Song of the Day: Oats In The Water (by Ben Howard)


TheBurghIslandEP

The Walking Dead may not be what some critics as great television. Hell, it’s been called boring, pandering and badly-written. It’s popularity has eluded detractors and supporters alike. There’s one thing the show has consistently done well and that’s pick licensed songs to help highlight particular episodes.

Tonight’s episode, “Internment”, is another such episode with a perfectly picked song. This time around the song is “Oats In The Water” by British singer-songwriter Ben Howard.

The song enters the episode as part of the calm which followed one of the most tense and terrifying sequences of the season. Whoever is in charge of licensing songs for this song needs to get a raise because it’s definitely been a highlight of each season.

Oats In The Water

Go your way,
I’ll take the long way ’round,
I’ll find my own way down,
As I should.

And hold your gates
There’s coke in the midas touch
A joke in the way that we rust,
And breathe again.

And you’ll find loss
And you’ll fear what you found
When weather comes
Tear him down

There’ll be oats in the water
There’ll be birds on the ground
There’ll be things you never asked her
Oh how they tear at you now

Go your way,
I’ll take the long way ’round,
I’ll find my own way down,
As I should.

And hold your gates
As coke in the midas touch
A joke in the way that we rust,
And breathe again.

And you’ll find loss
And you’ll fear what you found
When weather comes
Tear him down

There’ll be oats in the water
There’ll be birds on the ground
There’ll be things you never asked her
Oh how they tear at you now

Ten Years #22: Стары Ольса


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
22. Стары Ольса (Stary Olsa, 1,257 plays)
Top track (111 plays): Танцы (Dances), from Келіх кола (Loving Cup, 2000)
Featured track: Дрыгула, from Дрыгула (2009)

I don’t know of too many bands from Belarus, but the one I’m most familiar with is amazing. It’s a bit fitting that Stary Olsa should be my first entry in this on-going series to appear within the fall season, because I actually featured both “Dances” and “Drygula” this time last year. Of course it has nothing to do with horror, but it’s firmly rooted in the traditions from which our Halloween has derived–those of a misty past dominated by perceptions and beliefs not yet subsumed by European Christian standards. I don’t know whether the songs Stary Olsa play are themselves of ancient origin, but their instrumentation certainly is, and the songs they have crafted, whether traditional or original, are convincingly and memorably medieval. You’ll hear none of that western adherence to formula here; playing slightly out of tune or hitting a wrong note is a positive property of the music I like best. It comes to life with an earthiness that strives not for order and rationality, but for a taste of those unpredictable, wild-eyed expressions that highlight the more authentic human experiences of joy and sorrow. A lot of the best folk music abandons modern society’s notions of how these feelings ought to be expressed in exchange for a more direct connection. Stary Olsa certainly aren’t unique in this regard, but they do it better than most any other ensemble I’ve heard.

Ten Years #23: The Tossers


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
23. The Tossers (1,222 plays)
Top track (57 plays): The Crock of Gold, from The Valley of the Shadow of Death (2005)

My introduction to Irish punk was about as random as they come. I had “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners stuck in my head, and I could not for the life of me remember what it was called or who wrote it. I made a forum post asking “who wrote that song that goes too-ra-loo-rai-a?”, and someone–much to my persistent bewilderment today–responded with “Aye Sir” by The Tossers. It was through this cluttered back door that I first came to discover legends like The Pogues, The Dubliners, Dropkick Murphys, and Flogging Molly, and I owe a world of thanks to that forgotten forum poster for it.

A lot of my love for The Tossers is definitely nostalgia, because they introduced me to a world of music that has influenced my life tremendously ever since. But more significantly, I love The Tossers because they manifest an earthy side of Irish folk that bigger and brighter rock stars can never, by consequence of their fame, present quite so intimately. The drunken camaraderie, the sense of belonging, the singing and the dancing, all of the glory that one of the most persistently vibrant folk traditions in the world can bring–you certainly feel them all at a Dropkick concert, but with The Tossers it comes before an audience of a few hundred, most of whom know the songs by heart. They’re probably the best punk-minded Irish folk band drifting around America to have never made it big, and their live show is a blast every time.

