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Published: 2002/02/20
by Jesse Jarnow

The Sea to the North – Garth Hudson

Breeze Hill Records 0011-2
The Band’s version of "When I Paint My Masterpiece" is high on my permanent
list of Songs That Rock. It’s a great song, but what really makes its case
is the introduction. It begins with a fade-in, an odd and unusual and
perfect choice, and one is soon listening to… well, I’m not exactly sure
how to describe it. A carnival combo or an organ-grinder or something. The
Band drops into the song, and manage to mostly retain that vibe, but there’s
something about those first few seconds in that brand new soundworld: a
field recording of a crazy bazaar filled with the strains of some unnamed
Canadian-Americana. At the center of it, of course, is Garth Hudson’s
rolling organ.
Garth Hudson has been making music professionally for nearly 40 years, which
makes it notably weird that The Sea To The North is his first formal
solo record. It’s surprising. The record, I mean. It’s surprising. Garth
Hudson is not a washed-out ’60s casualty retreading Dylan covers and the
like — which, I have to admit, is pretty well what I expected. Instead, he
continues to wade through the strange bazaar that "Masterpiece" began with.
The tracks on the album aren’t so much songs as they are journeys. I feel
cheesy saying that, but they literally aren’t. The structures just aren’t
there for catchy choruses, or even choruses at all.
With a fair amount of grace, Hudson’s songs exist floating on a milky blue
sea beneath buttery stars and a buttery moon. The possibilities of
technology – just the fact that one can overdub endless amounts of
instrumentation on top of a track – have made giant soundworlds open for
exploration: new tapestries where one imagines himself traveling through
fantastic foreign landscapes, perhaps in an earlier century, perhaps in some
Jules Verne-like hovertrain. In any event, the landscape is fairly concrete.
All the sounds on hears might be pinned on something occurring out in the
field. Except, after a certain point, the sound is the field: the
tangled saxophones and accordions on "The Sea To The North", for example,
are mystical and totally evocative.
Another album which found itself working the same territory – an adult
exploration of electronic ideas – was Tom Constanten and Bob Bralove’s last
outing with Dose Hermanos, the forgettable Search For Intelligent
Life. I only mention this because both the Dose Hermanos album and
Hudson’s release use the same piece of music as a touchstone. The Grateful
Dead’s "Dark Star" signifies something outside the realm of Deadhead lore —
something vague whose existence I’d always argued for, but whose specifics
I’d always been too blind to notice. Simply, it was one of the first places
where the music was the world, as opposed to just an oblique
reference point to something more literal. The fact that Hudson is covering
it now is more of a tribute than anything. The song might well have outlived
its usefulness for these sorts of things.
In a world where Hudson can make The Sea To The North, "Dark Star"
itself is far too literal. That, in fact, is where the album’s faults lie.
There are a few moments – "Dark Star", the vocals/narrative on "The
Breakers", and assorted other places – where things sound too forced. Every
piece is marred by one or two arrangement choices that are disturbingly
lite: a sax line here, a synth part there. The end result – with is mostly
successful stream of pianos, pipe organs, accordions, melodicas, saxophones,
and tablas – sounds surprisingly like The Grateful Dead circa 1990.

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