First of all, it’s amazing, in and of itself, that certain music even gets to our ears. With major labels, such as they are, banking now only on acts that can prove to have global appeal, the compact disc market a shambles, and the varied choices consumers are faced with in finding digital music, we find ourselves either incredibly limited or lost in an unending sea. If something happens to float by that we can grasp onto, we find ourselves incredibly lucky. It is in just such a manner, though rooted in the more traditional ways we used to find music, that I was introduced to Bryan John Appleby. I haven’t written about music in quite a while, but it was one song from Appleby that compelled me to return.
I wake every morning, in some kind of meta fashion, to the sound of Damien Jurado singing about waking up to “John in the Morning” on KEXP. That intro is often followed by, in my estimation, a perfect choice of a song to play at an ungodly hour. Recently, John has played the intro from the upcoming M83 album, “Njósnavélin” from Sigur Rós, “Rise” by Doves, and DeVotchKa’s “How it Ends,” as examples that illustrate my assertion. It was not long ago that I heard another song, one that I didn’t recognize, but that immediately captured my attention, my interest, and my heart. It was “Noah’s Nameless Wife,” the opening track from Fire on the Vine, the debut full-length album from Seattle artist Bryan John Appleby.
Backwards ambient keys set the tone, quickly joined by acoustic guitar, violin, and then Appleby’s vocals. I recently heard longtime music journalist Simon Reynolds say that the weakest music criticism uses adjectives. Well, call me a weak writer, but in listening to the opening verses of “Noah’s Nameless Wife,” all I can think of are hyperbolic and praising adjectives. With this song, and the others on this debut album, Appleby blends lyrical imagery, sometimes Biblical and at others the poetry of everyday life (“Backseat,” “Honey Jars”), with folk, acoustic rock soundscapes, and captivating melodies. The running constant throughout is Appleby’s confident, resonant and resplendent voice. (Take that, Simon Reynolds!) Even through the small tinny speaker of my clock radio, originally purchased in the early ’90s, I was taken aback by it.
“Well, this is not an All-American story
About the rugged man who came out from the east
And I am not some outlaw from the Badlands
Or a gambler running tables in New Orleans.”
These lyrics, from the aforementioned “Backseat,” do double duty, seemingly an assertion of Appleby’s identity, free of pretension, while also setting up some devastatingly heartbreaking lines that follow. It is not often that one can find a young artist with both musical vision and a strong lyrical voice, but Appleby fits both of these criteria. Once Appleby hits big, and I’m sure he will, critics might be quick to lump him in with the recent folk movement in Seattle, mentioning him in the same breath as Fleet Foxes, Carissa’s Wierd, and The Head and the Heart, and there might be plenty of reason to do so, certainly with songs such as “Noah’s Nameless Wife,” which would also call to mind Iron & Wine and Josh Ritter. But, none of these seem quite appropriate enough. Were I to add in comparisons to M. Ward, Ryan Adams, Andrew Bird, Patrick Park and Will Oldham, it might make the picture a little clearer, but then the grandiosity and power of songs such as “Boys,” make me rethink any comparisons at all, preferring to think of him as a singular artist.
The songs on Fire on the Vine are like chapters of a literary novel written on an old barroom piano and a gently loved acoustic guitar. The strength of these songs is truly shown in the fact that I am at odds with myself in a number of respects. From one to the next, I cannot choose a favorite, nor can I keep from being alternately awed by the songcraft and devastated by its content. The refrains from the energetic “The Words of the Revelator” and its companion, the more elegiac “…And the Revelation” are just such an example. I hear less than a minute of music when I wake up in the morning, as it pours from my little clock radio, but somehow, it helped me find the music of Bryan John Appleby, and I felt compelled to return the favor.