Ten Years #32: Elliott Smith


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
32. Elliott Smith (946 plays)
Top track (95 plays): Southern Belle, from Elliott Smith (1995)
Featured track: St. Ides Heaven, from Elliott Smith

This October will mark ten years since Elliott Smith’s tragic death. I remember hearing the news only a few months after I started listening to him. The Royal Tenenbaums was my favorite movie at the time, and I picked up his self-titled album after hearing Needle in the Hay in the suicide scene. As if the album’s lyrics weren’t bleak enough already, the relevance of my first experience of Elliott Smith to his death added a whole new weight. It’s a pleasant if odd coincidence that the album soon became intimately tied with one of the most positive experiences of my life.

Smith died in October, and I shipped off to basic training the following month. Music deprivation–the only really challenging aspect of the whole three month process–came to an end when I was marched out of my barracks with my confiscated cd collection back in tow and shipped off to my year-long advanced training. I hopped on a plane in a bitter sub-zero St. Louis February and fell back off in the palm-tree coastal paradise of Monterey, California. Elliott Smith was spinning all the while, and it kept on playing until I left that strange and beautiful place for good. Something about the juxtaposition of Smith’s depressing lyrics and ethereal performance perfectly captured the simultaneous homesickness and bewilderment that I experienced as a rural 19 year old alone and out of his element with an enormous Army pay check, left to roam the hills of one of America’s most affluent coastal cities every night. That otherworldly vision of a serene Pacific bay surrounded by city lights will always go hand-in-hand with this album for me, and I can’t bring myself to listen to any other Elliott Smith recording without being overcome by a desire to put his self-titled back on, close my eyes, and relive the experience. It might not be exactly what Smith had in mind when he recorded it, but I would rather like to remember him for the beauty lying beneath his depression than for his death.

Ten Years #36: The Mountain Goats


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
36. The Mountain Goats (846 plays)
Top track (37 plays): Home Again Garden Grove, from We Shall All Be Healed (2004)
Featured track: Fault Lines, from All Hail West Texas (2002)

Back in my later high school days, when my early obsession with metal music coexisted with an active participation in games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons, I remember stumbling across a 1/1 beast in Ice Age that I became bound and determined to name a pseudo-grim heavy metal band after:

I was very briefly disappointed to find that a band had already beaten me to the punch on that one. One of the things that makes John Darnielle an awesome person, though, is the very real possibility that this is no coincidence and he took his band name from M:tG too. (Probably not, given that his first album came out in 1994, but you never know.) This guy has made a guest appearance on an Aesop Rock hip-hop album and written an acoustic love song set to a Marduk black metal concert in the same year; his appreciation for the awkward and out-of-place couples with an above-average awareness of other musical scenes to conjure a constantly befuddling self-image. The first time I saw him live, before I was very aware of his works, I wasn’t sure if I ought to take the dialogue between each track as stand-up comedy or legitimate commentary by someone who was hopelessly socially inept. In retrospect, it was more the former, but the heart-felt sincerity Darnielle packs into everything he says or writes is both a quintessential part of the act and a reflection of who he really is–someone both incredibly aware and controlling of his public image and just a little bit legitimately weird. He has made his claim to fame writing sentimental solo acoustic songs with over-the-top lyrics and awkward subject matters that are simultaneously heart-felt and tongue-in-cheek. He has cultivated his awkwardness into some of the best solo acoustic albums recorded since Bob Dylan.

