The Spin Cycle

I love this cartoon:

I feel like Charlie Brown’s kindred spirit at the best of times (premature chrome-dome, no fashion sense, unrequited love for the little red-haired girl).  This cartoon just cements it – tomorrow I go shopping for zig-zag shirts.

Mr. Schulz has posed a question for the ages.  Does listening to depressing music make you sad, or do depressed people simply choose to listen to melancholy music?

Here’s my two cents worth on the matter.  From my perspective (and I swear this isn’t meant to be a cop-out), it’s a bit of both.

I have always had a symbiotic relationship with my record collection.  In many ways, it is my best friend.  I’ve been told that I tend to put a noticeable distance between myself and other people, even my closest friends.  I doubt that anyone knows my favourite colour (cobalt blue), or what I want to do when I retire (putter around a cabin in the mountains, watching wild creatures wander through the yard), or even what I find most attractive about a woman (her voice and what she has to say).  The metaphorical wall I’ve erected around myself has been remarkably effective at limiting the number of emotional relationships I’ve shared with people.

But despite the impenetrable Fortress of Solitude, music is always right there at the centre of my soul.

My music is there when I’m out for a three-hour walk through aspen parkland.  My music is there when I’ve had a particularly good day at work or a good night at hockey.  My music is there as I sit around the campfire, summit a new pass on a hike, or wait in a departure lounge for a plane.

And, yes, music is there when I’m feeling blue.  It waits for me with open arms and a reassuring embrace.  It doesn’t judge.  It doesn’t mock.  It simply understands that not every day is going to be euphoria.  It knows that someone who has to work so hard to suppress his roller-coaster of emotions just to stay on an even keel is going to melt down from time to time.

Today is an odd day.  The calendar says it is springtime, but it’s been snowing since 4 a.m.  The pavement is wet, while big wet flakes continue to accumulate on my back lawn, now 4″ thick.  Maybe it’s the strange weather that is lending everything a sense of disorder.  Something just seems off-kilter, out of balance, incomplete.  I want to be somewhere else, anywhere else.  There’s an emptiness, a void; a yearning and a burning that can’t be extinguished.  Like the wise man once said:

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields…
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Right after I post this meandering collection of words, I’m going to take the fourteen steps down to my basement, cue up the stereo, and re-establish my usual dent on the sofa.  At times like these, my record collection is my salvation.

I can’t speak for everyone.  But I know that when I’m feeling dislocated and disjointed, music helps to ground me.  I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that depressed people listen to sad music, or the act of listening to sad music will depress someone.  Reality is more complicated than simple cause and effect.  I do think that there is something incredibly powerful about music, something that taps into our humanity.  Something that makes us feel a little less lonely on a snowy Saturday night in April.  Something that defies a proper explanation, but is still very real and profound.  I think people in a certain mood are always going to gravitate toward a certain kind of music, just to remind themselves that someone else out there feels the same way.  The music doesn’t depress them – it offers them a refuge.  An arm around their torso and a head on their shoulder.

A quick check of iTunes will reveal the tracks you listen to the most.  Apparently, the top of the Craven Hermit charts goes something like this:

  • “England” by The National
  • “Undisclosed Desires” by Muse
  • “Lucky” by Radiohead
  • “Adventures in Solitude” by the New Pornographers
  • “How to Fight Loneliness” by Wilco
  • “Mess” by Ben Folds Five
  • “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie
  • “What I Have To Offer” by Eels
  • “The Scientist” by Coldplay
  • “Naked As We Came” by Iron & Wine
  • “Both Sides Are Even” by The Boxer Rebellion
  • “Drive” by R.E.M.

So, not exactly AC/DC’s greatest hits then!  But there’s very few things in this world that I would take in trade for my relationship with these tunes.

I wonder if Charlie Brown ever managed to find a copy of Transatlanticism on vinyl.  I bet he’d love it.


