Swinging Modern Sounds #25: 100% Nepotism


It’s the Internet, where I am plying my trade here, and it’s meant to be the Wild West—unregulated, unruly, unpredictable. Still, I have resisted, in the twenty-four columns I have already posted here, singing (as it were) the praises of musicians I actually play with myself and know well despite the fact that I believe them to be some of the best in New York City. With this in mind, I have decided to throw the ethical reservations switch into the off position, and talk about these musicians I know best and the projects they are working on, in the hopes that at some point you will invest some time and energy in listening to this music. Beyond that, what is the point? The point of a column entirely devoted to nepotism is that it is a column in which language is uniformly employed in praise of a certain things, and I like criticism best when it is describing what the critic approves of and why. The complaint about Lester Bangs, in the old days (c.f. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung), was that he wrote best about things he disliked. Yet I happen to love Bangs’s essay on Astral Weeks, a record he adored, which is the first in his posthumous collection, and I often hold it up as a model for the kind of music writing that I try to undertake myself, criticism that is risky in terms of interpretation, various in terms of its methodology, linguistically ambitious, and passionate. Especially this last quality is essential. Writing on music in the Wild West of the Internet is often jaded, hasty, low-affect, approving mainly of the writer’s street cred, which is to say that this writing is mostly posturing, as though this were the one essential quality of a music writer, his posture, while the music in these cases is guilty until proven innocent. The world is so full of disappointment, so full of cultural products unworthy of attention, that when you find something you actually care about, assuming you actually can, and are not too high or too cool to care, you should give everything you have to it, in terms of celebrating it, and attempting to make others aware. So, for today, I put aside my feeling that I shouldn’t write about the nearest and dearest, that I will be incapable of seeming sufficiently evaluative about the work, because I care about the players. It’s precisely because I care about the players that I’m going to write about them, and having done so, I will return to writing about things that I know as a more casual listener for future bulletins—i.e., the regularly scheduled programming.

Nina Katchadourian, Marfa Jingles.

In The Wingdale Community Singers, the band I play in, Nina Katchadourian is the jack-of-all-trades. She serves, somewhat, the role that Mike Heron served in the original Incredible String Band, that is, she strums, whereas most of the rest of us are trying to finger pick. In part, that’s because Nina loves rock and roll, and isn’t shy about her love. She also plays some percussion, some accordion, some recorder, and sings a lot. Her voice is sort of a smoky alto that is low enough that sometimes I sing a higher harmony line than she does. She also contributes songs, as on our most recent album. However, The Wingdales have a sound and a mood, and Nina’s own songs are sometimes more whimsical, and more upbeat, in general, than the dour Wingdales fare, and therefore she has always found other venues for her songs, or, more accurately, she has her own career path apart from us, a path that includes both traditional singer-songwriter fare, and then more unusual, specialized songs, of which the above album is one great recent example. Marfa, TX, many of you will know, is a sort of an art tourist destination these days, owing much of its celebrity to the massive site specific works there of Donald Judd and some of his friends, works made possible by the largesse of the Dia Art Foundation. (I have made the trip there myself, and it was one of the best writing months of my life.) Nina went there recently, and as part of a fellowship, wrote and recorded “jingles” about local businesses in Marfa. Of these “Marfa Public Library,” available on her My Space site, is really great, is especially notable for the conventional way the voice and the guitar work, and the way the words undermine the conventionality of the jingle idiom, leading you elsewhere, into a sort of singer-songwriter subterfuge. “Food Shark” has a sort of punk rock aspect, and features a rhythm section comprised of musicians from the Marfa area, who pinch hit on other tracks, as well. But perhaps my favorite song on the album is the “Jingle for the Marfa Lights,” which is a song about an unexplainable phenomenon, certain ghostly lights that hover in the middle of a prairie just outside Marfa. Marsh gas! Some people say. Teenagers! say others. The big chorus and the wall of backing vocals here display a genuine wish for the lights to be more than the naysayers say, and this is a good indication of Katchadourian’s great songwriting chops. She has also written jingles for a market on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and for Roosevelt Island (masquerading with a few other geniuses, including Brian DeWan and Meg Reichardt, as the Patient Island Singers). I hope one day I’ll be able to sing the virtues of a genuine Nina Katchadourian solo album, which has been in the works for a while, of which a couple of tracks have been recorded so far, but in the meantime the Marfa Jingles will serve. They are funny, sly, clever, and frequently moving.

