Sean Maher's Quality Control

Friday, September 30, 2005

Amoeba Records and Tim O'Brien - Saved my yesterday

So, I was all comics-pissed yesterday and needed to get it off my mind. Where to go when you're all pissed off to guarantee a mood-swing back in the heels-clicking, shit-eating-grinning, singing-on-the-sidewalk direction?

Well, for Christ's sake, of course it's Amoeba Records, the best record store in the world. God, I love this place. You can find anything. You can talk to people, who're usually just friendly as hell, or you can mind your own business and just get lost for hours.

Recently, they set up a row of computer listening stations where you can scan the UPC code of almost any CD and it'll pull up the whole thing in Winamp. How awesome is that?

On top of this, I found out yesterday that Tim O'Brien has two new albums out, and that you can get 'em at Amoeba for just eight bucks each. They're called Cornbread Nation and Fiddler's Green, the former being a good timin' collection of mostly traditional songs played with new arrangements that begin to sound almost a bit modern, and the latter being a more introspective, emotional set.



Tim O'Brien, along with Gillian Welch, is probably my favorite of the whole "newgrass"/folk revival thing that's blown up since O Brother Where Art Thou, which is kinda funny because he's like the one guy who wasn't on the soundtrack.

Quick story to explain why I love his guitar playing. The first time I ever heard Miles Davis, my guitar teacher put on "So What" and pointed out how slow and simple the solo was. That's how you know this is really good, he told me. He's good enough to play any crazy, wild solo he wants, but he holds back and picks just the right notes.

At the time, I looked at my teacher like he'd just molested me. What the hell is wrong with you? I thought. If a dude can play crazy insane solos that'll blow my fucking mind, why wouldn't he do that all the time? Why would I bother listening to the other stuff?

Well, I'm a little older now, and even if I'm no wiser I at least recognize that some musicians - the ones who really love their craft, more than they love showing off - will play in whatever way they feel is best for the song itself. If that means showing off, that's cool - some songs are built for that - but when it's gonna disrupt the story you're trying to tell or the sensations you're trying to build, a real man will chill out and play it right.

See, that's what Tim O'Brien does on guitar. It's really skilled stuff, and I love the tones he builds on that thing, but part of what makes it really exciting to listen to is that you can hear all that wild talent being squeezed into just a few notes and a riff on the melody.

Plus, I love the guy's voice. I said a while ago that I like my roots music with some smoke and booze and grit in it, and by and large I wanna hear that in the singer's voice, but sometimes I like that clear as a bell, perfect-pitch thing that Paul McCartney does. O'Brien's voice pulls off this kind of clarity without becoming syrupy and fey because there's some real heart and excitement in his delivery, and again, it's really infectious and capturing.

Finally, there's a bit in the liner notes of Cornbread Nation that really caught my eye and got me thinking:

The words "traditional" or "folk" may connote something precious or sacred, something not to be tampered with, but I don't look at it that way and I don't treat these songs like museum objects. I borrowed lyrics from one for the other, and changed melodies to suit my mood, and put some drums and electric guitars with them. Others may argue, but this recycling is traditional in my book. The great purveyors of folk music always put their own stamp on things. Like good home-cooked food, it's gonna come out a little different each time you make it.

I was psyched to read that (and, on listening to the albums, to find that O'Brien makes good on his promise), because it's seemed to me that a lot of folk and blues musicians in the last several (10? 20?) years have been in a kind of contest to see who can be the most devoted to their form, basically judging their success by how much they sound like the old-timers. Who can sound most like it used to sound back in the day, that's the goal.

Well, that's fuckin' weak. What those guys were doing back in the day was taking old music and making it new, making it their own. The way to stay true to the forms they pioneered is to repeat that process, not by aping their performances note for note. It's nice to have people like Tim O'Brien on the scene who get that, especially someone with the talent to put that stamp on each song without doing something corny or off-the-wall for the sole purpose of identifying it as his own. Make no mistake, this is folk music and O'Brien's all about it. That's what's so impressive - he's using fairly spare arrangements, fairly simple tools, to bring these old songs to new life. His amazing duet with Dan Tyminski (of The Soggy Bottom Boys) on "Long Black Veil", for example, is like no version of the song I've ever heard, but it's definitely got a strong old-timey feel.

Just really wonderful stuff, this.

This weekend is the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in the park - I mentioned it here a few weeks ago. O'Brien will be there, along with Doc Watson and Steve Earle and Gillian Welch and a bunch of other musicians I love. So I'm feeling much better today.

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