if good comes of it, how I’d prove the name had anything to do with it.   Whatever the reason is that we need one, though, is the same reason bands need names, which is the same reason sports teams, political parties, or states do.  It’s a unifying thing, a something people can point to and say ‘I’m a ___!”  It’s a significant symbol and I see no reason why we should go without it any longer.

*It’s news to me that his name was spelled “Nathaneal.”   Does having “Neal” at the end of your name make it a valid nickname for you?

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2011 in Greensboro

 

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