Carey Mercer is a member of Frog Eyes, Swan Lake and Blackout Beach. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Josephine Foster’s Blood Rushing was recorded in the Colorado mountains, high up in the gold-green air — recorded as a band playing together, I suspect. It is a wonderful record, truly a listening experience, but also a springboard for musings and feelings and big pontifications, as all great records are.
What I hear:
The recording room is not carpeted, and has hardwood floors. Most records take place on floors like this.
The drummer placed towels on the skins, and he or she played with mallets, so we hear the thud of the drum more than the stick.
Facing the drummer, a woman is sitting on a stool, and she is holding a nylon- stringed acoustic guitar. She is the anchor. She is Josephine. The way she holds the guitar reminds me that the way one classically holds a guitar is unique to holding a guitar–one holds no other object as one holds this object.
She’s going to start the songs and set the tempo. The rest of the band will be watching her.
To the left of her, a man is holding a Stratocaster, or at least one of the guitars in the Stratocaster universe. It could be a Jazzmaster or a Jaguar.
A patch cord from his guitar runs to a different room and terminates in the input jack of a low-powered tube amplifier. The volume is at 4 or 5. It can go up to 8 for one song, but the door to the amplifier room must be closed for this song. To be honest, it was the slink and slide of this man’s guitar, the sound of plasticity, to steal a bit from Fahey-writing-on-Canned-Heat, that first drew me into this record.
To the right of Josephine, a person holds a bass. A violinist is pacing, also to the right of Josephine.
There are eight microphones in the room. Some record bright sounds, some record dark sounds. When Josephine sings loud, her voice will fly into the drum microphone.
Only some of this is true, or probable, but the rest is plausible.
Notice I cannot pin the gender of the players. Once they begin to play, they all play together. Everything that is played is what you hear, plus some more after the fact. I don’t mean to be fascist about this, but this really is important: play whatever you want, play your Gameboy or your MIDI saxophone, play your shoe, smack its corked heel upon a hollow log, but play it together, so that when all of you think back to your day when you made your music, you think of the same day, and you think of each other.
Things I see when I listen to this record:
A pool in Hawaii, one of the seven pools on Maui that run down a gulch and into the sharky sea. The stars are out. I would not swim in this pool, not until the sun comes up, but I would certainly lay down by the side of the pool on the rocks, and have a listen to the trickling. The pools descend, as if by design, directly into the sea. In the moonlight, looking out into the sea, I see silver fins spinning furiously in the wave-foam. The waves froth and bubble against the teeth-rocks that jut up around the last pool, the one you never want to swim in. A liminal place, that last pool; the place where the rain water falls down the flat face of the mountain and hits the saltwater of the sea. I can see a wide panorama of white-caps, and shark fins, and little islands, and then nothing but the moon’s light on the horizon.
You know, I think I’m attracted to things beautiful but fearful at the same time.
I see the buffalo slaughter scene in John Williams’ novel Butcher’s Crossing, a Colorado novel.
I see the glowing ruby-jewel on the man’s low-wattage amplifier.
I see Karen Dalton’s scepter-like banjo, carved out of a Colorado bedpost.
I see, or have a soft memory of all of the weird mountain scenes from the 70’s California novels. But especially that alpine shootout scene from Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, which takes place in an armed hippie commune in La Honda, a mountain village that lies halfway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz.
In the weird times, Ken Kesey had a cult-posse in La Honda. My dad came up in the weird times, and I remember his spined copy of Sometimes a Great Notion on the bookshelf. I was always drawn to its dreamy, vague title: “Sometimes” (not all the time), and “Great” (lending a softly positive vibe to the sometimes and to the notions), and “Notion” (a quaint, archaic idea!).
Now, as I do a web search on La Honda, the first thing that comes up is a Yelp review of a bar called Apple Jack’s. They have fireball now, according to the review. Have a shot with Pat the bartender, advises the review.
Times change, don’t they.
The great talent of Americans is that they can always begin again. They can begin to begin again, as Josephine sings.
We lived in a mountain town when I was a child. I used to have dreams that the nuclear bombs of Reagan and Fidel and Mikhail would come spiraling over the mountaintop, dropping down into the fake-Bavarian stronghold that was our town. The winters were bitterly cold. One week my dad announced his intention to rent a VCR over the weekend. We were ecstatic. He promised to rent a whack of great movies for us to watch. I, the eleven-year old I, thought we’d watch Star Wars or Monty Python. Instead he rented seven American art-house films: a very confusing film called Kiss of the Spider-Woman, five more films lost in the jumble of my mind, and the seventh film we watched, having sat through six interminably boring American art-house films, was director Paul Newman’s interminably boring adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion. In spite of my resentment towards this film, I still can recall several river scenes of solidarity and labour under the never-ending drizzle of Pacific Northwest skies. This scene is the one I recall most clearly:
This clip just drips with the doomed romanticism of that age: the doom-shadow that hung over labour, the doom-shadow that hung over my father’s gang: soon cocaine, soon Wall Street, soon acid rain: the log shall pull you under, the river is rising, get out my brother, for the chainsaw has flooded…
Times change, don’t they? We used to rent VCRs on the weekend.
You see? This record is a springboard for thinking about deep shifts: blood rushing: go deep enough and you’ll hear the sound of the transit of your own blood. You’ll sit and listen and think deeply about your father. Heavy stuff. You might see great mountains if you close your eyes.
As people surely ask about anything good and not simplistic that takes as its subject the American West, is this a western record, or a record about the west? What can we make of a record that starts with a jaw harp and then segues into a Velvets shuffle?
It dances on its own precipice, this music, before a great plain, speckled and slashed with towns and rivers. It dances with a prancing fiddler, and it dances out of the mouth of the woman holding the nylon-stringed guitar, sitting upon a blasted stump. It dances with a woman who has jingle bells taped to her shoes, thudding a stumpy floor tom, and on this rocky shelf a man stands very still and plays his electric guitar into a small amplifier, its power cable running into an orange electrical extension cable that snakes over the precipice and into oblivion; all of them dancing, all singing together as the green-gold air slips into darkness, while the towns begin to twinkle below. I would like to sit on this precipice, and let my feet dangle into nothing, and listen to the songs of Blood Rushing bounce off the stone walls. And listen to blood rush, and all the time I might be watching the lights of the plains below for some revelation or sign, for I am, in truth, always watching and waiting and listening for things beautiful and fearful such as this record here.