by Michael Goldberg
Monday, September 23, 2002
The Low-Key Sounds Of Beck And Sue Garner
Two artists take the road less traveled.
Beck sounds like he's channeling the long-dead British folk-rock poet Nick Drake on his latest album, Sea Change (Geffen). For "Round the Bend" the pace is languid; the dominant sounds are the faintest strums of an acoustic guitar, the otherworldly swirl of strings and Beck's voice.
Those strings are like a large shadow moving slowly across the landscape, or perhaps like the swirl of a galaxy in photographs there, but not there. They are heard as one single sound as they journey through the song, there more as atmosphere than music. That shadow falls across this entire album, which is wonderfully downbeat, the kind of album you want to listen to when you're in a period of trying to make sense of your life.
Much of Sea Change sounds like "folk music" (when the term is used as shorthand for an acoustic guitar-based sound, rather than the songs of "the people"). In addition to such British folk-rockers as Drake and John Martyn, this intense yet low-key album brings to mind Neil Young (when he's in his folk-singer role) and the early recordings of Leonard Cohen. This isn't just Beck and his acoustic guitar, however. He's got drums and electric guitars and strings it's just that the overall feel is slow and down and at times kind of "back porch," compared to both Odelay and Midnight Vultures. Sounds like he had a snail setting the tempo.
"The Golden Age," the album opener, is a lonesome ballad with a "ghost" background harmony vocal by Beck occasionally showing up behind his up-front lead vocal. This could be the sound of giving up, of fading away. When Beck sings, "I don't even try, I don't even try," it feels like he's already packed up his bags and left town.
The country-folk ballad "Guess I'm Doing Fine" is actually about how the singer isn't doing fine at all. "It's only lies that I'm living," he sings. "It's only tears that I'm crying/ It's only you that I'm losing/ Guess I'm doing fine."
Sea Change is one of those albums that you need to live with for a while. But once it sinks in, you'll have a hard time getting the sound and the melodies out of your head. It's cool that there are still popular artists willing to totally change their sound from album to album. Who knew that the guy with that 1994 novelty hit "Loser" would turn out to be an "important" artist, still making music that matters all these years later?
Even as the loud punk and garage sounds of The Strokes and others are taking hold, other artists have put aside the electric guitar or lowered the volume, at least for an album. In addition to Beck, Built to Spill's Doug Martsch has just released his first solo work, Now You Know (Warner Bros.), a kind of blues album, inspired by the recordings of Delta blues man Fred McDowell and other country blues artists.
Roots music has, of course, been the inspiration for rock artists since the beginning of rock 'n' roll, back in the '50s. Yet when artists look to the past for inspiration and then use what they find to create songs that reflect their own vision, the results can be fresh and quite unique.
Sue Garner, once of noise-rock band Run On, has been walking a quieter road these past few years. You wouldn't want to call her third and latest solo album, Shadyside (Thrill Jockey), folk; it's way too eclectic for that. Still, there is a mood that runs through Shadyside, one that's well served by the album's title.
Fans of Beth Orton might appreciate Garner. Both experiment with electronics, using them the way Beck uses those strings in "Round the Bend." Of the two (Orton and Garner) Garner is the more experimental and eclectic. Songs on Shadyside range from the beautiful Appalachian old-time sounds of "Come Again" and "These Old Walls," to the edgy blues-rock of "Handful of Grapes" to the ethereal Eno-esque "Tapas Bar."
Garner can sound like a country singer, as she does on "Come Again," but her voice is as flexible as the range of music she explores. On "Don't Still the Flicker" and "Handful of Grapes" one hears some Southern soul it's subtle, but it's there.
Garner has collaborated with three lyricists (Amanda Uprichard, Jonathan Thomas and poet Fay Hart) for six of the songs on Shadyside. She wrote another with her husband, Rick Brown, and four on her own.
"Come Again," one of the more traditional songs on the album, is also my favorite. It sounds like it could be an answer to Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee." It's about growing up, taking on responsibility. In the first verse, running into a friend, she is reminded of the past when "We didn't have much to lose/ Yeah we were freer then/ No one depended on a thing we'd do." These days, things are different: "All I can say is that was another day," she sings. And in the next verse: "Now it seems/ I stay in town and hustle around... / There's more to lose...."
As critic Jillian Steinberger wrote in an email recently, "The music is emotionally mature.... Garner is not trying to sound like a teenager, and so many women feel compelled to sound like girls instead of women."
That emotional maturity comes through not just in Garner's vocals, but in her own lyrics and those of others that she's included on the album. "These Old Walls," written by Uprichard, a former bandmate of Garner, is a portrait of the house where the writer grew up. "This empty house full of memories to my mind/ That old couch in the corner/ Where mom slowly died." This is not a song for teenagers; this is a song that folks who've lived through some difficult emotional experiences (certainly the death of a parent) will appreciate. The same could be said for most of Shadyside, an album that deserves to get a lot more attention than it probably will.