These Curious Thoughts – Building Mountains From The Ground (roots rock)
Viaduct Records 2012, CD & DD album, 1h 2s
$15.95 CD $9.99 DD
The internet is full of interesting long distance collaborations; since everyone got broadband, audio files have been flying back and forth like nobody’s business. Obviously digital music production is most amenable to this approach, but it’s equally feasible for an ensemble recording to be assembled from separate performances in the participants’ own studios/bedrooms/wherevers. Mixing, and particularly mastering, have often taken place at a remove from the recording process, but now that nobody has to shuttle physical media around it’s commonplace for low budget projects to go through those processes in far flung locations. Things have changed, a lot. These Curious Thoughts are a collaboration of a relatively unusual sort, however, at least as far as I’m aware; although there are other musicians involved for live performance, it is a partnership between composer/musician/vocalist/producer Sean Dunlop in the USA, and lyricist Jamie Radford in the UK. Before even listening to the music this tells us to expect the verbal component of the songs to be important; songs’ meanings are always located in the liminal zone between words and music, assuming the listener understands the lyrics, but it is certainly not unusual for lyrics to exist just to give the vocalist something to sing. Building Mountains From The Ground yields its meanings only to listeners willing to pay some fairly close attention. Of course it will produce meanings for the listener who chooses to ignore the lyrics, but they will be missing out, not only on apprehending Dunlop and Radford’s intentions, but on most of the recording’s complexity. The music is, for the most part, relatively straightforward, creative and inventive certainly, but avoiding any stylistic transgressions that might detract from its function as a setting for the lyrics; it’s very listenable, but in itself, like the words (given that they are written as lyrics, in the expectation of the affective landscape that being set to melody and harmony will provide), it is incomplete. I suppose I should come clean here, and admit that, despite my obsessive relationship to verbal materials, I tend not to engage very strongly with the lyrics of songs: much of the music I listen to is instrumental, or has vocals in a language I don’t understand, but even when that’s not the case, there’s something about being set to music that makes it harder for me to hear words. I get immediately focused on the ins and outs of the melody, the groove, the arrangement and all the rest of it, and quite honestly, I usually forget to listen to the words even when I mean to. Having a musical setting like this one, that is very specifically designed to support and enlarge the verbal meanings of the lyrics, that demands little interpretative work for the listener to digest its phraseology (because it uses a long established and culturally assimilated musical vocabulary), makes it a lot easier for me to attend to the lyrical meanings.
The music is very distinctly reminiscent of the 1960s; specifically, it sounds like the roots of psychedelia, and early roots rock. There are hints of subsequent developments, and more than one occasion when I thought of REM, but that’s where its heart is. Instrumental timbres are predominantly of the sort that could be achieved with late sixties technology, and the production has the sound of that era as well; it sounds like tape, and the mix has that dense, well-integrated feel that is often associated with a limited track count. The bass is perhaps a little too prominent and well recorded for it to sound like a historical reproduction, but it speaks with the right tubby voice. The mix is occasionally a little too muffled for my tastes: a bit of high frequency sparkle could have brought the production some presence without losing the analogue vibe, but what it has in spades is warmth. The chord sequences are basically tonal, straightforward affairs, derived ultimately from country music, but they feature regular, whimsical changes of direction and key, which are a key factor in the album’s evocation of the days of acid and Vietnam. That was the first moment in history in which pop music was able to tackle politics explicitly, and the way that Radford questions certain pillars of conventional wisdom strikes a familiar note of mischievous subversion; obviously such strategies lack the transgressive shock with which they would once have been freighted, but they still betoken a certain critical distance from the mainstream of society and culture. Recurring themes are the environment, the value (or otherwise) of ‘civilization’, and ideologically normative attitudes to mental health. For all the relative whimsy of the harmonic sequences, the lyrical landscape is pretty short on fanciful conceits; Radford’s world is a material one, and when God crops up (which happens on several occasions), it is as a supporting character providing comic relief. Irony is common feature of these songs’ narrators, from the grumpy deity in ‘I’ve Got God On The Phone’, to the tension between the psychedelic tone and measured materialism of ‘Nothing Is Supernatural’, the understated anti-authoritarianism of ‘Get Along’, and the apocalyptic moral twilight of ‘Animals’.
Sean Dunlop’s arrangements are complex, although not in an obvious way. The music is accessible, and presents itself without any overt ‘difficulty’ or avant-garde experimentalism, but it is constructed with broad-brush imagination and meticulous attention to detail. In terms of orchestration, of the vertical axis, there are multiple layers of sound coming and going as required to modulate the character and density of the textures, and although it all fits quite happily into its framing stylistic milieu, there is a great variety of sonic terrain, always tailored specifically to the lyrical content. The same can be said of the horizontal axis. The grooves and chord sequences are varied, imaginative, and bear a clear, meaningful relationship to the words; thought and feeling work deliberately together to produce meanings, which although never obscure, are nuanced enough to reward some close attention from the listener. In fact, it’s often hard to credit the fact that this is a long distance collaboration; I’m sure there must be a good deal of back and forth discussion, either that or some kind of telepathy. Like much of the best songwriting, the relationship between the words and the music is not a simple matter of setting the lyrics in an appropriate affective landscape; the two work together in complex ways, creating ironic tensions, transforming one another’s meanings, producing complex and varied meanings that are not present in either element alone. Radford has not simply presented Dunlop with a set of meanings which he has then proceeded to showcase; the two have worked carefully and closely to create an interzone between affect and denotation in which subtleties of meaning can emerge, meanings which, in common with the good stuff in any field of artistic endeavour, are as contingent and as specific as the sense we humans make of our confusing lives. This result is a well-made record of tuneful and entertaining songs, especially enjoyable if 60s style rock floats your boat, that yields increasing rewards in proportion to the listener’s investment of time and attention.