Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Word-Smith

















[Above: My first attempt at a cutesy photo defacement, Perez Hilton-style--the difference being that this is a sincere attempt to confer admiration through primitive means.]

Wordy, witty, wry, etc. Literate, self-deprecating, clever, droll, etc. It doesn't matter how I describe it: It just can't really sound interesting or cool at this point because it is basically the entirety of what has come to be known as "indie" culture. Pavement, Wes Anderson films, McSweeney's, you name it. It's that *thing*, that way of dressing, thinking, reading, loving, being. Half the world, it seems, subscribes to hip-hop as a lifestyle; the other half, to this, whatever it is.

And we're all sick of it, or we should be. I have my favorites in this realm, as do so many. I adore "The Royal Tenenbaums," for example. On the other hand, I have few feelings at all about Pavement.

This is all a silly introduction. I'm trying to be dramatic, but what I'm trying to say is that if there's any kernel of truth at the center of that whole cultural morass, it can be found in the music of Graham Smith. Graham Smith is why we all gravitated to that business in the first place. Smart, clever, wordy--yes, for sure. But, crucially, also unguarded, raw, devastating, emotionally apocalyptic: true.

I'd heard the name thrown around. My buddies and college bandmates in Super Lucky Cat (RIP) were all obsessed with him when he was recording as Kleenex Girl Wonder. Think ultraprolific lo-fi popsmith in the Robert Pollard mode. I missed the boat pretty much completely at that time.

One of those buddies and college bandmates, Tom--now a bro for life who lives a few blocks away--has kept up with Graham's work and recently, he sent me a bunch of the man's current output. He emailed a ton of links and I couldn't reckon with it all, but I decided to take a stab at one record in particular called Yes Boss.

I put it on at work and all of the sudden I couldn't do any work. The record scared and fascinated me, like a menacing yet beautiful insect on the wall. There's self-deprecating and then there's self-excoriating. There are songs that dissect relationships and then there are those that eviscerate and mangle them. And there is humor and wordplay that impresses and then there is that which gleams brilliantly, so clearly and purely the product of someone who was born to string words and phrases together. The kind of writing that makes you understand why similes and rhymes and puns and enjambment and allusions are actually incredibly awesome. They're not just smug devices; they can make you feel more alive.

It wasn't even really a question: Yes Boss was my pick for the best album of 2008. You can listen to it and purchase it here. That link redirects from the brilliantly succinct http://www.kgw.me.

Caught Smith live for first time tonight. He played at Pianos (workplace of my friend--and former Super Lucky Cat mainman--Zack, who plays with Graham in a visionary electropop project known as Gates of Heaven). Great show. I wish Smith had played more of my favorite songs off of Yes Boss ("Carried Away," "Why You Must Be So Damn Morose," "No Nippon Ichi," "Cathedral Ceilings" and the unbearably, gut-wrenchingly sad and wondrous "High Tech Computer Magician"--a few of which you can hear here) but there was a certain wonderment in hearing him sing songs I'd never heard before. (His catalog is pretty immense and I really know only this one album.) Just Smith and a guitar. The sensation I had was of words, tumbling. They just pour out relentlessly, always racing toward a rhyme or an impossibly clever reference (Robert Wuhl as Arli$$, for crying out effin' loud!!!).

But these smarts bring joy and clarity. There is an honesty to it. It's not at a smug remove. When Smith reaches into the upper register of his voice, he shrieks, or cries. He strums harder than he needs to. He means it. It's all of those things I listed at the beginning of this post, but it's real, the apotheosis of what We mean by "indie." I hope that doesn't slight his individuality, but that's how I see it: It's like "indie" with all the protective irony stripped away, leaving only blinding intelligence and frayed emotion.

Was very psyched to hear Smith perform "Maybe This Christmas," a typically heartwarming/-breaking song that was, in a sense, commissioned (for free, alas) by Time Out New York. An editor had asked me if I could think of any local songwriters who might want to take a stab at writing a Christmas-themed song which would then be posted on the TONY site. I immediately thought of Graham Smith. Within a few hours, he had agreed. He tackled the project with sincerity and diligence and the song itself is gorgeous and can be heard here. I spoke with him after the show and he said he was very psyched by the notion of being assigned the task of writing a song. I'm very happy to know that I played some part in the genesis of this piece--it rules.

Will this be the last post where I elaborate on what I loved about music in '08? Who knows? I realize now that this was overdue though, both seeing Graham Smith live and writing about him in a more extended way. Yes Boss was the definitive '08 album for me, and so maybe the year in music wasn't complete until I saw him in the flesh. And it was great to be in the company of those buddies and former Super Lucky Cat bandmates (Tom, Zack and Joe, the latter of whom I still rock with) from whom I originally heard about Smith like a decade ago--I'm really glad I came around--and in the company of Laal, with whom I have marveled at the album for the better part of the year, and last but not least of Tony, the third member of STATS, a non singer-songwriter type of guy who has against considerable odds taking a major shine to Graham Smith.

3 comments:

Lena said...

Love the beginning of "No Nippon Ichi" :) Wow, sounds very....Russian kitchen rock like (beyond simple playing, lyrics driven flow). A paradox. I grew up on that so it's funny to hear a an obviously unrelated (or backwarrds related) resemblance

Luke said...

"Bullshit is an art, the truth is an allegory"...extremely choice line from one of the last tracks on the record....can't remember the title. Hank, as a semi-frequent reader of this blog, I have to throw you sincere props for getting me into this when it came out. An essential "New York" record for the tumultuous year that 2008 was. Unabashedly taps that emo vein while keeping it so, so, real...a tough balance to strike.

Anonymous said...

Wowee Zowee is timeless.

--Costner