A city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams.
There’s music made in cities, songs that reference cities and then there are albums that capture the essence and spirit of a city in all it’s Technicolor glory, or gritty, rain-sodden melancholy. Joy Division didn’t just sound like the work of people from the suburbs of Manchester; they sounded like the very suburbs they came from, gloomy, cloudy, cold and grey, they connected with the people of Northern England because they sounded like Northern England in the 1970’s, like it’s industrial past and troubled present.
New York has long inspired musicians, perhaps none more than Interpol. In particular their brooding post-punk debut Turn On The Bright Lights; it was New York’s night-life at its more dark, debauched and starlit. NYC saw Paul Banks declared, “the subway she is a porno, the pavements they are a mess” while on PDA he recalled, “the only person who’s completely certain that there’s nothing here to be into.” Like New York itself it was an album that seemed to come alive when the lights went down, the bristling energy of a busy, underground network of bars, relationships and constant, inescapable noise.
The Clash wrote London’s Calling, an album that summarised the shifting sands of London in the late 1970’s. On Heartattack & Vine, Tom Waits probed the murky underbelly of Los Angeles, with it’s, “Jersey girls in see-through tops” where everyone seems to be off their head and going gradually out of their mind. Whilst Berlin has attempted to be summarised, in all it’s troubled glory, by hundreds of musicians from Iggy Pop’s The Idiot to Nick Cave‘s superb, Your Funeral…My Trial.
Cities and music stand hand in hand, each inspiring one another, Best Coast wouldn’t sound so much like Sunshine if they grew up in Doncaster rather than California, and Bloc Party wouldn’t bristle with the same energy if they lived in Lincoln rather than London, but cities are at heart a collection of individuals, like bees in the hive the individuals make the city just as much as they city make the individuals, and the wheel keeps turning.
Meg Baird is a solo artists as well as being the lead singer with Espers, the drummer and vocalist in Heron Oblivion, Meg has collaborated with Will Oldham, Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten and Steve Gunn, as well as previously touring with the legendary folk-musician, Bert Jansch prior to his death.
Loosely speaking this a folk record. Meg has long admired the 1970’s legends of the UK folk scene from Sandy Denny to Jacqui McShee, and the base for her song-writing is firmly rooted in that tradition. That said, her latest effort Don’t Weight Down The Light is a far more expansive affair than that might imply; the guitar work is dense and beautiful, layers of finger picked acoustic, electric, 12-strings, and slide guitars provide rich textures of sound. This album also see’s Meg branch out from her precise guitar picking and include pianos, organs and even very occasionally percussion to add to the albums musical pallet.
Meg has been a frequent fixture in the renaissance of the Philadelphia music scene, but has recently relocated West and ended up in San Francisco. The second most densely populated American city, San Francisco has long represented the hopes and dreams of those who want to live outside the societal norms, being synonymous with the rise of hippie culture, the Sexual Revolution and the gay rights movement. Musically it’s one of the great historical centres, being home to the San Francisco Sound in the 1960’s spearheaded by the likes of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane; and rather contrary to that laid back vibe, it’s also the home of Thrash Metal, giving the world Metallica and Machine Head amongst others. In more recent years the likes of NRVS LVRS, tUnE-yArDs and Christopher Owens have been keeping the city’s music scene entirely relevant.
Whilst Espers started making music as long ago as 2002, Meg’s solo career began with 2007’s Dear Companion, a collection of folk standards, covers of more modern tracks and only a couple of original numbers. That albums follow up, 2011’s Seasons On Earth focused more clearly on Meg’s own writing, a trend that continues on her upcoming third album, Don’t Weight Down The Light, which comes out on Wichita Records (Drag City in the USA) on June 22nd.
Well for starters the sheer craftsmanship of the thing, this an album created by an artist with a singular vision for the record she wants to create, there’s not a single nod to musical fashion or trends, and as such it has a timeless quality. It sits equally easily alongside Fairport Convention or Fleet Foxes, Pentangle or Bonnie “Prince” Billy, which we’ll sure many will agree is very good company to keep.
Mosquito Hawks is reminiscent of Ethan Johns solo work combining the traditional-folk sound with some dust-bowl Americana, the meandering electric guitar adds shades of Kurt Vile or Jonathan Wilson, to her Bert Jansch like finger-picking and voice that’s equally reminiscent of Vashti Bunyan and Tiny Ruins’ Hollie Fullbrook. Elsewhere Back To You is based around a spectacular and emotive electric guitar solo, Past Houses adds a piano and a touch of Joni Mitchell and the warm full guitar sound of the title track even recalls Ryan Adams at his most downbeat, the guitar picking sounding almost absent minded, as if Meg is lost in her own thoughts, and only her guitar phrases can express the thoughts in her head, it’s wonderful, with Meg noting, “you thought your sad songs could save the night” with a sense that it’s already too late to be saved.
Don’t Weigh Down The Light is oddly reminiscent of the city that spawned it, a musical snapshot of a city, nostalgic glances to a previous age that remember when San Francisco and folk music stood out as bastions of an alternative way of life, a home for the dreamers, slowly eroding with the problems of the modern age, it’s a rich melancholic sound equal parts nostalgic California Sunshine and rolling San Francisco fog.
The album is equal parts backward gazing and progressive, it’s still a record in awe of the music that inspired it but it stops short of being a parody; the quality of musicianship, variety and depth of songwriting and excellent production that gives it a rich and dense sound, whilst each instrument given room to breathe and express itself, never more evident on the acapella Leaving Song, a blast of multi-layered, haunting, wordless singing. Arguably the stand-out track is Good Directions, a bright and breezy track with the guitars possessing an Indian-twang reminiscent of her psychedelic routes, like much of the album it’s a delight.
If, like many people you’ve never quite got the whole folk thing, whilst we’d clearly recommend you give this album a listen, it might not change your mind entirely; from the acquired taste that is her ghost-like whisper of a voice, to the intricate, precise guitar playing, it’s an album that if you don’t invest yourself into might just pass you by, as a pleasant wash of sound, though like the city it was made in, look carefully and you’ll get glimpses of the beauty behind the fog.