The Blind Boys of Alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Does quicksand have grains?

I ask because the first time I started writing about Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain Of Sand” and the outstanding cover version just released on the new Blind Boys of Alabama album, the post got dragged down and consumed by religious — or irreligious, as the case may be — hand-wringing. The idea was that I would talk about how Dylan’s so-called “Christian-period” weirds me out, and how that’s probably unfair, because his born-again faith gave us this amazing song, and besides, there’s tons of great gospel music out there, and who am I to judge someone else’s religious beliefs when my own are somewhat complicated…

And that’s when the post became more about how my mom became a priest when I was in college and about how long it had been since the last time I’d gone to a Sunday service regularly than about how Justin Vernon helped the Blind Boys craft a recording that deserves way more attention than it’s currently getting.

So here we are. Take two. Without wiggling too far into the same quicksand I ended up in the first time, I’d like to make two points — one about the religiosity of the lyrics in “Every Grain Of Sand” and one about this recording of it.

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The Shouting Matches

The Shouting Matches

I love analogies, I think in analogies, and there’s one in particular I’ve found to be extraordinarily useful. It has (and hasn’t, if you know what I mean) to do with sand, and the notion that the tighter you try to grip a handful of the stuff, the more the grains run through your fingers. Not the most sophisticated metaphor in the world, but it illustrates quite nicely how, in certain situations, the best results come when we set aside our instinctive need to control the external world through force.

[Waiting to continue until the urge to make an Iraq War comment passes… almost there… OK, let’s move on.]

I’ve bumped into a pair of music-related reminders of the sand-containment axiom lately, and they’ve led me to the conclusion that side projects are wonderful exemplars.

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The Civil Wars

Barton Hollow

I’m usually a huge fan of ridiculous spectacles, pop music and making judgmental comments about celebrities, so the Grammys should be right in my wheelhouse. Nevertheless, I had a really tough time enjoying what I watched last night. Something just felt… off. Reading this stomach-turning Hello Giggles post about Chris Brown just a few hours before the ceremony certainly didn’t help. Seeing this collection of “I’d let Chris Brown beat me” tweets after the show didn’t help either. Nor did the ratio of performances to on-air award presentations, which seems to grow more disproportionate each year (only 10 of the 78 awards were given out on TV). Whatever it was, I walked away more than a little disappointed. But guess what? It’s a big Internet out there, and I’ll let someone else complain about how bad the show was. Besides, a few things happened that made me very happy that I did watch. I loved Justin Vernon’s acceptance speech, for one thing. The acknowledgment of his discomfort in winning showed equal measures of courage and integrity, given his earlier comments about how meaningless these awards are and how creativity should be its own reward. Adele winning everything in sight was heartwarming, as well. I find a tremendous amount of character in her voice, which is refreshing in a pop music paradigm that, as Dave Grohl pointed out in his (rudely truncated) acceptance speech, often favors tonal perfection over personality. But the thing that I’ll remember most about this year’s Grammys was the Civil Wars performing a quickie, one-minute version of “Barton Hollow,” the song that won the award for “Best Country Duo/Group Performance.” They were great. I’d listened to this tune a number of times, and I’ve always liked it, but their natural demeanor and strong, straightforward delivery really stood out from the glut of comically over-produced and awkwardly shoehorned collaborations. Not only did Civil Wars seem like they belonged on such a grand stage, it looked like they could teach a thing or two to some of the other, more well-known and brazenly bedazzled honorees. Their minute on screen was exactly what I needed to jump on the Civil Wars bandwagon with both feet, and I can’t wait to spend more time with their 2011 release Barton Hollow, which took home the award for “Best Folk Album.” Listen to the studio version of the title track below and click here to buy the album on iTunes. I have a feeling you won’t be the only one doing so this week.

The Civil Wars — “Barton Hollow

Bon Iver, Part II

Clearly Justin Vernon reads this blog. Could he have picked a better day to release the first song from Bon Iver’s upcoming album? Yesterday I wrote about how Later… with Jools Holland opened my eyes to Vernon’s talent for transforming pain into something beautiful. To me, that performance symbolized triumph over loneliness, as if he was shouting, on behalf of broken hearts everywhere, “I’M STILL HERE!” It’s a powerful sight. So what happens next? What happens when your heartache turns into fame? What happens when you’re not just “still here” … but everywhere, instead? For just the price of an email address, you can download “Calgary” and find out. It’s a characteristically thoughtful and touching song, and it highlights the the dichotomy between his falsetto and full voices. His falsetto is so delicate, conveying notes and lyrics as if they’re imagined, more than sung. His full voice appears late in the song, waking the listener from the dreamy tone of the first two and a half minutes. But which is the dream? The falsetto that graced most of his first album, giving him a successful career and a public identity, or the earnest voice that interrupts it? The last line of the song declares, “the demons come, they can subside.” So which is which? Download the song and see for yourself.

Bon Iver

By now, the origin story of Bon Iver’s wildly successful’ debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, has become indie rock legend. In the winter of 2006, the band’s founder, Justin Vernon, retreated to a remote cabin in Wisconsin to recover from illness and heartbreak, and ended up writing a number of bittersweet songs that captured the attention of critics, blogs, listeners and, of course, Kanye West. I enjoyed the album when I first heard it, but it was his performance on Later… with Jools Holland that made me realize what makes Bon Iver so special. Later… with Jools Holland (or just Later… for short) is an awesome show on BBC that features four or five bands each week, the artists arranged in a big circle, with audience members sitting in between the bands. For the two years immediately after college, I had access to Later… on demand and would filter through back episodes, checking out the diverse collection of performances. Bon Iver’s stopped me in my tracks. It’s a solo performance of “Skinny Love,” just Justin and a steel body guitar, and in four stirring minutes, he conjures the profound loneliness of that Wisconsin winter and transforms it into something greater, more universal, beautiful and, in an inspiring way, confident. I get the chills every time I see it. I hope you’ll check it out and see what I mean, and keep an eye out for his self-titled follow up album, which will be released on June 21.