I took this picture on Record Store Day at Sugar & Twine in Carytown. Seeing these posters around town has made me so happy, because this album that’s bringing me a great deal of joy is poised to do the same for so many other people.
There are a lot of good albums out there, but music that can make you feel pure joy is rare. There has to be something about it that worms way down, through the topsoil of everyday stuff — Is this recycling week? Do I need to go to the grocery store on the way home? — to the core of what makes us who we are. The permanent stuff. The stuff that was forged years ago via childhood experiences we may have only snapshot memories of.
New Lions & the Not-Good Night (streaming now over at Pure Volume) gets to that place. It’s filled with the wonderment that’s harder to feel the older you get, starting with the album’s narrative concept and cover art, both of which were based on Clair Morgan’s two sons. There are lions and fawns and falcons and masks — things that make me want to close my eyes and imagine an animated world where all of this is unfolding. And, as is the case with the animation I find most affecting, there’s a strong undercurrent of darkness to all of it. Tim Skirven’s stunning cover art isn’t all primary colors — the visual universe he created is somewhat ominous, and a quick glance at the track list lets you know that beds are going to catch fire at some point.
And there are lyrics on this album that just knock me over. I can’t help but nod my head when I hear “Don’t understand how we could be depleted” in “Rogue Island,” given the more than somewhat significant energy disparity between my almost-two-year-old daughter and her more than somewhat occasionally sleepy parents. Speaking of foggy consciousness, “The Sea” pulls you into this great middle ground between waking and sleep, but shakes you awake with a line I can’t stop thinking about: “If your perception is wrong, then let it be.” When I interviewed the band for River City Magazine, I loved hearing Morgan talk about this aspect of the album — the idea that how you experience things as a child is vastly different from your experiences as a parent:
“When you think about an adventure you took as a child,” Morgan said, “when you’re looking through that lens, that really happened. But now you’re looking through a completely different lens, whether you’re an adult or a father, and you look back at that scenario from a completely different perspective. What did you not soak in that actually happened that you were not able to absorb?”
But here’s what’s so remarkable: Even without the cover art and the lyrical arc — if I’d heard “Rogue Island” for the first time on the radio without any context — I think I’d still get to that place of wonderment because Morgan puts so much of that feeling into the music he makes. His last album, No Notes, pointed in this same direction, with these beautiful and complicated guitar patterns that few guitarists could execute once, much less in rapid repetition while singing. It’s positively hypnotizing live — I watch, quickly become overwhelmed, and after moving past the thought of “How the hell is he doing that?” I get to a really peaceful, amazed place. Like a kid who’s purely soaking in information because processing it might mean missing something.
Clair Morgan shows are such rich experiences, and it’s not just because of the guitar work. Morgan has surrounded himself with the perfect set of collaborators — the combination of diverse instrumentation and tight precision means that they can go so much further than most bands in exploring ideas and filling them with color and shape. With New Lions, Morgan’s has truly become a shared vision, and the people who have joined him on this journey seamlessly access and add to the adventurous sensibility that made his music exceptional in the first place. The vibes’ countermelody in ‘The Sea.” The great climbing bass lines and backing vocals in “New Company.” The interplay of the guitars in “Amelia Graveheart.” Together, Clair Morgan the band operates as a machine that can convert dreams to reality, whether they’re voicing tricky harmonies, shifting time signatures or engaging in vivid storytelling. When they start playing, it really feels like anything is possible.
Take a look below at Good Day RVA’s excellent “How To Set Your Bed On Fire” video to get a sense of how the group works as a whole. It’s really inspiring, I think, in the same way that New Lions & the Not-Good Night is. To get an even better sense, head to the Broadberry on Friday for the New Lions release party. The lineup is stacked — Manatree, Spooky Cool, Way, Shape, or Form — and you can get your hands on your own copy of the album, which promises to be a 2016 bright spot, both here in Richmond and elsewhere.