Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Jonathan Vassar is a great folk songwriter.

December 23, 2009

I’ve been reading reviews of Regina Spektor’s far with some confusion. Many of them say that it is not her best work because it’s less experimental and more “normal.” Then I read an essay by David Hajdu in which he asserts that Jack White is beloved because he never really finishes songs. These together cause me to think that there are two types of great songwriter in the world: the great songwriter that is actually incompetent of being a “normal” songwriter and thus writes unusual and wacky works that stick in our head (which is why Spektor’s disjointed breakout album Soviet Kitsch is wonderful, and why everything that Jack White does with a real band is hopelessly boring), and the songwriter that those wacky ones aspire to be.

The problem is that the wacky ones often mature out of their wacky phase, but they don’t often mature into the great songwriters they aspire to be. far has some wonderful tracks on it, but it’s not a Ben Folds album by any stretch of the imagination. Neither is it a Fiona Apple album (although there is some debate as to whether that is something to aspire to, these days). The Dead Weather doesn’t sound normal, but it’s a lot closer to normal than “Black Math” or “Hotel Yorba” or “Seven Nation Army.” The Raconteurs sound, for better or for worse, incredibly average.

It seems that the great songwriters appear full-formed. Ben Folds was cranking out the great songs while he was still in his earliest stages with the Ben Folds Five; Damien Jurado’s best work is spread throughout his fantastic career. They just, you know, show up being awesome.

I think Jonathan Vassar is in the Ben Folds category of great songwriters. The reason for this is that the best tracks on The Fire Next Time are not the minimalist, eccentric ones, but the fully-realized folk/Americana songs. “A Match Made in Heaven” features some great mandolin, a violin, a cello, and a warbling saw in addition to his plaintive acoustic guitar and voice. But instead of feeling cluttered of amateur, each piece locks in. The song wouldn’t be the song without all the parts. It’s a perfectly written song, in that there’s nothing I can knock about it. It has a great melody, it has solid lyrics with meaning and wit, the song sways, and it has a deeply felt emotive quality that refrains from becoming maudlin. In short, it’s perfect. If you like acoustic Americana/folk/country, you will like “A Match Made in Heaven.” It’s impossible not to.

“Saint Josephina” is another fully-realized track that suceeds admirably. “San Jacinto” isn’t quite as engaging as the previous two, but it’s still a solid song. These filled-out songs are the cream of the crop; it would behoove Vassar to stay in this vein. The more experimental tracks, while interesting, aren’t up to part with these songs.

Opener “Nearer My Father’s Wounded Side” starts out with a minute-long intro that serves to confuse more than set the scene. It segues neatly into the rest of the track, which is a profoundly minimalist composition that runs for over five minutes. It’s not a bad song, but it’s just not as engaging as the tightly woven “Match Made in Heaven.” I’ll take “Nearer…” over most folk, but it’s just sad to me that one of the six tracks Jonathan Vassar treats us to is simply not his best work.

To bring it all together, Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird don’t need to get wacky to be heralded as good. Vassar is simply a good songwriter, and the Speckled Bird plays tight and close to that vision. I hope that Vassar and the Speckled Bird continue their partnership and write much more work together, honing their already tight vision. Then they will be huge. They should already be there, but that’s just a matter of time. The Fire Next Time is an excellent EP of tight songwriting, strong melodies, and great mood. It’s a must for folk-lovers.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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