Listener – Wooden Heart

The period in which a song enters our lives can be just as crucial as the the music itself. Maybe the song carries a message we needed to hear, or the lyrics so perfectly capture what we’re feeling at the instant, feelings we couldn’t previously put into words. The right song, at the right moment, can move us in ways no other power can. “Listener,” by Wooden Heart, moved me to tears the first time I heard it.

Talk music, a combination of rock, punk, and spoken poetry, isn’t typically a genre in which I indulge, but the fierce, raw power in Dan Smith’s voice is instantly gripping. The instrumental portion of the song, drums and an electric guitar, is simple musically, but further enhances the lyrics, giving them a cadence and rhythm. It’s not what one would consider conventionally beautiful, but as the band has said in interviews, they try not to pay attention to musical convention, but rather what’s in their hearts. Smith says “Wooden Heart” was born from a daydream about a coastline town that wanted to build a church. However, the town didn’t have any lumber, so they salvaged wood from wrecked ships to build it. While that dream may have been the inspiration for the song, the lyrics rarely reflect it, save for one line: ” because our church is made out of shipwrecks from every hull these rocks have claimed.” Yet even then, the line is more metaphorical than literal, as the lyrics continue with “but we pick ourselves up, and try and grow better through the change.”

Fear “but my fear is this prison… that I keep locked below the main deck / I keep a key under my pillow, it’s quiet and it’s hidden” quickly mingles with a nearly snuffed out glimmer of hope, “and my hopes are weapons that I’m still learning how to use right.” Destruction doubles as renewal “we all have the same holes in our hearts / everything falls apart at the exact same time that it all comes together perfectly for the next step.”  Pain, anguish, joy, yearning, all burst forth from Smith’s coarse voice with a passion and soul that surprises, if not overwhelms, and never more so than when he barks “so come on let’s wash each other with tears of joy and tears of grief / and fold our lives like crashing waves and run up on this beach / come on and sew us together, tattered rags stained forever / we only have what we remember.” It’s pleading, demanding; anthemic of hope and change.

There’s a scene in Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys” in which Hector, the teacher, is discussing Thomas Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge” with his student Posner. He says, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” That power of movement, of defining precisely what we are feeling, also dwells within music, and it dwells within “Listener.”

The Oh Hello’s – Through The Deep, Dark Valley

Rare is the album that stuns fron the first note of the opening song to the waning seconds of the finale. Rarer still is a concept album that achieves this feat. And yet, here we are with “Through The Deep, Dark Valley,” the full-length debut from the Oh Hello’s. Hailing from Texas, the Oh Hello’s are siblings Tyler and Maggie Heath, and cite Los Campesinos, Sufjan Stevens, The Lumineers, The Middle East and Mumford and Sons among their many influences. Though that last name may cause an averse reaction to some, it shouldn’t. Mumford and Sons arrangements, though often raucous and rambunctious, frequently have a cookie cutter feel (not to mention their exhaustive use of the word “heart” in several of those dynamic bridges and choruses). The yelling, the harmonies, the crescendos are far too predictable and sound almost fake, or at the very least, unimaginative. A little more “Fauxk” than folk. “Through The Deep, Dark Valley” is better and more sophisticated musically and lyrically than anything produced by Mumford and Sons.

The album opens with “The Valley,” a drum-thumping, guitar-strumming overture that sets the tone for the rest of the album. It informs the listener that there will be strings aplenty, there will be swooping crescendos and decrescendos, there will be soaring highs and cavernous lows, and gorgeous harmonies. Really, enough can not be said about the harmonizing of the Heaths. Perhaps it’s born from a natural, sibling chemistry, or the more common, if not more boring, product of years of practicing together (likely a combination of the two). What ever the cause, their voices blend with and complement each other flawlessly. From there, we are taken to “Like the Dawn,” which carries on the musical promise of the opener,  though not as immediately “in your face” instrumentally.

“Eat You Alive” is the first song in which Tyler Heath takes charge on lead vocals. Some have hailed it as the best song on the album, if not one of the best songs of the year. It’s short, clocking in at 1:37, but powerful nonetheless.  “The Ballad of Eustace Scrubb,” another song featuring Tyler on the lead, harkens back to traditional Irish folk music, while “I Have Made Mistakes” is one of the more minimal tracks on the album, in terms of instrumentation.

There is no weak song on the album, not even a song that can be classified as merely OK. They are all at least very good, some great. Still, there is one song that stands above the others, the epitome of what makes this album special: “Wishing Well.” It starts off as a simple fingerpicking pattern on two guitars, with a banjo joining shortly after. Maggie’s voice feathers in at around the twenty second mark, and the song builds from there, adding layers of strings and voices that coalesce in the final thirty seconds into a mesmerizing exercise in the idyllic.

Listen to this album. It’s one of the most original releases of 2012, and well worth whatever price you want to pay for it. The band suggests listening to the albumin order, in one sitting to get the full effect, but one listen to any of the eleven songs will be enough to hook you on this extraordinary effort.

Wolf Larsen

Often, the story behind the music can amplify the music’s power. Such is the case with Wolf Larsen’s debut, “Quiet at the Kitchen Door.” Following a surgical accident in 2003, Larsen, (known to the outside world as Sarah Ramey), found herself locked in battle with a debilitating and undiagnosable disease. Despite an exhaustive search for a cure and alternative treatments, the disease continued to plague Larsen.

As many have in the face of hardship, Larsen turned to music for therapy and escape. It started with Larsen teaching herself the songs of Leonard Cohen, then performing at open mic nights in San Francisco. Finally, she began writing her own music, taking her despair, her illness and her bevy of emotions and molding it into the gorgeous catharsis that is “Quiet at the Kitchen Door.”

Larsen’s debut is many things; seductive, slow, hauntingly personal, sorrowful yet also hopeful. It’s deliberate in its pacing. No song is really noticeably faster than another, save perhaps for “Wild Things,” which is really only faster by comparison. And yet, the listener is never bored by the tempo. The album never feels as if it’s droning along from one song to the next. It, in a way, makes the songs feel more like movements, all of which are carried by Larsen’s alluring vocals.

Backed by an acoustic guitar, in addition to a string and horn section, Larsen’s voice is slightly husky and wintry, not to mention completely arresting. Truly, it’s a voice that would stun a raucous audience into attentive silence. In some songs, such as the opener “Kitchen Door” and “No One’s To Blame,” her voice even sounds fragile, as if the weight of the emotions and the experiences entrenched in the lyrics threaten to break her vocal chords. That delicacy is heard not just in her voice, but in the instrumentation as well. Larsen plucks her guitar strings gently, softly, while the horns, rather than announce royalty, whisper, for fear of ruining the melodious trance.

Yet even a light bulb, easily shattered, can prove resilient. On “Jedi,” Larsen sings:

The hero she is sleeping

A Jedi Princess Keeping

A sword inside a song

She is the grimmest reaper reaping

These songs are Larsen’s weapons, her way of not only expressing, but fighting that which she doesn’t even fully understand. In her fight to survive and understand her own battle, Larsen is also fighting the battles of others. 15% of the album’s proceeds goes to The Girl Effect, and other organizations that invest in the education of girls worldwide.

“Quiet at the Kitchen Door” is a journey through unimaginable emotional and physical pain, but also the hope that persists despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

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