Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

The dignity of mellow music in defiance of history-mongering

June 20, 2011

The reason that the world hates LeBron James right now is he is letting down the cult of now. We individually want want to be the best; by extension, we want our specific point in history to best all others. This is why we have invented the term “instant classic.” We demand that our recent history beat all that old stuff. LeBron James is currently the only candidate for “Best Basketball Player of All Time,” and he’s not up to snuff. He even stabbed people in the back to go “prove” it, and he failed. We’re mad that we don’t have the best of all time in our time.

The same syndrome goes for music. We want to have the greatest achievements, the best songs, and the most fertile creative period attributed to us. If something isn’t a genre-changing, goal-post-moving, 500-yard home run, it’s average (and, therefore, not worth the time).

This is tragic, as it sells short history and overhypes the now. It’s especially a bummer for two very good (but not earth-shattering, not even “top 10 of the year”) albums: The Wooden Birds’ “Two Matchsticks” and Jon Middleton’s self-titled effort. Both albums have an easygoing vibe that eschews huge, sweeping moods for a quiet dignity. This is not a quality that is appreciated enough in our time: note the belabored schoolteacher/superstar athlete pay dichotomy.

But “Two Matchsticks” is certainly composed and performed without a concern for pretense. The band is composed mainly of members from Matt Pond PA and American Analog Set, two groups that are almost chronically under-radar because of their resistance to sweeping, epic tactics. It makes sense that the two would create a calming album of solid, quiet indie rock.

The thing with stability is that it’s mostly the same all the time; that’s why it’s stability. “Too Pretty To Say Please” has the best melodies and harmonies of the set, sung in a calm, mildly breathy tenor. “Company Time” is also memorable for its easy groove, added by the hand percussion and gently woozy lead guitar.  The overall beauty of “Two Matchsticks” makes it much more than the sum of its parts; “Folly Cub” is beautiful, but the fact that there are eleven more in the same vein makes the song even stronger in my mind.

Jon Middleton, half of the excellent Jon & Roy, has crafted a release even mellower than “Two Matchsticks,” but possessing the same confident strength. The only instruments on his self-titled album are a lightly strummed acoustic guitar and vocals. There are occasional other contributions, but they are so light — shakers, bass guitar — that they hardly count.

But from beginning to end, the album is a perfectly beach companion or lazy Sunday soundtrack. It’s pleasant in the best way; it immediately pleases the ear and requires not much more than that of the listener. Middleton’s mid-range voice has no rough edges, making the release even more calm. “Vibrant Scene” shows off his guitar chops a bit, speeding up the tempo and letting him drop in some nice melodic flourishes. “Long and Tall,” the standout, shows him fingerpicking his way through a tune and singing the best melody of the batch. It’s the mixtape keeper. I like to have a takeaway track from each album.

Both of these albums could be maligned as boring to the listener who’s looking for the next big thing. I disagree. I think they are proud keepers of a dignified tradition. These albums aren’t going to top the charts, but they have a space in my heart. That’s success to me.

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

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