Ben Folds with the ESO

Ben Folds made his very first visit to Effington Edmonton this week.  He joined forces with the formidable Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to bring an orchestral treatment to his whip-smart musicality.  Your faithful correspondent was lucky enough to have a seat in the right-side loges of the beautiful Winspear Centre for the gig.

All too often in rock and pop music, symphonic elements are used as mere window dressing, extensions of the songwriter’s out-of-control ego.  The next time you hear some swooping strings tucked behind nine minutes of squalling guitars and distorted bass, you can safely assume that the rock star’s core message is “I enjoy the drug cocaine”.

Ben Folds tries his best not to subscribe to this cliché.  Over the years he has developed detailed charts for most of his songs, and he has learned how to collaborate with symphonies for maximum effect.  This much was obvious at the Winspear gig.  Folds’ grand piano was centre stage and audible (but not overly prominent) in the mix, which gave the ESO the sonic room to bring out new melodic and rhythmic nuances in the songs.

On the breezy first number of the night, “Zak and Sara”, the ensemble hit the ground running.  A small choir of local musicians provided dramatic counterpoint vocals to “The Ascent of Stan”.  The orchestra even got a chance to swing on “Jesusland”.  This brought a fun new element to the song that was not evident on the album version.

For “Picture Window”, co-written by Folds and author Nick Hornby, the violas plucked out notes that underscored the bass line of the song.  The horn section flexed their muscles on a stomping version of “One Angry Dwarf”.  Xylophone added a twinkle of ear candy to “Narcolepsy”, while the orchestra’s drummer and Folds locked into a percussive duel on “Steven’s Last Night In Town”.  Likewise, the whole ESO brought a cool syncopated groove to “Not The Same” while the star of the show stepped away from his piano throne to direct the audience’s three-part harmonies.

The highlight for many was likely the way Folds and the ESO improvised yet another version of “Rock This Bitch” on the spot.  One by one, Folds gave the different sections of the orchestra some basic melodic cues, quickly building a new song from scratch.  The eventual arrival of mariachi horns and timpani gave the song a spaghetti-western feel, then Folds brought the tune home with a short lyric and a final symphonic flourish.  The fact that dozens of people could play together seamlessly on a brand-new piece of music with minimal direction was testament to the skill and musicianship on stage.  One gets the sense that Ben Folds was having a (no so quiet) riot behind the ivories.

Folds mentioned that the Ben Folds Five are back together, and the band is trying to put the finishing touches on a new album.  It sounds like if they can complete the recording in June, we might see the results in stores and iTunes by sometime this fall.  Let’s hope that when the BF5 develop plans for a tour, their pianist puts in a good word for his new friends in Edmonton.

Setlist for Ben Folds w/ the ESO, 29-Mar-2012:

  • Zak & Sara
  • Smoke
  • The Ascent of Stan
  • Effington
  • Jesusland
  • Picture Window
  • One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces


  • Landed
  • Gracie
  • Not The Same
  • Rock This Bitch (impromptu)
  • Brick
  • Cologne
  • Steven’s Last Night In Town
  • Narcolepsy
  • The Luckiest
Ben Folds solo:
  • In The Air Tonight (quick drum solo)
  • Army
  • Annie Waits
  • The Last Polka

Music Challenge Day 23 – A Song That You Want To Play At Your Wedding

This is an interesting one, because three songs popped into my mind pretty much immediately (this perpetual bachelor is as surprised as anyone).

I wrote about a song on Ben Folds’ solo debut album on Challenge Day 4.  The last song on that album, “The Luckiest”, would make a lovely wedding song.  Aside from the gorgeous piano melody and the swelling strings, the sentiment of the words is pitch perfect.  The song touches on the theme of searching high & low, far & wide to find the right person to share your life.  And how, once those two people become bonded to each other, there’s a metaphysical permanence across space & time.  It’s a song that could have easily become schmaltzy in a lesser songwriter’s hands, but Folds captures the sentiment perfectly.