Hannah Marcus, From English Planes

I’ve been talking about this album long enough now that I’m sure some imagine I’m making the whole thing up, but in fact Hannah Marcus, solo artist, and mainstay of The Wingdales (the band was formed by Hannah and myself sometime in the early 2000s), is almost done with her new album. It’s all recorded in fact, and is mostly mixed, but just needs to be mastered. I have heard many layers of this project, its earliest songs, up through the more recent recordings, and feel about it sort of the way one feels about one’s sibling taking up action painting. One believes entirely. And: action painting, it’s so difficult. The first layer of the album was older material that happened to coincide, in my interpretation, with Hannah being newly in love, and so From English Planes may or may not have been about the nationality of the love object. The best song, back then, was “A Sweeter Way to Say Goodbye,” which was both a love song and a farewell to love songs, to the consolations of love songs, and it has the best bridge, really. The very best bridge of a love song in a long time. Hard to imagine that this song would not be some kind of gigantic world wide monster hit, hoarded jealously by everyone who cares about songwriting. The sound, as with much of the rest of the album, suggests a calliope being reimagined from inside of a Meth lab, or Tom Waits’s band on holiday at four in the morning, exchanging instruments, and most of this sound was provided by A Silver Mt. Zion, the Godspeed! splinter project, at their most mournful and non-orchestral. It’s like jazz in hell, or like folk on bad acid. I could fashion some more similes, but similes are cheap. One song, “Eric,” has the chorus “I want to be a neutron star,” and that’s because Hannah Marcus likes interstellar imagery (she’s working on an entire suite of things set to lectures by Richard Feynman, the physicist), and because people in love can be subsumed into interstellar phenomena, and that’s why all the later John Coltrane albums have ethereal imagery in the titles. There was also on Hannah’s album a song called “Hey Goldminer!” that sounded like Tom Waits until people leaned on Hannah a little, and then it morphed in the second layer of recording into a bereaved country song. In this second layer, there was a ravishing, band version of a song called “So What?” which composition (also recorded by the Wingdales, in a folkier arrangement) is sort of central to where Hannah is and what she believes in. The words are a free retelling of a passage from an Andy Warhol diary entry: “I was walking down the road/when I came upon a bunch of people/having a good time/and I realized a friend of theirs they really liked had just died.” The rest of the song concerns the proper reaction to death and trauma, which is all embodied in the words “So What?” You might ask what Hannah is so traumatically rueful about, and it could be new love, and the difficulty of new love, or the failure of new love, or the failure of the idea of new love, as new love becomes adolescent love, or even senescent love, or it could be that “So What?” is here addressed to the song form itself, or to the idea of songwriting. So what? You might ask the song, or songs in general? Why bother to listen to you? As usual with Hannah, the most sad and woebegone compositions are given ravishing arrangements, with the backing vocals coming in for almost baroque treatment, most of them performed by Hannah, but also by some others, by a microtonally virtuosic choir. This album is really great, is the best unreleased album that I know about, and it’s passing into being five years old now, and still isn’t finished, mainly because the artist has moved and is buying a new car, and it’s always something, but eventually it will be done, and we can remember why she is the best not-well-enough-known singer in all of Brooklyn, if not all of New York City, which means the best singer, or one of the best singers in the land, one film soundtrack song from being the Leonard Cohen of this time, now. I really mean it.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →