Lyrics Do NOT Suck… You Just Have to Know Where to Look : A Response to Jim Wrantz
After reading Jim Wrantz/Jonathan Denbo’s piece on the suck factor lyrics can posses, I felt moved to respond. It’s been a little while since I’ve flexed my writing muscle, so bear with me… I’ll try to be as cohesive as possible.
Think back to your high school days and SAT scores. Remember that pattern of how high scores in math usually meant mediocre to poor verbal scores and vice versa? To me, it seems that something similar holds true in the jamband scene. Some bands are really strong instrumentally, but weak lyrically, while others are strong lyrically, but their improvs can be lacking that certain something. Then there are the lucky few who are able to walk that middle line and pull it off on both sides. The ones that do are the bands that speak to me because they can make me dance with reckless abandon AND sing out with all the emotion and passion that the lyrics convey. I’m writing this piece because Mr. Wrantz/Denbo seemed well aware of the Dead and WSP, but his tone was inquisitive in reference to other bands that can hang in the lyrical department, so I thought I’d chime in.
I do agree with him that Phish’s lyrics leave a lot to be desired in most cases (SCI doesn’t do it for me either). It was the missing puzzle piece that kept the phanaticism of my college days just short of overflowing, but having read somewhere that most of their lyrics were chosen more in favor of how the words sounded than for meaning, I was able to incorporate that into my lyric-centric preferences and accepted that Phish would always be more about the music than any deep, emotional identification with what was being said. I couldn’t criticize them for that, I mean hey… not every oyster has a pearl in it. Phish IS all about the music. Their lyrics are, for the most part, just another form of sound to fit in with the instruments and that works just fine for them. If that’s how you look at it, then you won’t be disappointed. As for the Dead… that’s another kettle of fish all together.
I’m what you might call a post-Grateful Dead deadhead. I started to get into them through my Phish friends, right around early 95ish. When Jerry died, I immediately backed away from pursuing this new interest of mine because I knew I liked what I’d heard already and I didn’t want to kick myself for discovering a new favorite band too late to see a live show. I kept them in the periphery, picking up a set or two here and there in Phish trades, but I never put any effort into becoming really familiar with their stuff. Then I found Strangefolk in ’96… and along with totally immersing myself in their music and the people that followed them came the realization that I couldn’t escape the Grateful Dead legacy even if I tried.
Every single person I met through the ‘folk scene was a tried and true deadhead (my boyfriend being the most fanatical yet). Most didn’t care for Phish because there was nothing for them in the lyrics, and that was half the equation for them. Strangefolk had become a sort of replacement for what they lost with Jerry’s passing — the full-bodied music/lyrics package they needed was there, as was a family of kind people to share the good times with.
There’s been some changes in the Strangefolk sound since the time period I’m referring to here — a rhythm guitarist was replaced and a keyboard player was added, but for me, the Strangefolk experience is not any less satisfying. The family is still there, stronger than ever and the band is still cranking out quality material with monstrous killer jams and lyrics that make you think, identify, wonder and smile. I would LOVE to quote you some lyrics to prove my point, but there are too many poignant ones to choose from and they can mean different things to different people, so I’ll leave it up to you to make your own discoveries. Mr. Wrantz/Deno noted: "If I have to listen to lyrics, they better damn well mean something". I wholeheartedly agree and if you do too, you owe it to yourself to check these guys out. You can find Strangefolk downloads in both MP3 and SHN format all over the internet, most notably from the band’s site, just look under "Multimedia".
No talk of strong lyricists would be complete without a mention of Strangefolk’s former lead singer/rhythm guitarist, Reid Genauer. I’ve been to a handful of Reid and the Assembly of Dust shows, and while it was a good time, it was bittersweet to hear all the old Strangefolk songs played in a different way by a different band. Having seen well over 100 shows while Reid was still with Strangefolk, you’d think that I’d be psyched to have 2 bands to follow now. I was open to pursuing that, but I found that the more satisfying show experience was with the new brand of Strangefolk. I still listen to my old tapes and love Reid’s lyrics and imagery, but I’ve found that I can’t truly enjoy myself at his shows without feeling a wash of nostalgia for days gone by. While a little nostalgia is good at certain times and in certain places, being bombarded by it while I’m out to have a good time is just too much for me. My own personal feelings aside though, if you’re looking for a good lyricist, you should check him out.