Another song that I’ve always loved is Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”.  This song, coincidentally, is from McCartney’s solo debut album from 1970.  Sir Paul reportedly played most (if not all) of the instruments on this recording by himself, and it sounds like a labour of love.  There isn’t a shred of doubt in his voice that he is over-the-moon crazy for his dear Linda.  The piano and guitar melodies would fit seamlessly into The Beatles’ Abbey Road album, which I suppose makes me Captain Obvious but it’s the highest compliment I can pay a song and songwriter.

But one song from Peter Gabriel’s recent release New Blood tops my list.  The new version of “In Your Eyes” is stunning.  Gabriel’s new album features re-interpretations of his songs, this time with tastefully-arranged symphonic orchestration instead of the conventional drums, guitars, and keyboards.  I love the way the strings carry the melody and the rhythm in this new version of the song.  I was initially concerned that the symphonic treatment would take away from the brilliance of the original record, but instead it reveals all-new facets of a great song.  The staccato rhythms are simultaneously playful and romantic, rooted in the earth while soaring with joy.

The lyric speaks to something more profound than love; ‘love’ is clearly an insufficient word to describe all the things that Peter is feeling about his subject.

(In your eyes) the light the heat
(In your eyes) I am complete
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
the resolution of all the fruitless searches
Oh, I see the light and the heat in your eyes
Oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light, the heat I see in your eyes

I have looked high & low, far & wide for someone with that look in her eyes.  I don’t know if I believe in fate or destiny or any of that pseudo-spiritual mumbo-jumbo.  But if there is any kind of blind justice in this world and I get profoundly, amazingly lucky maybe I will find her some day.  On occasion that’s the glimmer of hope that inspires me to keep looking.  And if I ever do find the woman with ‘the look’ in her eyes, I believe I’m going to need a tan-coloured trenchcoat and a boombox…

Music Challenge Day 4 – A Song That Makes You Sad

I’ve never met Ben Folds in person.  But based on his songs and his interviews, I suspect he’s a little bit like me and we’d get along great.  I’ll bet he hides a surprisingly sensitive nature behind a pretty thick veneer of smart-ass.  Most of his best songs, either solo or with his Five, are tongue-in-cheek post-modern pastiches about the jackasses among us.  But every once in awhile, he lets his more emotional side out for a walk and surprises us with a story-song of real depth and feeling.

“Fred Jones, Pt. 2” from the solo album Rockin’ The Suburbs has been a favourite of mine ever since my first (and only) Folds gig in England in 2001.  It’s a pretty mix of piano, strings, and voice in waltz time, with a gorgeous melodic flow and plenty of rhythm for a song with no drums.  John McCrea from the band Cake helps out Ben on harmony vocals and gives the song an interesting warmth and resonance.

I think what really gets to me about this song is the subject matter.  It’s about Fred Jones, a man that is downsized after 25 years of working at a newspaper.  Hard to say if Folds foresaw the collapse of the newspaper industry, or if he just got lucky picking a random vocation.  But rather than going out with a well-deserved (early) retirement party and cake from his peers, Fred Jones finds himself unceremoniously pushed out the door by circumstances beyond his control.  The kids are now running the asylum, and there’s no room for the ‘old man’ anymore.  In fact, nobody even remembers his first name.  He is, literally, yesterday’s news.

In the days that follow, Mr. Jones tries his hand at sketching as a hobby to keep busy.  But he finds that he’s kind of crap at it, and all of his pent-up frustrations at being let go before his time and “forgotten but not yet gone” come to a head.  Meanwhile, a streetlight shines through the window shades, casting lines on the floor and lines on his face.  Folds doesn’t come out and say it, but one gets the impression that Fred doesn’t have a family around him to console him in his hour of need.  You can almost see him staring at the floor, wondering “What am I supposed to do with myself tomorrow, let alone for the next twenty years?”.

This song makes me sad because it makes me wonder what I’m going to do if some day I end up like Fred – alone, out of work, and forgotten but not yet gone.  Pretty well everyone gets through the work day by dreaming about how retirement will some day be a well-deserved stroll into the sunset.  But if it comes too soon or under the wrong circumstances, it must be really miserable.  I really hope that someone at least gets me a cake on my last day.