As my twenties slipped ever behind me and I began to fall face first into my thirties, my maturity brought on the cliché of leaving behind childish things to children and pursuing more adult pastimes. This cliché was none more evident than with my musical tastes. I remembered how as a teenager I lamented the transformation of my father from a listener of rock music to an aficionado of new age jazz. (Luckily, that transformation had not quite finished, leading him to the shores of traditional and be-bop jazz and the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane) I swore that I would never let my musical tastes change so drastically and would listen to Depeche Mode, The Cure, and New Order for the rest of my life. I do still listen to these bands, albeit nostalgically, but for the most part, my tastes changed even quicker than my father’s.
It has been a long time since I have been able to listen to Top 40 radio, (to tell you the truth, I have never been a big fan) and it has been just about as long since I have even been able to listen to “alternative” radio. It’s all a blur now and I can’t quite pin down when it was that San Diego’s 91X and Los Angeles’ KROQ switched from being voices of difference to the arbiter of the mainstream, but then again it could have merely been my own tastes changing. All I know is that somewhere along the line, the country’s “alternative” stations went from choosing “How Soon Is Now?” as the best song of all time, to playing Blink-182, 311, Third Eye Blind, 3 Doors Down, and other crappy numeric bands that had no business reaching success.
I have digressed from the original topic a tad, but I’m getting to it, I swear. As I was saying, my maturity has brought with it a more cultured look at music. Don’t get me wrong, I can still enjoy harder music, but for the most part, the bulk of my CD purchases have been taken up by singer-songwriters. Where it all began I’m not really sure, but I do know that something miraculous took place when I heard Jeff Buckley for the first time. I had the same feeling a few short years later when I first listened to Elliott Smith’s songs. The idea of the singer-songwriter has been around for quite awhile, but it had only been at this point that these gentlemen wrested the title back to its proper place as one of individuality, distinction, and as a true example of the meaning of “alternative”.
Even bands that I had listened to and loved in the ’80s had members that were channeling their energies into the singer-songwriter genre such as ‘Til Tuesday’s Aimee Mann, and Split Enz / Crowded House’s Neil and Tim Finn. Some, as myself would argue, that their solo work is far better than their group efforts (although more so for Mann than for the Finns). Many continue to follow in Smith and Buckley’s footsteps such as Ed Harcourt and Patrick Park, and I’m sure many more will follow.
Since Elliott Smith’s either / or, however, nothing has impressed me as much as the debut album from Irishman Damien Rice. The album, titled simply O, is, to put it plainly, a masterpiece. His soft breathiness, often combined with backup singer Lisa Hanningan’s vocals, creates a heartbreaking feeling that makes you want to curl up on the couch with a blanket and cry. The genre for this album is being marketed as Irish Folk, yet I found it to be closer to the troubadour style of the aforementioned songwriters than with the traditional Irish Folk that I have been accustomed to. The closest comparisons to his countrymen have to come to Van Morrison, but his style is more akin to fellow Brit Elvis Costello’s work, especially his collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet, and with Burt Bacharach. Genre mislabeling aside, Damien Rice is slowly but surely finding his audience.
I’ve seen reviews and heard fans of music compare his music to not only the singer-songwriters I’ve mentioned but also to Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, and Sigur Ros (mostly within the lush sounds of the song “Eskimo”). I first became aware of Damien Rice when I saw the video late at night (when surely no one but me was watching) of the track “Volcano.” I pleaded with friends and relatives to help me find the album as I was captivated by the song, its simple guitar melody accompanied by cello, and the interweaving of male and female voices. No one could help me. Finally, when I had mentioned that the song began with the letter “O” or the album’s title did, a coworker tracked it down, noting that a couple other people had been looking for the album as well. Apparently I wasn’t the only one watching videos that late.
Once I had the album in my grubby little hands and I was able to listen to more than just the one track, I was stunned. Most times when a song impresses me, it is that song that turns out to be the highlight of the album with the rest leaving a disappointing aftertaste, (i.e. Palo Alto’s Heroes & Villains). Each song on O turned out to be a rare gem unto itself and each can hold its own. From the slow waltz “Delicate”, to the touching “The Blower’s Daughter”, then the heart wrenching lyrics of “Cannonball”, and the lush orchestration of “Amie”, the album continues to deliver track after track. “I Remember” and “Eskimo” wrap up the album, the former being one of those lyrical wonders and the latter being a sixteen minute conglomeration of room filling sounds, singular ditties, and odds and ends.
Just as a taste of some of Rice’s lyrical prowess, take such lines as “I die when you mention his name / And I lied, I should have kissed you / When we were running the reins” from “Cheers Darlin’”. Also, the lyrics that Lisa Hannigan penned for her rendition of “Silent Night”, “I found some hate for you just for show / You found some love for me thinking I’d go / Don’t keep me from crying to sleep…I should be stronger than weeping alone / You should be weaker than sending me home / I can’t stop you fighting to sleep” But my overall favorite lyrics are from “Cannonball”, sure to be a hit, “Stones taught me to fly / Love taught me to lie / Life taught me to die / It’s not hard to fall when you float like a cannonball.”
Hopefully, Damien won’t be lost to us like Jeff Buckley, leaving us scrambling to find any lost tapes of songs that could have been, and his music will remain challenging and pure in the years to come. Until then, I’ll just have to keep playing O over and over again until I have to buy a new copy because mine will be worn as thin as a crepe from repeated laser readings.
Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet – The Juliet Letters
Jeff Buckley – Grace
Ed Harcourt – Here Be Monsters