Extreme Ways, Part 1
Easy Like Sunday Morning

This is the first of two columns in which I am going to try to explore my feelings on complexity in music. I know, I know, that sounds like the driest topic you can imagine spending two weeks on, but I wrestle with these thoughts – they prevent me from trying certain artists, and enjoying certain others, because I reduce music to mathematics in my mind without even thinking about it.

Anyway, for this week, I’ve chosen three of the most traditional, easy records I’ve bought this year (including one that got five stars from Rolling Stone and other arbiters of taste), and for next week, three of the most complex and difficult. The idea is that by exploring the extremes of simplicity and intricacy (within reason), I can figure out what it is I like and dislike about both. And along the way, you’ll get reviews of six new records, which, you know, bonus.

So, to start off, some background. I have an uneasy relationship with simplicity in music, which probably stems from my life as a teenage metalhead. Metal is Manly Music, fast and aggressive and complicated for the sake of being complicated. The harder something is to play, the cooler the musicians who can play it, or at least I thought so when I was 15. Dave Mustaine can outplay Kirk Hammett, who can outplay Scott Ian, and on and on.

I defined “outplaying” as the ability to produce material the other guys couldn’t, perhaps not realizing that not everyone was going for a full display of technical acuity each time out. The assumption was that if Gregg Allman could play like Steve Vai, he would, and he only doesn’t because he can’t. Strange, I know. That’s still a large, lingering part of the reason I can’t stand Kurt Cobain and Nirvana – they couldn’t play nearly as well as the bands they unceremoniously ushered off the popular stage.

I spent so much time as a young man figuring out music, working out how the notes correlated and how time signatures worked and how quickly one had to move one’s fingers to play the blistering solos that made one a real man, that when my first brush with simple, emotional music came along, it bowled me over. And I quickly discovered what I was missing when I tried to play these new songs.

I can play Metallica’s “Creeping Death” – that’s just a matter of knowing the right notes in the right order. One band’s take on it sounds like any other’s, really, and it’s difficult, but practice will get you there.

Likewise, I can play Tori Amos’ “Winter,” meaning I know all the notes in the right order. It’s an easy song. But I can’t play “Winter,” if you know what I mean. And it’s no surprise to me that no one covers Tori.

I think a lot of artists strive for that, and when they strip their music down to its bare essentials, what they’re doing is trying to find the core of what they do. And sometimes it works for me, but just as often, my mind drifts – I’m predicting chords, and groaning inwardly at progressions I’ve heard a thousand times. I know, deep down, that folk music (for one) is not about what’s being played, but about who is playing it, and what personal stamp he or she is leaving on it.

But I’m always happier when folk musicians step up and do something different. Take Peter Mulvey, for example. I first heard him when Eastern Front Records sent me a copy of his 1995 album Rapture, a crazy mish-mash of styles played with a percussive inventiveness and a wide-open spirit. It’s a great record, and for a while there, I was a Mulvey evangelist – he was the best-kept secret in Boston, until he moved back to Wisconsin. I was even there for the premiere performance of “The Trouble With Poets,” still his finest song, at Raoul’s in Portland, Maine.

Lately, though, Mulvey seems to be doing that stripped-back thing, turning out old-timey folk and shuffle tunes that reach deep through the American songbook for inspiration. 2004’s Kitchen Radio is a good folk album, but little more – the sense of adventure is missing, replaced with a deep respect for traditional songwriting. And his new one, The Knuckleball Suite, continues along that path. It is his loosest, breeziest record ever, and yet, in its own way, it’s just as diverse as Rapture.

So why don’t I like it as much? I’m not sure. Mulvey is still an enjoyable performer – his low voice remains commanding, his lyrics just as witty and poetic as ever. The songs, though, seem like tributes rather than originals – “Abilene” is a classic waltz, “Brady Street Stroll” is a light shuffle, “You and Me and the Ten Thousand Things” is pretty typical jazz-folk. Most of The Knuckleball Suite sounds like Peter Mulvey trying to do other artists, instead of trying to do Peter Mulvey. Even the punchiest of these songs, “Girl in the Hi-Tops,” owes a debt to Paul Westerberg.

There are high points. Opener “Old Simon Stinson” is a hoot, with lines like “I was dreaming you were what I was dreaming of.” The record’s sole cover is a complete back-to-basics reinvention of U2’s “The Fly,” which emerges as a dynamite little song when scrubbed clean. And the final few numbers find Mulvey sounding like Mulvey again – the title track is a slowly-building winner, and “The Fix is On” is the album’s best song, a fret-slapping rant about the state of things: “It pays to pay the politician, it pays to pay the politician twice, it pays to be the politician, it pays to be the politician’s wife…”

And of course, Mulvey’s playing is excellent, even on the simplest tracks like “Horses.” Longtime producer and musical partner David Goodrich works his magic all over this album as well, though he’s more reined in than usual – a natural consequence of the material. The two of them really only get to let loose during the extended jam that concludes “The Fix is On,” muted by the coda “Ballymore” that finishes out the disc.

So while this album is not on par with past triumphs like The Trouble With Poets, it seems that Mulvey is on a journey to really explore his sound, and see what he can glean from past masters. I miss the fire, though, the sense of pushing forward instead of reaching backward that infused his earlier work. He probably looks on songs like “On the Way Up” and “Midwife” as naïve now, but to me, they still ring true. That probably says more about me and my maturity than Mulvey and his, of course, and most likely, this is the right path for him to take. I just miss the old spark. The Knuckleball Suite is a sweet record, and an enjoyable one, but it offers nothing you’ve never heard before.

