You're in the car, or cleaning your house, or in the shower and you're listening to that song. It's that song that makes you think "Holy shit. I wish I was in this band". All this week we will be sharing the songs that make us think the same thing.
I guess in a weird way I’m attracted to sad country ballads, and I always will be. They remind me of my Aunt’s house in North Carolina--and I heard a lot of them growing up, flowing from room to room, flowing out into the yard--my parent’s yard--from some cassette on a radio. The steel guitar whining, as if in some language I can’t understand, always singing something beautiful and haunting that warms me with its presence, like a mother’s song. The violin hovering over it all. It’s goddamn beautiful.
When I was little I was at my grandmother’s apartment; she was watching the Grand Ole Opry--a Kentucky born woman; she spent most of her childhood with leathered feet, dusting from holler to holler, busting the noses of boys who stood in her way--and I was writing a sad country ballad. I was maybe seven, maybe eight. It was nearly twelve years before I’d pick up a single instrument, but as soon as I did it was to the tune of a sad country ballad. And then another. And then another.
Jason Molina died just two years ago, but over a long career he wrote one beautiful country ballad after another, my favorite being ‘Hold On Magnolia’ when his band was called Ohia--which is actually how some Ohioans pronounce the state, especially when you get south of Columbus. Maybe it’s that connection to Ohio--its flat, corn field dotted landscape, stretching out from one broken city to the next--Cleveland, Cincy, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo. It’s a pretty state, a beautiful state, like Kansas, but with humidity instead of dust, and Great Lakes, instead of, well, open blue milky cloud covered skies.
I’ve always intended to write a song as lovely as ‘Hold on Magnolia’, so classic in its arrangement, and like great Stones ballads, so straightforward. So direct, and yet, without being too vague, so goddamn crushing. It’s hard to write a song that lovely--because great country ballads don’t just make you sad, they don’t just rip you down, they hit you with that strange sadness that couples with nostalgia, wherein you’re happy that you got to experience what you’ve experienced, but also holds that moment before you, like hope, when hope should all but be forgotten. It’s like that moment at the end of a drunken night, when things have slowed, and you’re sitting in the back of some truck, looking down into the vastness of the blackness of space, out into its void, well aware as to how precious and how fast even the best of things go, like memories of early April’s bloom, whispering to you in August what you’d planned for May--knowing full and well that soon the leaves will fall, and that those fleeting moments will drift away, faster than you allow yourself the time to process them. That moment where things float, where breaths are held, drifting on and on, joyous, but well aware that eventually the falling will begin, as will the requirement to breath again.
I sincerely wish I could write a song, once in my life, as pretty as some of the songs Ohia or Magnolia Electric Co. wrote--Jason Molina being the man behind them. A man who drifted along in the rough and tumble territories of man’s heart, birthing beautiful ballad after beautiful ballad.
Patrick Stickles just seems like an interesting, slightly pissed off, slightly drunk, twenty something. He doesn’t seem high class. In fact, I’m pretty sure I went to high school with him, or at least I went to school with guys like him. And had I, at some point, I would of either wanted to play in his band, or form my own band and rip him off. Because he writes music that is halfway between punk and halfway between folk--that sweet spot where I’d like to reside with my own musical aspirations. Pissed off, lo-fi, and spitting out whatever vileness could be found in the bowels of one’s deepest darkest innards.
It’s definitely not for everybody. His voice is shakey--when he’s not yelling. And when he is, well, it’s on the border between losing control and being too close to losing control, that it’s goddamn impossible for him to say anything that isn’t true. And ‘To Old Friends and New’ is just about the prettiest song he’s ever written. Seriously, between him and the female vocals--who I’ve yet to pinpoint just who they belong to--it’s just a giant piano ballad, as played by some band down the street, playing Elton John covers in their garage. It’s rough, and the lyrics are often puzzling: ‘Like the time traveler who killed his grandfather, these cycles are bringing me down,’ to outright beautiful: ‘There are plenty of things that are worth dying for, but you’ll never know til you open that door. The reasons for living are seldom but few, if you find one you better stick to it like glue.’ Beginning with Patrick whispered, the piano comes in, lifted off the ground by the heavenly vocals of the still as yet unknown female vocalist, until Patrick comes in, the two dueting--him screaming, her crooning, her fragile bird voice underneath, holding him from flying off the rails, until finally the guitar solo; and it all crescendos into some backyard sing-a-long quality drunken choir.
It’s like sloping over mountains, hitting peaks, and then sliding down on the other side. It’s a beautiful, messy masterpiece, much like the rest of that album. And you might mistake it for almost lazy, if you didn’t know any better. Because it’s beautiful. So beautiful I wish I’d written it.