Shuffle: When the Gods of music smile on me

Serendipity plays a large part in the construction of this column; indeed the whole idea behind it is predicated on what happens whilst I am listening to my iPod on shuffle. My usual routine is to go for a walk each morning to prepare myself for work – it is the most relaxing part of my day and, of course, it is sound-tracked by music. Something is calming and beautiful about being alone in the rosy blush of spring dawn accompanied by the music that I love.

This morning there was one of those moments of absolute pleasure where two tracks blended into each other so perfectly that you might start to think of the existence of a musical deity, who today decided to bestow a small reward on me. Of course, it is just pure luck and whatever algorithm that Apple uses to shuffle songs. Nevertheless, it started with ‘Not Just a Ghost’s Heart’ by Songs: Ohia. Now, one of the things I do when walking is to always attempt to work out the song and artist without recourse to looking at the screen. This song does not start as you might expect a Songs: Ohia song to start. An industrial-sounding percussive noise like a huge extractor fan that has lost a blade and is whirring in a consistent whumping pattern is used to open the song, and it continues throughout the twelve minutes. There are some piano chords and occasional bassline. I was thinking Low at this point, possible something from ‘Drums and Guns’ or their dissonant latest ‘Double Negative’. However, after a couple of minutes when Jason Molina’s voice is heard, there is no further doubt who it is.

What does puzzle me, is why ‘Not Just a Ghost’s Heart’ from ‘Ghost Tropic’ is not one of those songs that I know front to back, inside and out. It has all the facets of a great Songs: Ohia song, it throbs persistently like a toothache, aside from that throb it is skeletal, the instruments taking turns, a few piano chords, a guitar strum, a few bass notes scattered around like there is a finite supply and they are going to run out soon. The percussion is also industrial-like something hit hard with something equally as hard. Yet it is compelling, the piano notes and the flourishes of guitar always suggest that at some point there will be a coalescence and yet, there never is. It ends as it begins with that persistent throb. There are a few violent scribbles of atonal guitar that in the end – it suggests an oil field at night with the lonely clanking of machinery. In the last thirty seconds, the sound of birdsong takes over. I didn’t know if this was part of the song or the ambient sounds leaking in.

What happens is that it segued directly into ‘Missionary Ridge’ by William Tyler, seamlessly, as this track starts with ambient sounds of a street, the distant hum of traffic before Tyler’s guitar enters. A gentle balm after Songs: Ohia. Tyler has become one of Americana’s (or at least mine) favourite guitarists, after his stint in Lambchop and Silver Jews, which by any measure (or at least mine) is a fantastic pedigree. He’s released a series of excellent solo albums – ‘Missionary Ridge’ from his first album ‘Behold the Spirit’ is a beautiful example of his acoustic guitar playing.

John Fahey and the American Primitive style influence Tyler and his playing on this track is a lovely lilting meander, a languorous afternoon spent rambling. The playing is mesmerising and shows his easy skill; Tyler seems to have the chops to play just about any style. What I like about Tyler is that he is not just a great guitarist – he does not just play bucolic tunes, he is apt to be more experimental, switching from acoustic to electric and forms of composition, be this soundtracks to films or more rock or pop-based songs. There always seems to be a sense of place in his music, though I have no idea where it is, I feel I am somewhere when I listen to his music, somewhere apart from where I actually am.

This small miracle of these two songs dovetailing into each other so perfectly could not last; of course, I could introduce some artifice and pretend that the next song was another perfect slice of music. Something that would enhance my Americana credentials, but no. Next up was ‘Masquerade’ from a Peel Session from 1998, which is of course by the wonderful and frightening, The Fall. Now maybe The Fall is not the perfect accompaniment to the magnificence of a day cracking the shell of night, but at other times they are exactly the astringent that we all (at least me) need.

About David Cowling 129 Articles
Punk rock, Go-Betweens, REM, Replacments, Husker Du, Minutemen, Will Oldham, Smog, Whiskeytown, Ass Ponys but probably most of all Howe Gelb, led me on this journey.

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