Have you ever heard of Patch of Eden? If you’re an NYC native whose been actively following the local music scene for a number of years, you may have. If you are a native and you haven’t heard of them, you may have unknowingly heard some of their songs on your way to or from work a couple of years ago… if you took the subway. A few years back, Luke Patchen Montgomery was a part of Music Under New York, an MTA Arts for Transit program, which encourages the use of public transportation by presenting visual and performing arts along subway and commuter rail stops of NYC. It was around this same time that Luke and his wife, Jennifer, would perform at venues in and around NYC in an acoustic duet going by the name Patch of Eden (a play on both their middle names). Now that he’s settled in as one of Strangefolk’s two lead guitarists and has garnered the attention and praise of fans as a talented singer/songwriter in his own right, he and Jennifer have begun to revisit their Patch of Eden days whenever the band isn’t on tour, playing intimate venues throughout the northeast. You can check out some of Luke’s songwriting through Strangefolk (Float, Lucy Down, Rubberband, to name a few), but that’s just the tip of the ice berg. Patch of Eden’s song repertoire extends well beyond those tunes that were turned into some of Strangefolk’s most well-known jam launch pads. Luke and Jennifer count strong lyricists like Cat Stevens, Tom Waits, Freedy Johnston and Richard and Linda Thompson among their list of influences.
Another band that comes to mind is a relative new-comer to the jamband scene, Tea Leaf Green. If I hadn’t been milling around one of the side stages at Berkfest on Sunday morning, who knows when (or even if) I would have stumbled upon this gem from the left coast? Immediately after flooring me during their set, my boyfriend and I made the trek up the hill to the merch area where we bought not one, but two of the CDs they had for sale. We listened to them all the way back home, and were not disappointed in the least for having spent the last of our "emergency fund" money for the weekend on these discs. These guys are a bit more heavy on the jam side than the lyrics side, but considering they’re still a pretty young band, that may or may not change as the years roll on. One song in particular really caught my attention and in my opinion, deserves a mention here. "Papa’s in the Back Room" has a verse that seems to perfectly sum up what this entire piece, and for the most part, what paying attention to lyrics is all about:
"Everyone knows the words, and everyone sings along,
Everyone sees the morning, yeah, cuz we go all night long.
Everyone knows the words and everyone sings along,
Not ‘cause it’s a hit, just ‘cause it’s a real good song."
Tea Leaf Green are on tour out west right now, but they’ll be back in the northeast for the 2nd time (Berkfest was their first trip to the east coast) in April with shows in Boston and NYC. If you haven’t heard TLG yet and you’re cut from the same cloth as Mr. Wrantz/Denbo and myself, do yourself a favor and check ‘em out.
This next one all you mid-westerners should be more than familiar with… that’s right, it’s The Big Wu. I’d seen them a number of years ago, but didn’t remember much of their show. When my boyfriend and I started dating, "Tracking Buffalo Through the Bathtub" was a part of our driving soundtrack on a pretty regular basis. I became familiar with them through this disc, and then wound up catching a few more lives shows on their last trek through the northeast. They’ve got a great vibe, an infectious sound and some really great lyrics. I die-hard Wu fan could give you a lot more info on their depth and versatility than I ever could, so to avoid embarrassing myself by showing how green I am with all things Wu, I’ll leave it at that! Suffice it to say that I genuinely liked everything I heard and I tend to pay attention to lyrics the way a deadhead listens for the approach of a song transition in the middle of a jam. You’ll find Wu downloads on etree, and if you like what you hear, drop by the Wu message boards to set up some trades. Their fans are super-welcoming to newbies, as I found out myself not too long ago. They’re on tour in the midwest right now, so definitely go check them out if they’re coming your way.
Last, but not least is a man that’s known in both the jamband scene as well as in the mainstream, but I’ve found that a good number of people associated with jambands only know the name and aren’t too familiar with the music. If you haven’t heard "Bubbletoes", then you need to turn on the radio at least once in a while! Yes, Jack Johnson… who could talk about great lyricists without adding him to a list highlighting some of today’s most talented? I bought "Brushfire Fairytales" on a whim several months ago and have since worn it out. For those of you making the trek to Bonnaroo, definitely make a point of catching his set. I have yet to see him perform live, but I’ve been checking tour dates on a regular basis to be sure that I don’t miss out. I don’t know if he jams, and I don’t care… the songs themselves stand alone just fine without any musical indulgences (but I do have my fingers crossed).
So, in summary: Mr. Wrantz/Denbo asked: "What happened to the cool songs with the cool words that made even me feel, well, cool?" If you’re in the same boat he is and can’t find them, then I would recommend broadening your search.
I shied away from the Dead’s lyrics to avoid the sting of having missed out. I was disappointed with Phish’s lyrics (in addition to other unmentionables found in the lot scene), so I left for greener pastures. I found Strangefolk, and it was everything I had been looking for… and then I lost it. Thankfully, however, I found it again with this new incarnation who’re cranking out a brand new sound. In retrospect, it seems a sort of karmic justice that things worked out the way they did: I avoided getting into the Grateful Dead to avoid that sting of loss. I got it anyway though, just with a different band and in different circumstances.
Oh, and just for the record, I can now sing most Dead lyrics along with the best of 'em and I have been to a couple of Other Ones shows (with more on the horizon). I'll never know what it was like to see a bona fide golly Grateful Dead show, but I can at least enjoy what the legacy has left behind… and so can you