There is some precedent for taking one sound, exploring it over the course of a career, and still turning out excellent work. But I think that’s part and parcel of owning that sound, of claiming it early and indelibly marking it as What You Do. Bill Mallonee, for example, writes great songs, but there’s no doubt he’s been writing the same kind of great songs forever – literate, honest American folk-rock with an occasional twang. He’s just so good at it that I never seem to mind how simple it all is.

His new one, Permafrost, is another nine Bill Mallonee songs, and the only real difference is the trappings. Like last year’s wonderful Friendly Fire, this record is a full-band effort – he’s even named the band this time, calling it Victory Garden. The only thing cheap about it is the packaging. The recording itself is full and beautiful, and these are nine of his most fully realized songs since his obvious high water mark, 1999’s Audible Sigh. It’s obvious that Mallonee blew all his money on the recording – the cover art is one-color and garish, and he has no distribution deal for this one.

But don’t let that stop you. The record opens with “Pour, Kid,” and the full sound, complete with pedal steel guitars and great backing vocals, is like a sigh of relief. The seven-minute “Threadbare” has some Neil Young overtones, but it’s mostly Mallonee, stretching out with some sweet lead work. “Stay With Me” is one of his punchiest songs, and the lovely “Pristine” even makes a feedback-drenched backwards guitar solo work in context. “Flowers,” resurrected from last year’s Hit and Run album, sounds terrific in its full version, the pedal steel and harmonica complementing each other nicely.

Mallonee is a good example of a guy who has been on a quest for fulfillment through simplicity for his whole career, and there are times (like this album) when he finds it. Like much of his recent work, Permafrost is mostly bleak, with moments of hope, but not many. But the music is perfectly realized, and carries the emotion of the lyrics as if there were no barriers between his heart and yours. This is a superb new Mallonee record, a case in which simplicity works wonders, and it captures a sadly ignored and unknown artist in fine form, clear voice, and delightfully dark heart.

You can get the album here.

But if we want to talk about searching for clarity through simplicity, we need to discuss Bob Dylan. His more than 40-year career plays like an Americana songbook, full of folk, blues, country and swing, and while his lyrics are often cryptic, his musical presentation has always been straightforward. It’s for that very reason that I have never really enjoyed his work, and I used to think of it as too simple, but now I consider it so simple that it’s actually beyond me.

Let me explain – I always talk about needing to work my way up to certain musical idioms, like complex jazz and orchestral work. I don’t feel like I’m there yet, and I have a lot of theory left to learn before I can really understand what someone like Duke Ellington was truly up to. But on the other end of the spectrum is someone like Dylan, who has been plying the same chords and the same instrumentation (more or less) for his entire career, and I’m honestly starting to feel like I need to work up to understanding what he’s up to as well. There is something special here, and I’m not always hearing it.

Take his new one, Modern Times. By my count, it’s his 30th studio album, though I’m probably wrong about that, and it’s being billed as the final installment in a trilogy that began with 1997’s Time Out of Mind, and continued with 2001’s Love and Theft. There’s no doubt that these are three of the most fully realized Dylan albums of the past 25 years, and the loose sound of the sessions only adds to the thrill of them.

But the songs are all incredibly simple bits of blues and ballads, sung in Dylan’s new register – low and rumbling and sometimes overly throaty. His band is great, but there’s nothing tricky about making something like “Someday Baby” or “Thunder on the Mountain” work. So with a mountain of five-star reviews of this thing piling up, I can only surmise that I’m missing whatever others are responding to. I like this material, especially the more shuffle-based ones like “Spirit on the Water” and “Beyond the Horizon,” but to consider this genius work is just odd to me.

Some of it is probably the Cult of Bob, claiming everything the man touches as solid gold, but some of it is probably just hearing a guy with so much history and influence cracking open 10 new songs and having fun with them. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is certainly fun, and “When the Deal Goes Down” is very pretty, for what it is, but you can draw a straight line from this to Peter Mulvey’s album, and in some ways Mulvey does it better, and you don’t see him racking up the five-star accolades.

But Dylan is still capable of spinning a mesmerizing web, and the final track on Modern Times illustrates that perfectly. “Ain’t Talkin’” is a minor-key acoustic blues that runs for nearly nine minutes, and it’s pure magic. This is the kind of song that Dylan’s ravaged voice is perfect for – he adds a sense of menace and darkness to the song, and his very Bob Dylan-ness lends it weight. The other nine songs on Modern Times are frivolous things next to this piece, the one song here fully deserving of the reverence bestowed on it.

As for the rest… well, I still don’t get it, but I’m working on it. As I said, I have an uneasy relationship with simplicity, and I’m slowly trying to work it out. Why does someone like Bill Mallonee flip my switches, but not someone like Bob Dylan, whom Mallonee obviously draws from? Why can’t I see the recent, more informed and mature work of someone like Peter Mulvey as anything but a backslide? Is it really all about the complexity of the music? Do I have to see art as something monumental and ambitious and inventive to like it? Can’t I just relax and enjoy something like Modern Times for what it is?

And if not, why not?

These are questions I’m sure I will struggle with for the rest of my music-loving life. Next week, I’ll look at the mirror images of these quandaries, as I spin three of the most epic, complex records of 2006. To be continued…

See you in line Tuesday morning.