Lately, The Mountain Goats have evolved from a solo project to more of a full band. Last time I went to their show the audience had expanded from about a hundred to a few thousand, and Darnielle was hamming up the rock-star image with a shit-eating grin on his face the whole time. I absolutely love this guy and his works, and while I can’t say that I’ve kept up with him consistently over the years (his discography is massive), I’ve certainly listened to him enough to rank in my top 50 most played artists of the past decade. Here are the lines to Fault Lines, to give you some idea of his brilliantly bizarre lyrics:

Down here where the heat’s so fine
I’ll drink to your health and you drink to mine
As we try to make the money we scored out in Vegas hold out for a while
We drink vodka from Russia
We get our chocolates from Belgium
We have our strawberries flown in from England
But none of the money we spend seems to do us much good in the end
I got a cracked engine block, both of us do
Yeah the house, the jewels, the Italian race car
They don’t make us feel better about who we are
I got termites in the framework, so do you
Down here where the watermelon grows so sweet
Where I worshiped the ground underneath of your feet
We are experts in the art of frivolous spending
It’s gone on like this for three years I guess
And we’re drunk all the time, and our lives are a mess
And the deathless love we swore to protect with our bodies
is stumbling across its bleak ending
But none of the rage in our eyes
Seems to finish it off where it lies
I got sugar in the fuel lines, both of us do
Yeah the fights and the lies that we both love to tell
Fail to send our love to its reward down in hell
I got pudding for a backbone, and so do you
La la la la! Hey hey!

Ten Years #38: Split Lip Rayfield


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
38. Split Lip Rayfield (789 plays)
Top track (46 plays): Thief, from Never Make It Home (2001)
Featured track: Barnburner, from Split Lip Rayfield (1998)

I chose the soundtrack to my four years in Texas appropriately: 92.5 The Outlaw. Poor San Antone lost its favored child–the only country station in the area that focused specifically on bands from Texas and the surrounding region–about a year after I left. (The owners thought they could make more money by instead offering another ultra-right Rick Perry-worshipping neo nazi talk show station.) Well, I didn’t actually ever hear Wichita, Kansas-based Split Lip Rayfield on The Outlaw anyway, oddly enough, but I did stumble upon them while listening to last.fm radio playlists of Texas country bands. It’s not like I’d never heard boisterous, edgy folk music before; the stuff The Outlaw was spinning had more balls than half the heavy metal out there. But to hear it in bluegrass was still a bit of a novelty to me at the time, and to hear it with this degree of technical proficiency blew me away.

They/their label unfortunately seems to have fallen pray to that fallacy that non-mainstream file sharing diminishes revenue–as if people just randomly buy albums from groups they’ve never heard without sampling a track or two first–so I can’t offer any studio selections, but the live video I’m showcasing here was one of the first recordings of the band I ever heard. In retrospect, it was a huge influence on my own personal guitar style. A bit of guitarist and singer Kirk Rundstrom’s total disregard for any supposedly necessary point of transition from acoustic to electric guitar has resonated in everything I’ve written or performed since. Sad to say, he tragically passed away of esophageal cancer right around the time I started listening to them. Rest in peace.

October Music Series: Nokturnal Mortum – Lastivka


And so my month of folk and folk/pagan/black metal indulgence comes to an end. Of course they’re the styles I listen to the most throughout the year, but October always holds a somewhat special status for the genres. It marks the height of fall and the coming of winter, the commencement of the six months of the year I enjoy most, and also the start of the holiday season. Halloween is something of the anti-holiday–an all-encompassing celebration of everything that is not modern Christian/Muslim/Jewish culture. It’s that one break in year-round social norms where people can dress and act in ways that, despite representing the human experience for the vast majority of our species’ existence, are strictly taboo in the today’s world. Sure, plenty of pagan practices may have lurked their way into Christmas and Easter. Sure Thanksgiving, despite its name, remains a fairly uncompromised belated harvest festival. But on Halloween we sugar-coat nothing but the candy, sending our children down the streets as ghouls and ghosts and all sorts of counter-cultural guises, embracing primal human nature with no need for repentance. It might be highly consumer-centric, but a little unrestrained gluttony seems thoroughly appropriate for the occasion. From death and the old gods to vampires and zombies, everything falling beyond the accepted sphere of modern religion has its day on October 31st.

