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(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/22/2012)
Perhaps the most famous quote attributed to Duke Ellington is "There are only two types of music, good music and bad music." The implication is that genre is unimportant. Almost any style can have great music, and conversely, styles that are supposedly high art can be done badly.
This week we have a good example of the first part of that equation. It's a CD in the now frequently hackneyed techno-pop genre that takes the style to an intelligent and impressive level. It's by essentially a one-person group called Weaver at the Loom, and the CD is called Before Now, Was Then.
Back in the early days of synthesizer music, it used to be hard to do. The synthesizers were balky and at first limited to one note at a time -- harmonies had to be layered and overdubbed. So it took a good deal of planning and old fashioned composing to make worthwhile music. With contemporary synthesizers and computer music programs, now almost anyone can either switch on the electronics and punch buttons or start pasting stuff together on a laptop, and out comes music. So the march of the technology is the reason for the proliferation of synthesizer pop, with most of it almost devoid of any musical and compositional imagination. In way, it becomes a challenge to use the technology that makes it so easy to generate music and create something more interesting with it, while at the same time keeping some of the now familiar sounds. Daniel Smith, the Minneapolis-based musician who the creative force behind Weaver at the Loom, has done that very nicely on what is their first full CD Before Now, Was Then.
Weaver at the Loom has a rather interesting story. It was not always a one-person band. In 2009 Smith, who was always the chief composer, Izaac Burkhart, and Matt Johnson started the group which performed live and recorded and independent EP. At that point, Smith began writing new material in an acoustic setting. The band expanded to five members by the fall of 2009, began to tour nationally, then fell apart after a rather disastrous tour in Louisiana where they were stranded for 30 days after multiple vehicle breakdowns. The band scaled back to two members, Burkhart and Smith, but neither had much time for making new band material, with the demands of their respective non-musical lives. Burkhart began running a recording studio, and Smith decided to plunge into creating new Weaver at the Loom material by himself in a home studio, though Burkhart did play some drums on the CD.
With the need to do almost everything by himself, Smith was drawn to the technology, but he set out to take it beyond the usual clichés. There are plenty of familiar contemporary influences -- one can hear some of Coldplay, or maybe Radiohead in their better moments. But the music's sonic textures and the good writing take it beyond the usual cookie-cutter commercial rock of the 2000s. Smith is a pleasing vocalist, who fits in nicely with the atmospheric textures of the music. There's an almost plaintive quality to the tunes, with melodic lines that can seem bittersweet. The synthesizer orchestrations are nicely done, combining some familiar sounds with interesting musical ideas. It often reminds me of some of the better synth pop artists of the 1980s, such as Thomas Dolby or Howard Jones when they got atmospheric. But there are lot of guitars in there as well. The lyrics can often fit in with the airy sonics.
Each of the titles contains a parenthetical phrase like some old-fashioned songs. The opening piece is called We're Wild Animals (We Always Were), and it shows off the Weaver at the Loom atmospherics, with guitars contributing to the spaciness. <<>>
One of the highlights of the CD is Encyclopedia (Galactica). The piece epitomized the ethereal but melodic quality of the album with especially nice sonic treatments. <<>>
Bombardment (Society) is a good example of how Daniel Smith takes what seems like the clichés of contemporary pop and makes something engaging and interesting, with good use of dynamics. <<>>
11 1/2 (My Favorite Age) is one of the tracks with an added drummer, in this case Grady Kenevan. It's another of the CD's highlights, with especially nice use of the sonic textures. <<>>
Once in a while, Weaver at the Loom will get a bit close to commercial pop, which I suppose might be expected, dancing on the edge of it as this album does. It's usually one section of a tune, such the part of Simple Rules (For Life in Hiding) where it builds to a kind of dramatic flourish. <<>>
Smith's old bandmate Izaac Burkhart appears on drums on Never Really Dying (But Going to Live), and blending in with the sequenced percussion. It's another of the album's more intriguing tracks in the way it combines familiar techno ingredients with interesting sonic touches. <<>>
The CD ends with its most contemplative-sounding piece, Dozen of Us (Dozens!). The sound is primarily guitar-based and it highlights Smith's appealing vocals. <<>>
Before Now, Was Then the new release from Weaver at the Loom, the one-person band consisting of Daniel Smith after all the other members left, is an impressive example of using what could be considered the clichés of contemporary synthesizer pop and making something both appealing and musically interesting. Smith's composing is first-rate, drawing as he does on familiar ingredients and adding new angles. The material has an attractive melodic quality, with some songs that could be described as "pretty" in the good sense. One can tell that Smith wrote the music apart from the electronics, so it could sound good an acoustic guitar or piano. But the rich atmospheric sonic textures of the CD really help the album to stand out. Mix engineer Luke Fredrickson did an outstanding job creating that kind of ethereal quality.
On the other hand, we'll deduct points in our sound quality grade for the usual heavy compression that was added. Like so much of current pop, the sound has no dynamics. It's all at exactly the same maximum value. Smith's compositions ebb and flow and build to some peaks, but the sound has nowhere to go, so it sounds utterly flat.
The Twin Cities music scene in Minnesota has recently brought forth some worthwhile music that involves creative use of electronics, including the bands Halloween Alaska and 9 Tomorrows. Weaver at the Loom is the latest, with a CD that can be enjoyed on a couple levels both as attractive pop music and as a worthwhile creative endeavor.
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