Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes) Talks Mick Turner’s Don’t Tell the Driver

Listening to someone gush about something is as dreadful as hearing someone else's dreams or listening to a parent drone on about the excellence of...

Listening to someone gush about something is as dreadful as hearing someone else’s dreams or listening to a parent drone on about the excellence of his or her child: these aren’t feigned expressions, the words are felt deeply by the speaker, but somehow they just don’t translate to anything worth listening to. In a musical context, we identify “superfans” as gushers, as being too exuberant, too excitable to take “seriously.” It’s all a bit undignified. Thus the “superfan” is almost reviled in the higher echelons of musical awareness. You know that figure: his baseball hat bears the decal of his favourite band, he wears their t-shirt too, his hair is dyed the same colour as the bass player’s, he has pinned their button to the straps of his backpack, his bedroom is a shrine of flyers, posters, and promo shots. It’s, you know, undignified.

In the world of professional music criticism, there is a divide between:

a. So-called objective criticism, which unpacks what the artist or band makes, and places it somewhere in a vast matrix of high and low, of good and bad, and:
b. Unobjective criticism, fan-gushing, which, in the mind of the professional critic, is not fit for print. It may be fit for a LiveJournal, or a Tumblr, but not fit for print.

But the unavoidable irony is that some embryonic sliver of superfandom lies within even the most dignified dean critic, for if not, then how did one become a music critic? No Shakespearean critic exists that is not, deep down, a Bardic superfan.

I bring these thoughts to bear on the new Mick Turner record, Don’t Tell the Driver, for I think he occupies a special place in the hearts of many music lovers that I know, and I think that he is a good figure to drive some reflections on what we talk about when we talk about love(ing music).

Do you know Mick Turner? Have you heard him? I hope so. He plays the guitar in the Australian instrumental group the Dirty Three. He played the guitar with Cat Power on her best record, Moon Pix. He played in many important bands in Australia.

He is important.

Turner isn’t “a guitar player’s guitar player”; no teenager sits upon his or her bed, strumming an imitation Strat, dreaming that he or she might become the next Mick Turner. But he is a figure of deep inspiration and efficacy for those of us who never wanted to become guitar heroes, but nonetheless ended up attracted to plaintive and somber A minor chords — a very important figure for anyone who wanted to evoke an image or a scent or a feeling through strumming.

Ben Chasny from Six Organs of Admittance once told me a story about Mick, just a little aside about how Mick stepped on his fuzz pedal, and, as I half-remember it, something super-terrestrial happened; my memory of the exact story is blotted out by the earnestness that burned from Ben’s eyes as he spoke about Mick, the way one might have spoken about John the Baptist or anyone who has prepared the way, and we all shook our heads in an amen. The story was an excuse for a very serious headshake, the way one pours something out for one’s dead homies, an expression of fervent respect committed by a few people with a relationship to guitars who had accidentally gathered around Ben as he told a little story about the time that Mick stepped on his fuzz pedal and hallucinated that the stage that the Dirty Three were playing on grew rockets and blasted them into deep space.

Turner’s solo work actually evokes this feeling of journey, not into outer space but, of course, into inner space. It is wonderful music for drawing, for painting, for resting but not sleeping, for specific points in the day: the moments before sunrise, the deadness in the afternoon, the moments before sunset, and especially deep night.

You are getting the correct intuition that I am a super fan, and super fandom puts me in an odd place to assess the worth of Mick Turner’s new record, for that is surely what reviewers are asked to do: to objectively assess the worth of a work.

In the dark Two Thousands, that poverty-stricken decade where much music was sold, purged and exchanged for dry pasta noodles and electricity, the Mick CDs remained with me. I even replaced one of the CDs with a record, I think the only time I participated in vinyl fetishism.

And if, in my last mortal minutes, perched on the sandy edge of a flat teal sea, Zeus offered me a golden surfboard and a Poseidon-blessed wave to sail into the horizon, and a phalanx of purple porpoises, and a floating set of Tannoy speakers powered by a winged McIntosh tube amplifier, I might choose Mick’s first record, 1997’s Tren Phantasma, to bob to, if surf I must, as we all must.

So I have listened to Mick’s solo records a lot. And the odd thing is that I can’t recall any of the music’s melodies. Isn’t that odd? It’s melodic music. In some cases, it’s all melody: strong, repeated, looping guitar and harmonica melody, played with anti-precision over a warbling ride cymbal, the drums tremulous, likely played at half-speed on the tape deck. Anti-precision: by this term I mean it takes a loop, a precise phrase, an exact repetition, and it stretches out the stress points, blurs the exact point where the head will nod, blurs where the foot should tap. This creates a very interesting sensation: like bobbing in the waves — rhythmic, repetitious, very musical, but not precise. You can feel how I’m tempted to use the word organic here. It’s very sensual stuff, very imagistic despite lacking lyrics: you see colours, you see landscapes, you see the instruments bathed in a copper light, you have physical sensations of wooziness and comfort and focus and you feel a deep communion with that unknowable void within yourself. And yet I cannot recall a single melody.

The problem with superfandom is that it seems to settle on a specific record, and the devoted energy does not get parceled out over an artist’s career. Sure, sometimes someone makes just one great work, one that towers above the rest of his or her output and warrants this focused obsession with just one or two works. Mostly, people’s output is pretty steady, though, and our varying interest has more to do with what we are doing, what we are interested in, how old we are, how sad we are, how happy we are, our subjectivity — for our lives are dynamic sketches, expressed metaphorically as that hospital electrocardiogram that transcribes our heart’s beat and pulse, the peak of the line representing great joy, and the nadir of the line expressing great sadness, and the music that we gravitate towards mirrors this undulation. And it can also, with terrifying acuity, predict it.