Lastivka, alternatively titled Swallow, is a rather ridiculous rendition of what I gather is a traditional Ukrainian folk song. It first appears on Nokturnal Mortum’s Marble Moon ep, released in 1997. Enjoy.

Happy Halloween Shattered Lens.

October Music Series: Townes Van Zandt


Townes Van Zandt lived a troubled life, characterized by constant alcoholism, drug abuse, and failed relationships. He finally passed away of heart failure in a state of delirium tremens on January 1, 1997, at the age of 52, cryptically 44 years to the day after the death of perhaps his greatest influence, Hank Williams, under similar circumstances. As a song writer his music was inconsistent, but at his finest moments he tapped into his inner demons with an acute awareness that he was living more in dream than reality. He created his own folklore both in life and in song. The latter was quite deliberate, emerging sometimes from scratch and sometimes with attention to older legends. Narrated in the first person, always at night, bridging a gap between sleep and consciousness, he painted strikingly vivid images of personal confrontations with foul spirits and terrifying monsters physically imbued with emotional states which could never take on material form outside of a dream, or a song.

To call Spider Song a metaphor would do it a disservice. Of course it is about overcoming some inner demon, whatever that may be, and yes, through the battle against the spider we gain some insight into Van Zandt’s personal struggles, but that’s trivial. He’s not just beating that old dead horse again. The spider begins “in his dreams”, and at no point does it definitively leave them, yet the song is structured in such a way that Van Zandt’s dreams come to characterize more and more a real, physical monster encountered collectively by the narrator and the audience. What you get is a subtle transition from a nearly explicit metaphor (it’s in his dreams) to, by the end, momentary belief that a real, heroic, pitched battle against a giant spider is about to ensue. You don’t fully forget that the spider originated as a sort of representation of emotional states of fear, depression, or whatever you read into the first few stanzas of the song, but nevertheless here it stands, a menacing physical object. No, this song should not be regarded as a metaphor. Rather, our recognition of metaphor is employed to, over time, trick the senses into visualizing something supernatural.

Our Mother The Mountain is laden with hints at the supernatural from the outset: The woman’s esoteric claim to have come from her mother the mountain, her mysterious medallion, the refrain “singing tu-a-lu-ra-lai-o” with an emphasis on “lu-ra-lai”… “Lorelei”… The music feels like a dream, and the lyrics too, until the narrator stops observing the dream and tries to interact, reaching for her hand. The woman’s response is a manifest nightmare–a completely nonsensical appeal to pure foreboding terror captured in her physical actions. The narrator never sees her again, but he swears that it wasn’t just a dream, and as the listener you can’t help but believe him.

Spider Song

There is a spider in my dreams
Long and silent is his name
Cold as lightning is his smile
Final is his sting

His curse is deep as seven skies
Boys, I wouldn’t tell you lies
The legends say he never sleeps
and he’s never hungry long

He’s got us boys, I believe it’s true
But I’m fighting til he lays me down
Run his foul black body through
Cleave him all asunder

Think of your women, won’t you boys
Think of your mother growing old
Think about your darling son
Spit in the spider’s eye

Up at ease, against him ride
We’ll not take him by surprise
Give a scream down in your dreams
Let him know we’re coming

There is a spider in my dreams
Long and silent is his name
Cold as lightning is his smile
Final is his sting

Our Mother The Mountain

My lover comes to me with a rose on her bosom
The moon’s dancing purple all through her black hair
And her lady’s-in-waiting, she’ll stand ‘neath my window
And the sun will rise soon on the false and the fair
Singing tu-a-lu-ra-lai-o

She tells me she comes from My Mother The Mountain
And her skin fits her tightly, and her lips do not lie
She silently slips from her throat a medallion
Slowly she twirls it in front of my eyes
Singing tu-a-lu-ra-lai-o

I watch her, I love her, and I long for to touch her
The satin she’s wearing is shimmering blue
And outside my window her ladies are sleeping
My dogs are gone hunting; their howling is through
Singing tu-a-lu-ra-lai-o

So I reach for her hand, and her eyes turn to poison
And her hair turns to splinters, and her flesh turns to brine
She leaps ‘cross the room. She stands in the window
and screams that my first-born will surely be blind.
Singing tu-a-lu-ra-lai-o

Then she throws herself out to the black of the nightfall
She’s parted her lips, but she makes not a sound
I fly down the stairway and I run to the garden
No trace of my true love is there to be found
Singing tu-a-lu-ra-lai-o

So walk these hills lightly, and watch who you’re loving
By Mother The Mountain I swear that it’s true
And love not a woman with hair black as midnight
and a dress made of satin all shimmering blue
Singing tu-a-lu-ra-lai-o

My lover comes to me with a rose on her bosom
The moon’s dancing purple all through her black hair
And her lady’s-in-waiting, she’ll stand ‘neath my window
And the sun will rise soon on the false and the fair

October Music Series: Piorun – Nadbuanski Wit


Here’s a song that captures bizarre pagan ritual at its most Dionysian. Barely coherent woodwinds teeter on the brink of madness, spurred on by seductive, primitive drumming and the string drone of what I’m guessing is a hurdy-gurdy. Piorun are a folk and ambient band from Poland, which is not a particularly active country in the pagan metal scene, but it should come as no surprise from the brand of folk they play that the band has ties to Nokturnal Mortum.

It’s not particularly easy to dig up information on these guys. What’s available to me had to be plugged through Google Translator from Polish, but I gather Stajemy Jak Ojce, the 2004 release on which Nadbuanski Wit is the opening track, is their only full-length album.

I’m a bit confused as to just how “Polish” Piorun really is. The references I saw to “ties with Nokturnal Mortum” are a bit of an understatement; Knjaz Varggoth, Saturious, and Munruthel are all a part of the line-up, amounting to half of the band and all of the folk elements. Of the band’s three presumably Polish members, two are only credited with vocals. One, and possibly all three, were members of the now defunct Polish black metal band Archandrja. (I’ve not heard them save a few youtube samples just now.)

At any rate, Stajemy Jak Ojce is an absolutely brilliant album when the folk is allowed to shine. When the ambient takes more primacy it leaves a little to be desired. Nadbuanski Wit falls firmly in the former. Whether you choose to hear it as chilling and demented or as ritualistic and reverent, it’s bound to leave a lasting impression.

October Music Series: Skyforger – Zviegtin’ Zviedza Kara Zirgi


Latvia’s Skyforger have been around for ages. They first formed in 1991 as a folk-leaning death metal band called Grindmaster Dead, but by 1995 they changed their name to Skyforger and turned their attention to black metal. After leaving their mark on both the second generation of black metal and the formative years of pagan metal, they turned their attention to Latvian folk traditions unconditionally. Zobena Dziesma, translated as “Sword Song”, was released in 2003. It left metal at the door, and presented, in coordination with the Culture Capital Foundation of Latvia, an outstanding compilation of songs in traditional Latvian style.

Here is the explanation on Skyforger’s official website for how Zobena Dziesma came to be:

“Skyforger is not a professional Folk group, and we are traditionally known for playing Folk/Pagan Metal. We started playing Folk music as amateur enthusiasts, only for ourselves. However, our friends and fans expressed a desire to hear more of these songs, and that led to the creation of this album. Most of the songs you can hear on this recording are taken from the repertoire of well known local Folk groups. Others are reworked versions of material from our previous albums. Our passion is to play olden songs of the war and mythology of our forefathers. In that respect, this album is no different from those we have recorded in the past. It is our tribute to ancient Latvian history, culture and folklore.”

Skyforger translate Zviegtin’ Zviedza Kara Zirgi as “Neighed the Battle Horses”. It’s the track that has always stood out to me most on the album. It is exceptionally visual. It’s one of those songs that transports you to another place and time, and allows you to engage an ancient world trapped somewhere between history and fantasy.