Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I’ve been writing arts and culture reviews for more than a decade now. I write anywhere from 6 to 12 CD reviews a month. I also do a ton of driving. Way too much actually. So much that I feel guilty. But what that means is that I work in the car. Which is bad I know, but I have a mini recorder and CD player there and 10 hours a week, 320 hours per year, close to 15 days out of a year driving. So I do a lot of work from my car.

And a lot of looking. I see, as you do too if you drive around Northwestern Pennsylvania, lots of stuff. Or rather the ghosts of lots of stuff – empty factories, brown fields, faded Red Man chewing tobacco signs, empty frozen custard stand open to the environment, melting away in to the ground, framed by cows lazily grazing, staring at the cars going by, wondering what happens to the soul after the sledgehammer and the electric knife.

Gypsy Dave and Stumpjumer's new album, As the Stars Gather Light tries, and in most ways, succeeds to capture all those things I see on my drive and turn them into music; to take the raw material which can beat us down when we consider what they were – the material of a prosperous culture, now gone – and reunderstands them as they are now –pieces of art.

The first thing that strikes the listener is how clean and clear the recording is. David Washousky has a high clear voice that, although I’m sure he’ll wince when he reads this, is pretty. The rest of the band, Ryan Nageotte on upright bass, Kristel Bastian playing fiddle and Jared Luteran with percussion, is equally as skilled and clear. No one instrument really stands out in the mix. Instead imdividual fancy-pantsness is subjugated to the overall sound of the band. They use that prettiness to their advantage by retaining the playfulness that is a oft-neglected part of folk music – “Baby Don’t Touch My Whiskers”, a goofy tune that celebrates facial hair(I don’t give a darn/if my beards two feet long/as long as it keeps me warm”) wouldn’t be out of place on a children’s album, the sort advertised in Time Out New York: Kids.

The flipside to that evenness is that it’s harder to put a finger on what to call this album’s genre. The album’s overall tone itself is almost (pleasntly) schizophrenic with lush alt-country balladry sounds and poetic writing like that found in "April’s Song” rubbing up against more sparse and by-the-books folk numbers like “Two Tears from the City” a hard luck story about not seeing “how livin’s livin without being free”. Other reviewers seem to settle on Americana, or folk , but that may be more because of instrumental choice (although at the same time, there’s no harmonica, and banjos are kept mastered at the back of the sound) rather than the overall sound. (All of these labels flying around don’t mean anything of course – except good things for the listener, because unidentifiable music means that it doesn’t fall into the , “Haven’t I heard this before?” category, and maybe not so good things for the artist in marketplace that thrives on nonsensical categories.)

So let me go out on a limb here and suggest that what the album really sounds (best typified in cuts like "The Fox and the Chicken") the most like is Western Swing. Not in a cookie cutter retro sort of way, but in spirit. In fact if there’s a dominant theme in As the Stars Gather Light it’s the same sort of happy mélange that Western Swing relied upon – a mixture of a fusion of hillbilly music, pop, jazz, and blues aimed at an upbeat danceable sound. So while On his MySpace page the band cites Bob Dylan, bluegrass and Hank Sr as influences and the band itself even takes (part of its) name from a song popularized by Woody Guthrie:

When I saw the campfire gleaming.
I heard the notes of the big guitar
And the voice of the gypsies singing

That song of the Gypsy Dave.

There in the light of the camping fire,
I saw her fair face beaming.

Her heart in tune with the big guitar

And the voice of the gypsies singing

That song of the Gypsy Dave.

Have you forsaken your house and home?
Have you forsaken your baby?

Have you forsaken your husband dear

To go with the Gypsy Davy?

And sing with the Gypsy Davy?

The song of the Gypsy Dave?

I hear Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings, and Asleep at the Wheel. In fact, if there’s a drawback to this sound, it’s that the album is so darn happy and swingy. I like a little menace in my Americana, a little Nebraska in my Magic; a littleState Trooper” with my “Old Dan Tucker”.

Sitting here in my car, scribbling a few notes in a Sheetz parking lot is not how I imagined the life of CD reviewers – I imagine (and to be honest, I still imagine) them to be guys, about my age, early thirties, who sit in a darkened room as evening begins to fall in a metro area. They’re dressed in hipster clothes surrounded by milk crates full of vinyl and scattered broken CD cases. They’re drinking red wine and smoking a joint (actually, I still strongly believe that 95% of SPIN magazine’s editorial content is created this way) and nodding their heads very, very slowly and saying things like ” Ummm….yeah…”

In other words, I thought (and think) that reviewers are as cartoonish as the artists they review. Artists who send me press releases with language like, “Band X is not just a band to founder and songwriter John Frontman. It’s a way of life. While healing from a failed relationship Frontman did the only thing he knew how to. Live his life to the fullest. Out in the ocean catching waves with his friends in Costa Rica, Frontman was inspired to begin Band X’s latest release.”

So, I’m a little cynical.

But the thing is, I keep listening to music. When I see a friend after a long interval, one of the first questions we ask is, “What are you listening to?”

Now, I can say that I’ve been listening to Gypsy Dave and the Stumpjumpers' new album As the Stars Gather Light. And if most popular music is a cartoon, poorly and quickly drawn to be distributed, consumed and forgotten as quickly as possible, As the Stars… is a clear eyed piece of art that demands those jaded consumers close pay attention.

Visit Gypsy Dave and The Stumpjumpers and check out their touring schedule on MySpace

Buy Gypsy Dave's


And Gypsy Dave and the Syumpjumper's

As The Stars Gather Light on CDBaby

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i love your blog. wish i had time to take in all the opportunities you write about.