So to objectively assess a work, the reviewer must not only throttle the music lover within him or herself, but also tune out one’s lived life. You see how this is not only foolish, but also impossible. There are no professionals, and there is no objectivity, just enthusiasts (music lovers) who can string a few words together. You might as well allow yourself a little enthusiasm.

Another problem with superfandom is that we can sometimes feel a bitterness towards the other, newer, later works that do not come to occupy the same place as that one that we love, forcing us to judge or condemn these works too fast, forgetting that there was a period of courtship, a period where we had no idea of the omnipresence to come, no idea that a few casual listens turn into a few repeated listens, and a few repeated listens turn into some very special listens: to putting it on when you are drawing or cooking or thinking, to putting it on before you sleep, to creating special environments for listening to the record, like going into a forest with headphones to experience what it might be like to listen to the record while the pine needles brush against your jacket, to then keeping it as a secret, something you share with only a few that you deem worthy; we forget that this obsession all began as a casual listen.

It can actually be distressing for the superfan when a new record appears. Imagine how the Christian believer would feel if Jesus put out a new Bible every couple of years, asking the believer to reinvest spiritual energy in this latest work, to grapple with even newer themes, to accept the contradictions between works, to keep up, to cherish again that voice that you have already cherished so very much. From the perspective of one who makes music, I always feel a small bite of sadness when someone tells me that one of my records occupied an overwhelmingly central place in his or her life, for I think something like this: “As great as it is to have you, it will be that much harder to lose you when I betray you by releasing more music.”

Release we must, and grow we must, or become local as a motherfucker we do, and so now I think I should force myself to face Don’t Tell the Driver as objectively as I can, having mulled over these ideas for the last month while listening to this record.

I bet you think that at this point I will trash this record. So let’s get this out of the way: 8.6/10. It receives the new TALKIE-TALKHOUSE TOKEN TICKET for TOTALLY TERRIFIC TUNES.

It’s not quite as evocative as Mick’s first two records. That’s not a knock. I think it’s more of a personal record: the kind of record one makes when one has to make a record, not when one wants to make a record.

The fidelity is gorgeous. It’s not slick, but it’s not four-tracked. Moving about within the spectrum of fidelity is one small way to stay alive.

Sorrow and loss. We get dusted with it. Verisimilitude: this music video for “The Bird Catcher,” featuring the late Karen Black.

I found myself singing a lyric the other day. It’s a silver, melancholic line just brimming with negative capability: “Goodbye, goodbye, angel.” I was in a Vancouver park, and the October coastal Pacific fog was burning away, and I was singing this line, and I was thinking about some sad shit that went down in the ’90s, and thinking it was a line from that era, maybe even the Breeders. And then I chuckled because I realized that I was singing a Mick Turner song.

There’s a lot of words in this piece, but still not enough about the gorgeous tone of Mick Turner’s guitar playing. It’s the platonic ideal of the adjective “woody.” So warm, and yet so elegiac. It really is the music that should bounce off of the bay when you hop on that golden surfboard and sail into Zeus’ horizon. When Mick was a baby, Zeus poured some special tone-elixir into the marrow of his infant fingers.

But: the guitar is not the central figure on this record; trumpets ascend, electric piano elbows its way in, Caroline Kennedy-McCracken sings with her interesting-country voicing, and Oliver Mann sings in his operatic baritone on “Over Waves.” Sometimes it works so incredibly well that I do not miss the central prominence of the guitar, and sometimes these other characters don’t fill center stage, and the guitar is missed. On “Over Waves” it works.

This decentralization of Mick’s guitar is understandable, I think: one must grow tired of one’s strengths. But I think the record could pierce the sublime even more by grounding it 110% in the guitar. At times it comes a bit close to an ensemble, to sounding like a band. Sometimes this is effective, but it never gets pushed into polyphony or the sense of hearing a multitude; there are a few points that feel like a halfway point between a collective of musicians jamming on a riff, which is cool when it’s cool, and the work of a visionary controller, which is also cool when it’s cool. The record sometimes falls between these two poles, as if the creator is not quite sure whether or not to be a fellow passenger or to be the driver. Perhaps these moments are an expression of sorrow and loss, articulating that feeling of being between two points, of losing control, or realizing that one never has any control in the first place over the visitation of sorrows.

I’ve thought a bit about Miles Davis’ record In a Silent Way while working through writing about Mick Turner, in part because Mick’s phrasing brings to mind John McLaughlin’s touch and tone on Miles’ pieces, but also because Miles had a way of staying in the picture even when he wasn’t playing: his shadow occupies every second of that record. Even when there is only compressed flatwound guitar strings in the right channel and vibrato-ed electric piano in the left, the listener waits for the return of Miles’ trumpet.

And this is what I do now: await the return of Mick’s guitar, in a 110% glow, assessing Don’t Tell the Driver as a successful expression of loss and sorrow, an expression of restraint and an exercise in sharing center stage, and another great record to spend an afternoon or a very late night with.

Carey Mercer is a member of Frog Eyes, Swan Lake and Blackout Beach. You can follow him on Twitter here.